K. Maruthachalam gives Coimbatore the best photo service it can get. He talks to Pheroze L. Vincent about forests, photography and perfection
If you find somebody aiming his camera at a cyclist on Race Course, it's probably K. Maruthachalam teaching novices how to freeze frames by panning shots. “After adjusting the exposure, be prepared, hold steady, move your camera with the subject and shoot,” he explains. This freezes the subject and it seems that the background is in motion.
Students, of all ages- schoolchildren to middle aged men, step up with their Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras and badger him with questions. He answers them all, pointing out the relevant settings in each camera. “In the old manual SLR cameras I could adjust the settings in my sleep,” he tells me.
Maruthachalam runs RK Photo Centre, one of the country's premier studios, on Race Course. The centre, which also has a branch on NSR Road, has a world class lab and also undertakes industrial photography.
The shutter bug bit him in 1962, when he got his first camera- an Agfa Click III. He was 12 then. After finishing school he honed his skills photographing birds and insects, in his farm in Kanuvai.
He was introduced to the Coimbatore Photographic Society in the early 1969 by G. K. Sundaram of Lakshmi Mills. Here he not only met contemporaries like K. Jayaram and T. N. A. Perumal, but also eminent nature photographers like Eric Hosking of the Royal Photographic Society.
“Photography was a luxury. Equipment and magazines were expensive and hard to find. They had to be imported and a huge duty had to be paid. Thankfully, my family did not object too much,” says Maruthachalam, gazing back through the frames of time.
He learned the ropes from magazines like Modern Photography, Outdoor Photography, Leica Photography, Photo Technique, Peterson's Photographic Magazine and so on.
His photos were first exhibited at the Photographic Society of India exhibition in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1971. His first international exhibition was the Border International Salon in South Africa in 1972. The Photographic Society of America published his picture, of a green bee-eater bird, the very same year.
He ran the exhibition circuit for more than a decade after that and was recognised as an Artiste de la Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique (AFIAP), Associate of the Royal Photographic Society, UK (ARPS) and, Associate of the Photographic Society of America (APSA).
“When I started out, labs in Coimbatore only had expertise in developing Black and White film. Colour slides were sent to Mumbai or abroad. Besides, people just couldn't find a good lab. That's why I started Photo Centre in 1991,” he says.
The centre is known for its quality, but charges more than most studios in the city. The rates are in the same range as leading labs in metros like Chennai, Bangalore or Delhi.
“Eminent photographers from the metros come here to develop their prints for exhibitions,” says C. R. Jayaprakash, another contemporary wildlife photographer of the city.
“Printing has dropped. This is not right,” says Maruthachalam, who's lab went digital in 1996. “Electronic storage isn't as safe as printing. On a computer screen they are just images, but in an album they are memories.”
He adds, “Digital cameras are cheaper than film cameras, but how long do they last.” His Kodak Brownie, Agfas and Leicas still work. “Manual photographers had the advantage of learning the technique better. We can miss an important photo moment, if we aren't confident about technique.”
Maruthachalam takes classes on the digital SLR cameras. There are various courses ranging from three hours to a week. These classes have detailed PowerPoint presentations and practical training.
“Maruthachalam is the only eminent photographer in town who teaches youngsters. He lives in photography. Even I learnt the basics from him. He updates himself with the latest technology and is very approachable,” adds Jayaprakash.
“Many are now interested in wildlife photography. There's a good scope even in commercial photography for those willing to learn,” says Maruthachalam. “Aspiring nature photographers must be observers not intruders. We may spoil the environment if we are too eager for good photos,” he cautions.
Nature photography can throw surprises. Once in Walayar Forests in 1980, he ran into a King Cobra. “It stood up, six feet tall, with its hood expanded. My friends ran. It was scarier than facing a tiger. I gradually moved away from it and took 30 photos with my Leica R4,” he says blushing.
Sadly, he says, species like painted grasshoppers, which were common a decade ago, aren't visible any more. Sparrows also are rare to find he says. “Sparrows nested in tiled roofs and wells. They and ants used to eat the Kolam which was made from rice flour. Today the Kolam powder is made from some stone.”
At the cutting edge of photo technology, he still loves his slides and films. “I have slides that have better depth than an LCD monitor,” he says. Perhaps that's why when he sells equipment worth lakhs, he's never overwhelmed.
Nature Photography requires
Knowledge of animal behaviour