Anusha Parthasarathy zooms in on one of the oldest photo studios of Chennai
Where do memories go after their time? In the old days, they would be ushered into a dark room, where a mix of chemicals brought them back to life; black and white photographs tucked neatly into wooden frames. Today, of course, you can fill up folders by the hundreds on the computer — they neither age nor weather at touch.
At Poonamallee High Road, nostalgia comes easily, whether it is the imaginary waft of Dasaprakash Hotel's famous masala dosa or A.T. Kathiresan's vivid memories of his 84-year-old photo studio, guarded and narrated by his son A.K. Rajkumar, who is now in-charge.
Photo Emporium began in 1927 as a small studio that specialised in outdoor group photos and studio pictures. T. Thirunavukkarasu, who had left his job at the Imperial Bank, started the studio because of his love for photography. “He had a talent for taking photos and decided to pursue his passion. At that time, pictures were clicked using glass negatives in big cameras; the kind you throw a black cloth over to focus and click,” recalls Rajkumar.
The studio, which was then on the stretch between Shanthi Theatre and Devi Theatre on Mount Road, had its studio open to the sky. “There were wooden strips on the top that could be moved to adjust the amount of light falling into the room. Now, we have high-power flash units which perform the same function,” he explains.
Since photography equipment was rarely made in India then, Photo Emporium grew into one of its largest importers. “There was nothing available here. My father (A.T. Kathiresan) would tell me that everything was imported, right from the bulbs for the flash (from Germany), black and white paper, films, chemicals and everything else from Japan, U.S. and Italy,” Rajkumar adds.
Photo Emporium was the first to do many things, such as buying the Fuji Minilab and introducing the Fuji Frontier series of printers. They began filming in the early days with 16mm films that were sent to Bombay for processing. “We were also the first to shoot Sathya Sai Baba in Puttaparthi. The electricity supply was so erratic we had to come up with other ways to light up the area. One of the things my father did was to get all the car headlights on so that we had enough light to shoot,” he says.
Their customer base spans four generations and includes companies such as Parry and Co., Benny and Co. and The Hindu. “In those days, there were barely 25 studios throughout the city and photography was a rare profession. The art itself was a secret, hidden in the dark room where only one technician was allowed. Very few people knew how to do things and it took some time to learn.”
Photo Emporium also had branches in Bombay and Calcutta which were closed down later. Now, they have three branches in the city. “We were in the same building in Mount Road for a couple of decades and recently shifted to the opposite side, near the post office in Dhun Building. In 1995, we opened the branch on Poonamallee High Road and have our third unit in Ascendas IT Park.”
Rajkumar describes a time when photography was a difficult profession. “We had to pass the prints through three levels before it becomes a photograph; printing, fixing and washing. Only if the photo is thoroughly washed in running water for three to six hours will it last many years. But people were loyal back then and came to studios for the quality they offered and not the discounts.”
Keywords: Photo Emporium