Photography: The Past is the Present

The Sbcltr Mixtape Volume 4
October 17, 2016
The Love Project
October 19, 2016

Photography: The Past is the Present

Ritam Sengupta accompanies photographer Twisha to a 100 year old photo studio and tries to comprehend how commercial studios might have encountered the transition from analog to digital

As the demand for manicured images with scenic backgrounds has gradually given way to the easy clickability of any photo anywhere, anytime. Indian photo studios are generally known to have faced the full brunt of the digital onslaught. Thanks to digicams and phone cameras, the business of photo-studios, as also the quotient of their expertise, seems to have shrunk to passport photos, covering marriages and public events, etc. The result of which is a typical studio today that displays large images of weddings they have covered, celebrities they have clicked or features advertisements of digital photographic goods.

On reaching C.Bros—almost a century-old photo-studio which stands at the head of Aurobindo Sarani in Kolkata, one finds a largely nondescript façade, except for the relative absence of motifs similar to those of other photo-studios. The board outside describes their services as commercial photography and digital photo finishing, with a miss-able sticker advertising passport photographic services. Just under the board, a hazy glass case houses laminated photographs of Bengali demi-god icons from the nineteenth century—Ramakrishna, Sarada and Vivekananda. Inside, is a room that serves as the studio counter. As we seat ourselves across the reception table, I notice stock images of the same demi-gods adorning the walls. They are also accompanied by photos of more worldly men and women in conventional Bengali attire. The photos seem dated enough to be vintage, but their smooth texture and depth-of-focus bears signs of some post-processing.

The pictures are reminiscent of a similar Instagram effect that all of us have been guilty of at some point.


The Chatterjees don’t seem too concerned about the transition of photography

Meanwhile, the friendly proprietors of the studio begin chatting us up. Casting postmodern frivolities aside, we brace ourselves for an account of the studio and its heritage. Of the struggle of analog against digital. Of memory against memory.

But perhaps we were spinning the story a little too fast.

C.Bros stands for Chatterjee Brothers. The two Chatterjees who speak to us are from the second and third generations, after the original ‘pioneers’ who started the studio. They are strangely reluctant to share their first names and even more reluctant to wax nostalgic about any real or presumed longanimity of the film as a medium. I ask if they miss the analog era and how it afforded the photographer a human touch and the chance at an unmediated visual mastery. Twisha sniggers, so do the Chatterjees, but probably for different reasons.

Twisha shoots on film and this is one of the only places in the city where she can get her black and white photographs developed. I am something of a less-than-amateur Instagrammer and thanks to my social media feeds, a fervent consumer of photographic images, both old and new. I have been following the artsy hashtag #filmisnotdead and marvelling at how much trouble (and expense) photographers went through just to shoot on the medium.

It is true that C.Bros still maintained a dark room and catered to a depleting base of photographers who actually developed hard copies. It is also true that they did not get to shoot studio photographs any longer. But nonetheless, they display a marked lack of enthusiasm about the supposed lost world of film. The digital replaced film, explains the younger Chatterjee, “just like you are wearing your bermudas in this rain to not get your clothes soaked –a dhoti would simply be too inconvenient, though you could still make it serve the same function by pulling it up”.

A little puzzled, but more embarrassed at the sartorial reference, I conduct later visits to C. Bros in fuller pants and more insightful questions. How does their establishment make ends meet, now that the primary commerce of studio photography has been usurped by global capital’s digital toys?


Inside the dark room, C.Bros’ Kolkata

Turns out, that a primary source of C.Bros’ sustenance has long been what they called commercial photography. A major item of which used to be the making of film-sides—painted negatives projectable onto big screens, usually in the intervals of movies (think of the full screen anti-smoking messages). Gradually fading from use now, these film slides had their most popular appeal during Durga Puja in Kolkata, when they would be used to project scenes from the victory of the goddess over her demon antagonists. The city police had to eventually disallow these projections, since they required puja pandals to turn off their lights. The darkness created a morally risky environment and opportune moments for some possible inter-gender frolic, well within the auspicious limits of goddess worship.

Such then, was the non-digital reason for a substantial demise of C.Bros’ once roaring film-slide business. However, their commercial photography also encompassed a set of other services, ranging from designing cards, posters, to silkscreen printing, using photographic techniques that have only been emboldened by the coming of the digital, of Photoshop and Corel. The Chatterjees explain that, many of these functions were neatly replicated in the software environment. Quick adaptation to this environment ensured that they did not lose too many customers in the digital age.


The hand-painted slides were once part of commercial photography for the studio, but are now no longer of use

By the end of our second visit, I was getting a little impatient about C.Bros’ somewhat abrupt contemporaneity, given the sheer vault of vintage that their studio seemed to look like, or at least represented. When we returned earlier this month, I persisted, a hundred years behind them, and was there really nothing to be said about the time gone by? What about the practice of studio photography with the fancy big camera in the ante-room?

“Oh, that would involve a long explanation…If it is history you are after, we have that in plenty,” they said. Finally, we were on to something.

