“We are the most important generation in the history,” declared photographer, photo historian and archivist Aditya Arya over dinner at his residence in Gurgaon. I agreed instantly. The same thought had been in my mind for a while. The ‘we’ he referred to included photographers who started out in the 70s and 80s and who are continuing to shoot even now. (Very few who started earlier are active today). We have worked our way through paradigm shifts in photography — from manual focus to auto focus and film to digital. Living through this ‘shift’ has really been a significant influence in our lives – a clear understanding of the past and strong technical foundation helps. We have adapted as the changes happened.
Aditya in fact proudly inherited his uncle Kulwant Roy’s negatives. Roy was one of India’s most important photojournalists. He chronicled our country’s pre-and post-independence times. Aditya set up India Photo Archive Foundation and scanned and restored and archived Mr Roy’s images. A book (History in the Making, the Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy) was published and a major exhibition opened in New Delhi’s National Gallery on November 14.
The 80s were interesting times. We photographed India’s growth or the so called ‘development’. Though we did not shoot as prolifically as we do now, the photographs from those times become the visual document of the modern history of the country; visual evidence if you will. Photographers are visual historians. There is a pressing need for all of us to begin to archive and catalogue our images.
Perhaps it is time to set up a museum of photography where all the images can be archived and be available for public viewing. Says Aditya Arya, “In an age when digital information is all around, it’s easy to forget that great volumes of historical images of India—journalistic, political, personal, developmental and social—languish in neglect in institutions and homes. Images of the Indian struggle for independence. The early years as a free nation. The dawn of industrial India. Personal collections of royalty and the Raj. Pictures of the common people, of travel and leisure, events and festivities. Scintillating moments in sports.”
A rather amusing sidelight of the 80s was the fact that owning more than one camera without paying the exorbitant (250%) customs duty was illegal. The only way to buy cameras, lenses and accessories was from the friendly neighbourhood gray market maven aka smuggled goods vendor. Most of us owned cameras without any papers. In fact, in 1992 a policeman offered to buy one of my cameras that was not entered on my passport at the Mumbai international airport.
As I look at my own archives, I realise that many images are now gaining importance from a historical perspective. Ramakrishna Hegde and VP Singh sharing a stage during an election campaign at a small town, funeral of the victims of the airbus crash in Bangalore in 1990, images of daily life in various parts of India, New York of 1992..and more are important visual documents.
The great renaissance man, Shivarama Karanth had published a picture book in 1934 called ‘Chitramaya Dakshina Kannada’ (Pictorial South Kanara – Dakshina Kannada or South Canara was the coastal district of Karnataka which now is divided into Mangalore and Udupi districts). There may be a handful of copies around now and the images from that book may be the only visual documents of life in the 30s of the area.
Another experience that I would like to share is meeting a photographer from the 40s, called Daguerre. An Anglo-Indian man, who lived alone somewhere in Frazer Town. On a rainy evening, my friend Patrick Wilson and I drove down to his house. It was pouring . We sat in my car waiting for the rain to subside. It was surreal, with sheets of water pounding on the windshield, reflecting and refracting through the streetlights. Daguerre showed us portraits from the 40s that he made using automobile headlamps as lights. Availability of everything was scarce during
those times because of the war and he had to improvise. They were truly awesome, very George Hurrel style. I didn’t do his portrait, I wish I did. I met him only once and the memory is like a dream. However, after Daguerre’s demise, all images apparently are lost. The loss actually is ours.
Because of the advent of digital technology, this is the most photographed decade in our history thus far. “The swift pace at which we create images is only matched by the pace at which we discard them and yet, paradoxically, we’ve never been more engaged with images. Photography is less about document or evidence and more about community and experience… and that’s not a bad thing.” says Stephen Mays, Director, VII photo agency. I don’t entirely agree with Mays, I do believe that a photograph continues to be a document and evidence of the condition of life itself and they must be preserved.
First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 23 November, 2012