What’s remarkable about this crystal-clear photograph of Drukyul Dzong, which is currently on display at the Rubin Museum in New York City, is that it was taken 105 years ago with a camera that is the size of an old TV set. And that the plate-glass negative on which the image was captured made it out of Bhutan’s rocky roads on the back of a horse.
Last week was the official opening of the first-ever exhibition of this photograph, and others of the kingdom. They were taken by the late Knight Commander of the Indian Empire (KCIE), John Claude White, during his exploration of the region, which included his attendance (with his son-in-law) at the coronation of Bhutan’s first King in 1907. They were the only Westerners present. A photograph of King Ugyen Wangchuck and Mr. White is among those on display.
The photographs are owned by the Swiss architect Kurt Meyer, who lives in Los Angeles. Mr. Meyer became enchanted with the Himalayas as a teenager, when he read a book called Adventures in Tibet. Long before the age of the internet, his curiosity led him to John Claude White’s Sikkim and Bhutan: Twenty-one Years on the Northeast Frontier, 1887-1908. Mr. Meyer’s wife, Pamela, who is his co-author of the book IN THE SHADOWS OF THE HIMALAYAS: A Photographic Record by John Claude White 1883-1908, said having these rare photographs publicly displayed was the culmination of a dream of her husband’s.
Mr. Bruce Bunting of the Bhutan Foundation in Washington, DC was among those in attendance at the opening. He delighted in the pristine, century-old images. Also in attendance as a personal friend of the Meyers was Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter who became famous for his coverage of the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of the American president Richard Nixon.
From the Rubin Museum website, a description of White’s craft makes evident his adventurous spirit and love of the region:
“White was a pioneer of mountain photography, spending weeks at a time visiting every corner, trekking every valley, and climbing every mountain pass in Sikkim, all the while photographing his official and personal explorations there and in Bhutan. The cumbersome photographic equipment with which he traveled-including a large format camera and glass plate negatives-is a testament to his dedication to photography. White’s images offered the world rare glimpses into these isolated Himalayan lands, illustrating his articles on Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal for National Geographic Magazine.”
That article, of course, gave way to the creation of the University of Texas El Paso in the style of Bhutanese architecture.
The photographs will be on display in New York through January.