[Reader-list] 1st posting , madhuja mukherjee

madhuja mukherjee madhuja_m at yahoo.co.in
Wed Jan 28 07:41:29 IST 2004

Hi, I am Madhuja, I am a Lecturer with Film and Media Studies Dept. of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. I have been working on the Studio Era of Indian Cinema for last few years. Lately, I came across a huge collection of glass plate negatives of working stills and publicity material of films of the period. This finding set off multiple queries like why were glass negatives used as a professional format till as late as 1950s? Was it a question of technology, economy and culture? How was the technology different from the use of ‘film’ for still photography? What were the cameras like? How was it distinct as an experience? And, beyond such inquisitions was a plain interest to know what these dark glasses – that are now in the form of negatives- embody
. The driving force behind this archival project is perhaps this quest to see through these glasses and the shadows of the past. 


THE PROJECT: A project to retrieve some one thousand 'lost' Glass Negatives of the Studio Era and map histories of cinematic practices through the reading of photographs and interrogating the use of glass negatives in mid twentieth century. The aim is to examine the practices and the technology of using 'glass plates' for photography and understand the cultural meaning of photography as a method of documentation. 

The 'Studio Era' of Indian cinema is perhaps crucial for Film Studies for the plurality of symptoms. The complexity of the times is avowed through attempts to formalise the production-distribution- exhibition systems just as, a number of articles published during this period project a self -conscious intendment to defined cinema as a vehicle for 'modernity'- reading modernity in terms of technology and technique. Cinema was seen as a "scientific" business that required expertise, an understanding of the methodology and knowledge of execution. The economic- political conditions of the day somewhat demanded regularised cinematic practices that would emerge from the multifarious production procedures and vast aesthetic possibilities. However, a fuzzy area remains outside such striving for cohesion. Perhaps, the use of glass plate negatives till 1950s are one of those instances. 

WORK PLAN: The objective of the project, however, is not to ‘historicise’ the studio era. . The aim is to look into practices of photography and the area of photographs that were used as a method of documentation These 'glass negatives' emerge somewhat like symbolic 'dark holes' in the memory of Calcutta studios that needs to first scanned, then through a reverse mode - or rather by reverting a historical process as it were - may be turned to positives. The project hopes to identify people, films/projects, studios and the times and categorise those accordingly and thereby probe into the cultural modes, cinematic practices, technical and formal diversities of the era. 

As suggested earlier, several questions come forth at this point. For example, what were the technological and economic necessities and cultural exercises that encouraged the use of glass negatives in 1950s, despite the obvious difficulties of handling glass? Which studios? Which people? Why did the film studios that had access to 'film' use glass plates to document its own works?

Frankly, there is no way of telling what lies beneath. Who? What? Why? What appear in the negatives are shadows of people and inscriptions that are apparently posters, printed brochures and lobby cards. Nevertheless, what seems like a 'historical thriller' includes enormous amount of documents of an epoch that has been such infrequently chronicled. 

Interviews conducted with K.N. Dey, of D.Ratan & Co., (established around 1915, Kolkata), and S.Dutta, of Universal Art Gallery (established around 1920, Kolkata) this month (January 2004), reveal experiences of using glass plates.

The cameras were largely German, Japanese, and American made and the technologies of developing were more or less similar to ‘film’ photography’ while, the size of the glass plates would vary from 2.5x3.5 inches to 16x20inches. As a matter of fact, the size of the negative plates and the developed and printed photographs would be exactly the same. For the lack of appropriate enlarging technologies professional photographers particularly preferred glass negatives to achieve sharper images of large 'group photographs'. Therefore, (among other reasons) though 'roll film' was available in as early as 1930s, photographers used glass. Nonetheless, it was perhaps also a question of cultural practices in the way distinctive images and moments were captured and portrayed on glass frames and collected for posterity. 

Copies of the ‘photographs’ with all necessary details shall be submitted to Sarai, and with the technical support of Sarai, the entire material may be accessible on website. 

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