One small history of Indian photography – Part one

I have been spending a lot of time at Prabhu Photo, a state-of-the-art photo lab in Bangalore, India. Back in the day, in the last century, (hah,) when I was shooting color slides, I used to have them processed at that same lab. Now that I have gone digital, I am going there to have color prints made from digital files. These prints are mostly for the various Indians I, or my wife, have been photographing. In the time I have known and worked with the proprietor, Allama Prabhu, I have seen his business grow and grow and more recently contract and contract. The change in the business of Prabhu Photo is something of a microcosm for the history of photographic processes in India. The amazing thing is that I am only talking about a short, thirteen year “history.”

The entire history of photography in India is fascinating. There have been numerous books written about the evolving technology of photography in South Asia as well as its cultural impact there. Photography first came to India via the colonial rulers, the British. It was initially used to document the people, places and activities of the East India Trading Company. Though prints and drawings of India’s architecture, landscape and people had been available to Britons for over a century, the arrival of photography enabled a more precise rendering than drawings and prints. Though few Britons actually went to India, photographs offered a new and clearer window onto the place. Photographs, made by commercial, government, and amateur photographers, meant that most middle class Britons who wanted to, could possess a bit of colonial India.

Photography in India gradually moved from a tool of the colonizers to a widespread way to record portraits, events and travels. By the time India won independence from Britain, photography had reached well into the Indian upper classes. The costs of the materials, both film and cameras slowed but did not stop the spread of photography among all classes in India. When India’s economy was opened to outside investment in 1991, photography started spreading across the Indian socio-economic spectrum. This change was spurred by cheaper imported film/cameras as well as Indian made photo supplies that had to compete with those same imported goods.

I first met Prabhu in 1995. We were looking to get some of my wife’s 120 B + W roll film processed. He came highly recommended by a commercial photographer we knew who was based in Bangalore, so we gave him a try. He was still processing B + W film on metal reels that he dipped in stainless steel tanks full of chemicals. Though his machinery was basic, his attention to detail and work ethic were impressive. So we kept bringing him business on subsequent photographing trips to India. Soon, he acquired a Jobo automated processing machine, which enabled him to develop E-6 process color slide film as well as B + W negative film.

Between 1997 and 2004 we developed something o a symbiotic relationship. During the early part of that time, he used some of the money that he made processing our film to buy himself a better Jobo automated processing machine. Later he bought a world-class E-6 “dip and dunk” slide processing system. His attention to detail and work ethic remained unchanged and so I continued to bring him more and more rolls of E-6 slide film for processing. Prabhu’s business grew as Bangalore grew, from a sleepy retirees village to a high tech center of globalization. I know I was not the only one helping to grow his business. Bangalore was growing rapidly, primarily due to the rapid growth in Information Technology. That growth was something I was documenting and it was also supporting a growing number of commercial photographers. Still, the smile on his face when I showed up with my unprocessed film suggested how valuable a customer I had become.

During a typical one-month trip to India I would use between 150 and 200 rolls of 35mm 36 exposure slide film. Between the two Fulbright fellowships, the Alicia Patterson fellowship and numerous assignments in India, I made upwards of 25 of those one-month trips. After a while, I had developed a system where I was carrying hundreds of roll of film, removed from their packaging, in one (or maybe two) giant steel cans, which were originally made to hold motion picture film. I always carried some highly sensitive film (ISO 3200) to show to the airport security officers to prompt them to hand search all the film. This usually worked because the high-speed film really did need to stay out of the X-Ray machines and it was incredibly easy to hand inspect all the film in the open metal can. I do not want to go into that too much because I have previously blogged about my adventures in airport security at:

Having gone through all that hassle to get the unexposed film into India, I did not want to go through the same drill taking out the exposed but unprocessed film. Plus, I usually used the professional versions of the various slide films I liked, which were especially sensitive to temperature changes. So the sooner I processed the film, the better off I would be. Once I started working with Prabhu, I actually planned my various trips to South Asia, which often had stops in places like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, so they would have the last stop in Bangalore, India, before going home. There I could get the film processed (and enjoy my mother-in-law’s hospitality.)

Prabhu and I quickly established a system where I would give him about twenty rolls a day to process. Dividing the film up, “just in case,” was something I practiced even with American labs. These days I do the same kind of “screw up prevention” by shooting with relatively small capacity CF cards. That forces me to change cards more often but also ensures a given set of work is spread out over a number of memory cards, “just in case.”

I dropped those rolls in the morning with Prabhu and then I would return to the lab in the afternoon to see what I had done. It was always an adventure to see which pictures worked and which did not, as I cut the film in order to put it into one long continuous plastic sleeve. We had briefly experimented with mounting the slides, but that ended up being very costly and left me carrying home a lot of heavy plastic mounted slides. So, I would trim the ends off the uncut processed rolls of film, blow compressed air into a long plastic sleeve then slide the long roll of film into the sleeve. At the end of a week in Bangalore, I would have 150 or more rolls of processed film, in those long plastic protective sleeves. The film would then travel home with me securely protected in the same steel film cans that I had used to bring the film to India in the first place.

Once home, I would take them to photo labs in New York City and later Providence. The labs would mount the film and as time went on, they would increasingly often print copyright, caption and location information directly on one of the two empty areas of the slide mounts. I eventually bought my own dot matrix printer to write more detailed captions in the other empty area on the slide mount. Every few months I added a component to the system I was developing.

Not that I knew it, but this idea of building an ever evolving working system would serve me well when I finally went digital in 2003. With the move from silver to silicon based imaging, a whole new way of thinking came into photographer’s thinking, summarized by the word, “workflow.”

To this day, my workflow for tracking submissions of my work to my stock photo agencies is built on the system I ”perfected” working with Prabhu. Back when the system involved actual slides, sending the work out was what I called “slogging slides. That name refers to the fact that I actually had to ship the slides to the agencies, which would then ship them back, minus the ones they “kept” for their archive. With digital imaging of course, nothing is physically sent but my system is the same. In some ways that system, that workflow is the sole surviving component of what was once a nearly perfect system for shooting, processing and syndicating color slides.

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