[Reader-list] Re: 4th& 5th posting

madhuja mukherjee madhuja_m at yahoo.co.in
Tue Jun 29 14:31:50 IST 2004

·        4th   - 5th POSTING - Madhuja Muherjee. 

 LOOKING AT THE GLASSES DARKLY: A visit to Bourne and Shepherd and chitchat with veteran Cinematographer Ramananda Sengupta and Still Photographer Ashutosh Sengupta. 


Madhuja to Ramananda: I wanted to talk to you about the culture of glass photography during the studio era. Tell me about your experiences and why do you think the studios that had access to the technology of film use glass to document its production procedures?

Ramananda: The Still-photographers would know better, but I would say it was still and all a question of technology [or the culture of technology], its accessibility and compatibility. Just as the studios produced their own films, they had their own directors, cinematographers, sound engineers and so on. Studios had their own separate department for every field. It also had the still photography department. They used those wooden bodied cameras where they would insert glass negatives fixed on a frame (see photographs with Sarai). The size of the negatives and the positive prints would be same. In those days before the Second World War, the technology of enlarging photographs from smaller negatives was not very successful. When enlargements were done from smaller negatives the prints would have too many large grains like dirty patches. So we preferred to keep the size of (glass) negatives and positive (prints) same. And, you would have those huge glass negatives for production stills
 or ‘group’ photographs. However, the methods of developing prints have remained somewhat similar. 

I remember the still photographers would come rushing after the shot, requesting the artists to stay on so that they can take photos. They mostly used available lights or put lights known as ‘wash’ on either sides but the process was somewhat slow. And then, the cinematographers would often object to the use of extra lights for that would ruin the grey tones. Let me tell you, the artists and the technicians would have to be coaxed to stay on for a single photograph. Like in our Film Corporation of India, one Mr.Dhar would crack jokes to keep the artists for a photograph! When in hurry, at times they wouldn’t even use the shutter but simply open up the lens cover.  

I had started working in 1938, but in 1939 things changed with the Second World War. The many studios had temporarily shut down, and the after the war when we started again, the technology had ‘improved’ considerably. Cameras changed, they started using Rolliflex cameras- to name one. More importantly, the speed of the film increased. Kodak and Agfa for instance introduced films with finer grains. War had made easily accessible handy film rolls – with 8 negatives- for its own benefits. In the Calcutta studios, however, they were using both glass and film roll at one point of time around 1945 or so. But now they were largely using the ones with smaller glass negatives. One benefit of the film photography was it could be taken while the shooting was on (because of the size of the camera), and the photographers wouldn’t have to wait till the end of the shoot. But again, it was finally the question of fine grain and high-speed films and smaller cameras that were made available after
 Second World War. This made us switch over from glass negatives to film.

 Madhuja: But if not enlarged did ‘glass’ offer better quality pictures in terms of the contrast or gloss? Could this be one of the reasons why -besides being an established practice- the still photographers still stuck to glass when films rolls were already obtainable particularly in the post war situation?

Ramananda: Well, may be. While, with the film rolls all the 8 frames would be same, as it had to be developed together [it appeared like a film strip] at least glass negatives allowed the photographers to develop each frame differently since they were taking single prints. They could change the contrast, use different kinds of developers or for each frame take various kinds of prints on a range of papers. 

 Madhuja to Ashutosh: What about your experiences of working as a Still Photographer?

Ashutosh: You see I started working as a photographer in late forties and as professional sometime later. During that period, we preferred Leica, Rolliflex or Rollicord cameras instead of 35’ Camera. There would always be a problem of enlargement with 35’. We would use the ‘low speed’ glass negatives for various other purposes for instance when we required the letters or the titles only. Prints from glass negatives would be of very high contrast, which was effective for publicity material. Glass wasn’t exactly cheap or trouble-free to deal with, but glass was popular till the point Second World War began and even later for its high contrast images. 




“For Bengalis photographs are living objects
. Living doesn’t mean real
it means symbolically alive.” 


     -    Sidhartha Ghosh (from Bengali).  

 After our conversations with the two old hands of camera came to an end we moved on to Bourne and Shepherd on S.N.Banerjee Road, which is now owned by Mr.Gandhi and Mr.Ajmera. From our short discussion with Mr. GourMohan Das of Bourne and Shepherd- that claims to have been set up in 1840 and therefore one of the oldest studios in the world (there are doubts and disputes about the exact dates though)- what emerged is that, they did portraits with the same kind of massive studio plate cameras (see photographs with Sarai). Similarly, for landscapes they used field cameras. Such ