Yearning for discipline and craft in image making, more and more photographers are revisiting the era of analogue photography in these times of digital overkill

Such interesting times are we living in that even as we get overwhelmed by the promises of future, past continues to be alluring. All that had become “outdated” is coming back, revived and rediscovered.

But still not everybody undertakes this journey because only a keen, alert and a sensitive soul responds to such changes. Time aided by technology first triggered, then kept us hooked to the idea of capturing the moment for posterity but how many of us remember the days of film camera? Those days are gone, done and dusted. Not for everybody though. The digital overkill has more and more professional photographers retracing their steps to historic photographic processes of making pictures. “I won’t go to the extent of calling it a revival but yes contemporary photographers are off-and-on revisiting the traditional techniques. There are two reasons: One is that they want to create a distinct body of work and identity for themselves at a time when everybody is a photographer. Second they want to enjoy the process of making pictures,” says Mridul Batra of Lucida, an independent photographers’ collective, working in the area of alternative photographic practices. Founded in 2010 by post graduates of the Photography Design Programme at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, the platform through workshops, projects and residencies allows explorations and research in the world of photography. They often engage with cyanotypes and film based work.

It was at Lucida that a young photo-artist like Kanika Sharma got so influenced by the printing process of cyanotype that the practice has become an integral part of her photographic work. Barring commercial work, all her personal projects like the recent one on the conditioning of women in Indian society, are rendered using cyanotype. A cyanotype is a process that produces a cyan-blue print which is achieved by blending two solutions Potassium ferricyanide and Ferric ammonium citrate (green) which is applied onto the chosen surface. It is then exposed to UV light and the material is processed by rinsing it in water which results in a white print emerging on a blue background. “I love the colour. It is almost like a painting and allows you to get involved with the process,” says Sharma, who studied photography at NID. The old and the new get merged when Kanika goes a little further and shoots on her digital camera but makes a cyanotype with a digital negative.

For all the effort, time and money one invests on these techniques, the end result shows it is all worth it. Visibly different from a digital product, this work is unique in nature. “One of the major reasons for so many photographers to be working on film today is that black and white photography has made a major comeback. The effect of shadows and highlights that you need in a black and white image can never be achieved using a digital format. You get a flat image but the kind of tonal quality you get in a film is amazing,” says Raj Kumar Kapoor of Madanjee and Co., a popular store in Chandni Chowk dealing in photographic equipment and material.

About three years ago Edson Dias and P. Madhavan, Srinivas Mangipudi and Enith Periz set up a unique platform in Goa in the form of Goa Center for Alternative Photography (Goa-Cap) to push alternative photography practices such as pinhole. Working extensively with ancient pinhole photography, Goa-Cap has been doing a number of residencies and workshops across the country for some time. Pinhole camera is a simple camera without lens and with a single small aperture, a light-proof box with a small hole on one side. Light passes through this single point and projects an inverted image on the opposite side of the box. “The idea is to try out hands on method of making pictures. We are trying to research old processes and techniques. There are over 150 of these methods and even we don’t know all of them so we give space to people who know these practices and want to experiment. There are a lot of photographers who are rediscovering the traditional ways of making pictures like daguerreotype, salt prints, albumen prints, printing on glass like wet plate collodion etc. There are many going back to these traditional methods and there are many engaging with it right at the start of their career,” says Edson. Goa-Cap recently concluded a workshop on pinhole photography in Bangalore and held a residency of the same in Delhi in 2010 in collaboration with Khoj.

For a set of pictures, recently exhibited as part of the exhibition “Re-imaging The People of India”, Delhi-based photographer Dileep Prakash used a wood-field large format camera and black and white sheet film. Photographer, photo-historian and archivist, Aditya Arya of India Photo Archive Foundation who had curated the exhibition says, “Analogue photography means discipline. I belong to a generation when there was no going back to an image to correct it, when first image was the final image. 120 mm roll offered you 12 shots, 35mm roll offered you 36 exposures but a chip offers you unlimited exposures. I think photographers want some sort of discipline in their lives now. Dileep is a disciplined guy who will quietly set up his camera, check the setting and just take a couple of shots. This kind of photography suits his temperament.”

Laxman of Harry Laxman duo who runs Siddharth Photographix in Bhogal — well-known for their film darkroom and a lab which still processes films — a popular name in the photography circles, reveals, that even though working on films is an expensive deal, those in love with it are pursuing it with devotion. “Working in a darkroom is a different experience and the tonal quality that film offers is missing in a digital image. Many photographers take up film when they embark on personal projects. There is not a huge revival but there is interest in it and one of the reasons is a lot of photography courses being taught today are familiarizing the students to these old ways.”

Kaushik Ramaswamy, a former news photographer, belongs to a generation which was the last one to work with film and switch from analogue photography to digital format. “There is a movement back to it and a lot of us are doing it to understand the material and how it effects the final outcome ,” says Kaushik, runs a digital restoration and printing company called Printer’s Devil.

Ravi Agarwal loves working with challenges and working with film gives him the opportunity. “I always carry both my digital and film camera and depending on what I am shooting and my mood I use the camera. I think working with film allows you to think and to pay attention to lighting. When I am shooting on film, I am more aware of the camera I am holding in my hand.”

A realistic challenge is the lack of easy availability of films these days but for practitioners like Agarwal it is hardly a deterrent. “Films haven’t vanished completely but most of the dealers cater to bulk orders. At times I order it online from B&H (a store in America dealing with photo and video equipment). Recently 120 mm film wasn’t available for three months. A photographer friend was visiting me so I asked him to leave it behind.”