Monday, 30th October 2017

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LOOKING AT LOST HISTORIES - Digitizing old photographs pushes them towards obsolescence

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  • Published 1.03.09

With the appearance of blogs and Facebook-like “social utilities that connect persons”, family photographs have witnessed a brief spring — often before originals are consigned to the kabadiwalla’s heap. Digitized images of long-forgotten ancestors peer tight-lipped from the pages of a teeny-bopper’s entries; a bit of photo-shopping makes a smile broader, smoothens the furrows, and the cracks on the century-old print disappear. The two black dots for eyes are replaced by ‘real’ ones. In fact, if one has wondered why these pinpoints appear in photographs particularly from the 1870s onwards, these too were attempts at re-touching: once upon a time, they had blended seamlessly with the face and now with a process of fading, they jump out at the viewer, almost uncanny in their intensity.

Once memorialized digitally, the original is a dispensable commodity. In any case, most feel that its crumbling edges and musty smell make it something to be quickly got rid of. And with the inevitable disposal of cabinet-size prints, cartes-de-visite, and later, prints from glass-plate negatives and those of the early 20th century made from film, goes a part of the history of an amazing invention. One that witnessed rapid change and evolution in a relatively short period of time. Based on chemical reactions and an immutable dependence on light, photographic methods have changed rapidly, going through an “endless series of transformations” (Christopher Pinney): daguerreotypes, calotypes, wet collodion, dry plate, glass negatives and finally film and the brownie. All this within a few decades. Yet, for the fast-working digitizer, the history of the technology behind individual photographs is often inconsequential: as a uniformly-induced sepia tone sweeps through generations on a computer page, the protean nature of photographic methods that sets photography aside from other creative media is quickly replaced by a deadening monotony.

Photography as a creative form has been subject to far more rapid change than other artistic modes. Painters and sculptors today, like their predecessors, still use gouache and water colour, clay and bronze. Portable paint boxes, not very different from those invented by T. Reeves in the 18th century, continue to be popular. When one sees early plein-air oils by Claude Monet or marvels at J.M.W. Turner’s use of burnt sienna in his Italian landscapes, there is a certain comfort, a familiarity; an intimacy that reiterates itself in the work of pavement artists who display look-alikes outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Tate.

A visit to George Eastman’s beautiful home-cum-permanent exhibition space in Rochester, in up-state New York, is an experience of an entirely different kind. The founder of the Kodak Brownie box camera has been appropriately immortalized through the collection of more than 400,000 photographs and negatives, dating from the invention of photography to the present day. A virtual information overload overtakes the viewer as more than a 100 years of visual history is packaged imaginatively — if somewhat relentlessly — in the gracious rooms of the museum. One feels the distance, the remoteness, of a daguerreotype as it shimmers in its case, so very different from the photographs of today. Viewed from different angles, it looks like a negative and in strong, direct light, a shining positive. Ironically, though one cannot relate to early photography in the way one can to a 19th-century painting — let alone attempt to reproduce it — its early presence in middle-class homes was much more common than that of other art forms. A family could indulge in a trip to the nearest photo studio — but rarely afford to buy a landscape even by the neighbourhood artist.

Today, of course, virtual galleries allow for much armchair appreciation. Yet, in the area of photography, digitization enforces obsolescence, and in some cases, erasure. Those interested in preserving photographs do not always value the form in which they are originally presented. Scanning images often involves a process of dealing with them in albums, unsticking them or slipping them out of corners. In the process, damage cannot be ruled out. And if only a drum scanner rather than a flat-bed one is available, then the state of the original needs hardly be described! Then, the wastepaper basket is the only option in most cases. Many photographs of the 1870s-90s period were stuck on mounts supplied by the studios. The well-established and better known such as Bourne and Shepherd, Johnston and Hoffman, S.C. Sen and so on advertised themselves on the base of the recto as well as provided information on the verso. Quite often, these have elaborate versos advertising the photographic studios and become not only collectors’ items for those dealing in ephemera but also important leads in the history of studio photography.

Norms of advertising were obviously very different over a century ago, and photographic establishments thought nothing of placing information about themselves on the verso of a photograph paid for by the client. This verso of a cabinet print of the S.C. Sen studio in 1890s Calcutta (picture) — popular for family and individual portraiture among the bhadralok — not only displays fairly detailed sketches of Indian monuments in the then popular ‘Views of India’ mode, but also conveys the information that a special appointment was required for the sitting of which negatives were kept.

Further, the paper for the print has been made in Austria. Siddhartha Ghosh (Chhobi Tola) lists the studio’s address as 6 Lindsay Street, and later, in 1897, as Government Place East. Such a curious introduction to an aspect of Victorian entrepreneurship is not always evident in a viewing on the computer screen as most modern-day archivist would barely spend a moment on versos. Particularly, as often enough, the verso had little to do with the image being displayed: the reluctant young bride who appears in the photograph would probably never have the opportunity of travelling afar to gaze upon the temples at Mahabalipuram or chhatris in remote Rajasthan; if she was lucky, a chaperoned visit to the banks of the Ganga in a curtained brougham would be the usual extent of her exposure to the external world. As for the trip to the photographer’s, much discussion must surely have preceded the decision to allow the gaze of unknown men, inevitable in the process of being photographed.

In Britain, sensitive to the current debate on whether photography was an art or a science, many studios allied themselves to the painterly tradition, describing themselves as ‘photographic art company’, ‘fine art and photographic studios’ and so on. The verso of the London-based Theodore Waltenberg cabinet mount smudges artistic traditions with impunity: a Junoesque figure beholds a paper — perhaps the very print on its obverse — whilst standing on a shore with a sailing boat and a large south European building in the background. As though that is not enough reference-to-context, behind the figure, rise tall cypresses — anchoring her to the Mediterranean. And yet, superimposed above her is a sprig of English tea roses and information on the studio itself is printed on an elaborate floral backdrop, not unlike, one would imagine, oriental chintzes popular at the time. There is important information at the right-hand corner on copies to be ordered and even hand-coloured. A.L. Henderson went one step further in his 1880s versos, reproducing the various awards won at exhibitions in the United States of America, Belgium and Australia. And of course, pride of place is occupied by the royal seal, below which is proudly written “By appointment to the Queen”.

Thus, the verso of the photograph becomes integral to a richly-textured narrative on the evolution of the visual. The quickie results of digitization invariably do not account for this very dense history of the photograph. Clearly, archival images require a detailed and informed handling if they are to contribute not merely to family and more general histories but also to an understanding of an entire process of technological enquiry and innovation. Their resurrection and scanning are the first step in a process that is far more complex. As more and more photographs find their way out of oblivion, ‘ways of seeing’ (John Berger) and levels of understanding are also likely to change — or at least, so one hopes.