In a fading light

In the age of social media the world is drowning in images. Photo studio owners tell the writer why it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep their shutters open

July 13, 2015 08:40 pm | Updated July 14, 2015 05:25 pm IST - Chennai

The owners of Sathyam Studio in Mylapore. Photo: S.R.Raghunathan

The owners of Sathyam Studio in Mylapore. Photo: S.R.Raghunathan

It’s the age of social photography and we’re recording and preserving almost every minute of life’s moments through Instagram, Facebook memories, and Snapchat selfies.

We may have lived through these moments scarcely but we’ve all been responsible for clicking, with gay abandon, a set of dozen pictures over lunch, 50 or more over a short holiday and a daunting number during weddings — but all quite perfunctorily.

Not as long as 10-15 years ago, photography, especially family and holiday photography was serious business. People would get dressed up and make a pilgrimage to the nearby studio and arrange themselves — some on high-backed wooden chairs, some flanking the sitters — all for a stiff photograph. Travelling away from home would mean packing a few film rolls and batteries, patiently composing every picture, carefully storing the rolls back in canisters and once back, dropping them off at the studio and finally collecting the rewards (through pictures) for your diligence.

Photography is now trigger-free and digital, so how are Chennai institutions then surviving the shift? Nestled on the busy streets of Pondy Bazaar is the 69-year-old Krishna Photo Stores and Studio. With only a few customers shuttling in and out, proprietor P.N. Srinivasan takes his time to finish writing the day’s accounts before recollecting the studio’s story. “We were originally with Madras Photo Studio on Mount Road. Around 1946, my father moved away from that and started this store. At that time I must have been 14 years old and my father was unwell so I was forced to work here. I’m a self-taught photographer and technician — I even used to manufacture cinema glass slides until 1970 and ammonia paper till about 1994 when I sold that business.” Until 1985, Srinivasan had a big team working with him, “about 40 people were with me; now there are only four.” He attributes this diminution to the increasing breed of “self-employed” photographers. “Photographers these days earn more than Rs. 40,000 a day; digital is easy.”

Mylapore’s Sathyam Studio, now run by a father and son and started in the 1930s, wears a deserted look on a late Sunday evening, even though it’s right next to the energetic MRTS Station. In its heyday, Sathyam Studio, was much in demand, especially for bridal portraits, explains owner C.S. Balachandra Raju. “Most of the colleges and high schools in this locality are my customers, cellphone photography has ruined my business. Now there’s no need at all for people to come and develop their photos here; it’s all digital. And there are the colour labs as well,” he rues. His son Anand chips in. “We’ve updated ourselves based on the latest technology available, now we just have to compete with all of them. Of course, we have our three generations of customers as well.”

Spanning four generations now, G.K. Vale is undoubtedly a Chennai institution that has served most families in the city either with a portrait or passport photographs. Now situated in a smaller studio in Pycrofts Garden Road in Nungambakkam, the once-massive studio on Mount Road specialises in family portraits. Both Srinivasan and Balachandra Raju agree that Vale was one of the foremost pioneers in studio photography. “Greats such as Klein and Peyerl, Vaman Bros, Broadway Photo Stores, Madras Photo Stores were all open along with us. Only a few like G.K. Vale and Photo Emporium still survive,” Srinivasan says.

Photo Emporium, established in 1927, has an interesting story of its beginnings. “The property was owned by a man who didn’t have any children. He dreamt that a man with vibhuti would come visiting and that the studio would be handed over to him. That vibhuti -wearing man was my grandfather. Earlier, this used to be situated between Shanti and Devi Theatre and it recently shifted to the Dhun Building,” says A.K. Rajkumar, the current owner. His daughter, 37-year-old Anjali Ponni, also helps with the business. From specialising in studio portraits, Photo Emporium, which now has branches on Poonamallee High Road and in Ascendas IT Park, has expanded its expertise to pre-wedding and post-wedding photography, wedding song shoots and even brand photography. “We were one of the first to make the switch to digital; technology has made it relatively easier for our business,” says Anjali. Just like other children from families who owned photo studios — Balachandra Raju’s grandaughters and Srinivasan’s children — Anjali too was initially discouraged from entering the business. “I’ve seen my grandfather doing this and I was very close to him. This holds a lot of pride for me; I can’t imagine not being in photography,” says Anjali, who studied art before switching to photography.

Recalling the past for 65-year-old Moorthy of My Photo Studio in Broadway, is not an exhausting task. In fact, he remembers in detail, the other studios that flanked his. “There used to be a studio called Ratna Studio nearby. Broadway Road had two other studios, one in Mannady and one in Mint...” A minute later, though, Moorthy, jumps back to the present to talk about his younger son who takes care of the Purasaiwalkam branch and the main branch that hardly sees any activity save for the employees who chat excitedly about the prospect of being featured in the paper. “I have eight photographers now. When I took over the studio in 1968, there were 22 photographers. When my father started the store in 1950, there were three. Earlier, even a death ceremony would require our service as the family would use the photos we’d take for the rites. Now every photo is taken on the phone — it has destroyed our business”.

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