Get a close-up of technology and time through A.P. Shreethar’s mind-boggling collection of cameras

An 1886 Victorian spy camera disguised as a miniscule pocket watch. An 1890 Hunter Penrose with huge accordion bellows expandable by wheels on rails. A Mini HD 720P 2.0 megapixel digital camera cum camcorder, a marvel of modern technology that weighs 11 gm.

Welcome to A.P. Shreethar’s world of eye-popping cameras — numbering 1020 and covering 72 brands. Except for the mini HD 720p which he picked up for its peculiar size and features, all of Sreethar’s cameras fall within the 1885 to 2000 time frame. “Around 55 per cent of the cameras are antique,” says Shreethar, who is now holding an exhibition of his entire collection at Art House on Kasturi Rangan Road. It was recently inaugurated by illustrious cinematographer P.C. Sreeram and will be on till September 10.

The cameras have taken up the entire ground floor of this 7,200 sq.ft art gallery. Apart from the humungous Hunter Penrose cameras that lend an old-world look to the spacious central room, the collectibles have been topically and neatly arranged in display cases. The bigger groups include bellows, box, rangefinder, coupled rangefinder and SLR cameras. Shreethar has added a small clutch of 3D cameras from the 1950s, together with the black and white photos clicked using them, to the dazzling display.

As the exhibition was unveiled to the public on World Photography Day (August 19), a fascicle of photos that capture film stars, directors and other celebrated public figures in their attempts at photography, are also exhibited.

A painter by profession, Shreethar developed a passion for rare cameras around nine years ago during a visit to Mumbai where he came across a beautiful bellows camera. “It’s only in the last two years I picked up most of them,” says the 41-year-old artist who makes it a point to meet big antique camera collectors and dealers while on visits to other countries on what are essentially ‘artistic tours’.

He values his friendship with “Chris, an Australian photography buff and camera collector who has served Nikon in a distinguished position for around 25 years.” Shreethar took nine cameras from Chris, who has an enviable collection of cameras and accessories — which he calls ‘Smile Please’ — at his house in Newtown, a Sydney suburb. Shreethar has borrowed the name — Smile Please — for an initiative to familiarise schoolchildren in Tamil Nadu with the evolution of cameras.

“Smile Please is a movement, whereby different types of antique cameras will be taken to schools across the State for children to handle and understand them. They are meant to be workshops,” he says. Considering that Shreethar is also into collecting accessories — glass and film negatives, photographic thermometers, lighting meters and books and mini catalogues on cameras — these familiarisation programmes are likely to be well-rounded attempts at teaching photography.

“Teaching them to take good photos is important but a secondary goal. The primary objective is to show these children how the picture changed, from room-size to micro-size cameras,” says Shreethar. “I don’t have the expertise to operate most of these cameras but that does not bother me. They look great and that’s enough reason to cherish and preserve them.”

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