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Film photography makes a comeback as more dark rooms crop up across India

Are the challenges, surprise element, or the old-world charm responsible for this resurgence?

There is something distinctly Harry Potter-esque about how a film develops. A blank sheet of paper transforms and suddenly, as it lies immersed in a chemical bath, has an image surfacing on it. Quite like magic.

Chennai-based Photographer CP Satyajit is cooped up in his new lab in Adyar, Chennai, developing a black-and-white print. Despite doing this for two decades, there is childlike enthusiasm in him. And as the image starts to take shape, those gathered around, gasp. This element of surprise is perhaps the USP of analogue photography.

Film photography was written off in the late-1990s when the digital camera was introduced as a much simpler alternative. But, today’s millennials are steadily going back to older techniques: lockdowns and extra time in hands only aide this interest. As dark rooms crop up across the country — the latest to join the bandwagon being Satyajit’s Dark Room and photographers Varun Gupta and Karthik Thorali’s Madras Atelier; both in Chennai — analogue frames, with their raw, labour-intensive approach, nostalgic hue and grainy textures, have crept into the hearts of amateur and professional photographers.

Dark Room at Adyar

“Personally, for me the journey when it came to analogue was about trying to declutter,” says Varun, who learned photography in the digital era. The meditative process of being in a dark room is something he took to later on, while studying in the US. Weighing the cons of the digital process, Varun continues, “Since it’s easy to shoot, we are often stuck with so much noise. I have a backlog of almost 2,00,000 pictures. You rarely get the opportunity to revisit them.” On the other hand, analogue frames are carefully constructed and limited in number; consequently unique.

Trust, skill and an element of chance are what make up an analogue frame. Chance is what interests Varun the most. In analogue, sometimes one comes back with technically not-so-sound, foggy, grainy shots, different from what the photographer had in mind. But, they have their own character. “Almost like a Pointillism painting,” Varun adds.

Give and take

Known for their black-and-white film and other photographic materials, erstwhile giants Ilford Photo, Kodak and even Fujifilm’s comeback to the Indian market in recent years, via independent distributors spread across the country, has played a role in the resurgence of the film community. In Chennai, Shriti’s Digilife is one such distributor. Apart from this, commercial darkrooms (mostly set up by independent photographers) and projects that activate the community, like Delhi-based The Analogue Photo Project, are showing the way forward.

Prints at The Analogue Approach Project

Delhi photographer Srinivas Kuruganti started off his career by working with film. That was the only option at the time. Four to five months ago, his desire to get back in the darkroom led him and curator Rahaab Allana of the Alkazi Foundation to The Analogue Approach Project: operating out of a darkroom studio in Delhi, the initiative explores the culture of printmaking by sharing stories of hands-on experience. The idea initially took form from an exhibition curated by Rahaab called The Surface of Things which featured analogue practitioners including Srinivas. Rahaab says, “For us, digital cultures are very important, we associate with them everyday. We also often think about what the future of the practice is going to be. It is almost as though the digital is inviting the analogue into the conversation.” On the reason why they started the project, he continues, “To just begin this process of thinking about what is it that is going to remain lasting in our practices and why. We are also adressing a broader concern of what is the place of media practices today.”

Elaborating on the hands-on approach, Srinivas, creative collaborator of the project says, “Interestingly, there are a lot of people who have shot on film but have never actually printed. And, sometimes, I have noticed that photographers have a specific idea of how they want their prints to be. But, I always ask them to try out different ways.” The project caters to those who have had some experience in the darkroom.

The Analogue Approach Project operates out of a darkroom in Delhi

Srinivas says, “Film cameras have gotten much cheaper and seeing film photography around, people want to test it out. Institutions like National Institute of Design (NID) have workshops in film photography. These students also tend to get back.” Recently, he has observed that photographers are more concerned about whether they have shot in analogue or digital, rather than the image itself. Film photography is often romanticised, he adds.

Young love

A lot of youngsters who started off in the digital era are interested in the technical aspects and the chemistry behind the process. Independent photographer Arun (www.aavanam.in), for instance, has a small-scale dark room setup in his bathroom where he develops his films. “I usually shoot for a week and come back and develop. The medium also teaches you how to be a chemist.” He sources the chemicals and mixes them himself instead of relying on a developer and says, “all of this information is easily available on the Internet”. He has a developing tank for 35 mm and another for 120 mm films. “And a changing bag (into which light can be directed), two measuring cylinders, a thermometer and a couple of bottles of distilled water.”

From Madras Atelier’s dark room

From Madras Atelier’s dark room
 
| Photo Credit:
Varun Gupta

Analogue is also perceived as an affordable option for photographers who are looking for a headstart. Arun agrees, “I would say it’s the most affordable. As an analogue photographer, I can spend ₹5,000 on a camera and ₹600 on a roll, and start working right away. A 35 mm digital camera ranges anywhere from ₹1 lakh and upwards.” He mostly photographs on a Rolleiflex or a Mamia 6.

It is encouraging to know that many have darkroom setups at home, Srinivas adds. It activates conversation, as peers learn from each other and lend tips while setting up their own space.

For the digital generation, Satyajit feels, this could be a new fancy; learning and experiencing a bit of history and understanding the roots. “As for the older photographers who have shot on film, it is getting back to the roots, revisiting the basics, testing one’s skills and instincts and maybe detoxing the undesirable ones, potential of a new business and the feeling of the real thing.”

Dark Room by Stream Imaging is located at 6, First cross street, Jeevarathinam Nagar, Adyar, Chennai. Contact Madras Atelier for services at 9600119578. Visit @analogueapproachproject on Instagram to know more.

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