The first Chatterjee brothers who are attributed as the founders of C.Bros, taught themselves the art of photography with whatever available equipment they had. Curiously enough, their original inspiration seemed to have come from photographing dead bodies. The elder amongst them had once accompanied one of his friends to obtain a developed photograph of a dead relative. When he enquired why the concerned image had turned out a bit blurry, he was told that that the dead can only be photographed hazy. Determined to test the verity of this theory, he took up the odd trial of photographing corpses. When the edges of the dead figure turned out sharp enough, he knew he was a little ahead of his contemporaries and went on to set up a studio. By 1916, the studio found a permanent location in a rented ground-floor apartment in Sovabajar, and continues to operate from there till this day.

C.Bros then had been one of the very few studios run by natives, mostly in north Kolkata in the early days of commercial photography in the city. Surviving the dominance of the big European counterparts like Bourne & Shepherd, located not too far away in central Kolkata, these early commercial enterprises, barely four to five in number, provided cheaper alternatives for the gradually developing familial need for maintaining a photographic memory.


Inside the C.Bros’ studio

However, the average person at the time, seemed to have been remarkably sceptical of facing the camera. Since the fear ran deep that being photographed would hasten their journey to the pyre, quite literally. In a way, the early twentieth century Bengali was perhaps prescient enough (as always) to sense Susan Sontag’s much later prognosis—that photography made a cemetery out of everyday life.

The brothers Chatterjee, then had a pretty grim profession of primarily shooting the dead. But they had been good at their job. Gradually their reputation seemed to have swelled enough for people to trust them with their virtual (im)mortality.  But the living had multiple demands upon their transience, the kind the dead would never have over their memory. A sizeable and sophisticated large format camera with multiple adjustable settings was acquired by the studio, in order to meet the changing standards of human perception and beauty. But even this mechanical behemoth was not enough to materialize the desires of the fast-evolving photographic consumer.

By the 1950s, C.Bros started appointing graphic artists to accessorise their photographic practice. Along with painting backdrops for photos, artists were also employed to re-touch studio images. This was accomplished mainly by using lampblack, pencil and a special kind of liquid called re-touching medium. Later, colour processing happened by mixing colours with the lamp-black sauce. The processing involved the tactile method of rubbing the medium or lampblack into the photographs by means of the fingers of the artist. This re-touching was used for developing perspective, background, adding temper to clothes, or simply rendering what was lost, but what could also be gained in the photographic translation of life. The edges had to be further sharpened, the blemishes made to vanish, the clefts had to attain grave depth and the skins had to look fairer.

But that seemed just like Photoshop. Does it mean, all that can now be done on the computer, existed way before computers? Maybe.

But C.Bros gave up on photographing humans long before digitisation became popular, when In 1982, a ‘thin’ man with ‘countless marks and lines on his face had walked into the studio to get his photo clicked. The Chatterjees pre-sensed his intentions and got the photos retouched to blend his facial marks into the contrast of the photo. The thin man was however far from impressed. He raised a great ruckus over how he could possibly continue to look emaciated even in photos and why his cheeks looked darker than usual. That was it, the decision to stop C.Bros’ studio photography section was apparently taken at that instance.

The living had too many demands to make after all upon the medium of their immortality; and C.Bros, was tired of complying.

A large format camera inside the studio

A large format camera inside the studio

As we were stepping out of the studio that day, my attention veered towards one of the displayed photographs. “That is a famous Presidency College professor’s father”, explained the older Chatterjee. With a healthy dose of lamp-black contrast, I thought. On the way back, I told Twisha that I had done a better job of editing my last portrait (read selfie) on Instagram. She was mildly amused and asked me how. Well, my new photo-editing app had a Brush tool feature, that I could use to finger-rub extra exposure, contrast or saturation, onto select portions of the image, say the nose. “Exciting”, was her wry reply.

As C.Bros silently passes over its centenary, it marks its place as an institution that knew how to adapt to the shift to digital. But this was probably possible since much of this shift seemed to have already been on the roster of demands that we as subjects made upon our photographic (im)mortality. Long before the digital became universal. Even with the new technology, we are perhaps still sifting through the older list of desires that were birthed alongside the very coming of photography. Of the mechanical reproduction of realist resemblance.

All this is probably good news for the less-than-amateur Instagrammer.

There is something of the C.Bros influence that has helped me lose some of that aesthetic guilt about how alienated my ‘photography’ is from the ‘original’ dimensions of the craft. I have now begun exploring other ‘film’ trends on social media.


Inside the Darkroom. Many photographers are returning to traditional mediums to rediscover old art forms

With the melancholy of obsolescence now long past, film seems to be returning with a vengeance, whether it is polaroids, or 35 mms or slides that are now being rediscovered with renewed frenzy. I took serious inspiration from these and turned to VSCO or Snapseed to seek out the right filter and effects. Ardently imitating film photography on the scale of a smart phone. Thanks to the history-lessons of the Chatterjees, I now know that #filmisnotdead, not only because you actually have photographers shooting on film, but also because it can now be conjured on the digital.

Twisha, of course still lugs around her heavy-ish film camera and prefers the finitude of her medium. She finds my photographic ambitions funny, but approves of them, but she warns me of boredom. I have thought of that fate myself. Maybe there will be a day my photo-editing apps will seem too limited for everything I will want of my images, but there is something else that bothers me more at times. Maybe there will be a day when I won’t find anything unique or interesting enough to shoot–once everything is immortalised there will really be nothing to resurrect.

Photographic apocalypse? I think. The Chatterjees are probably laughing away my questions again.

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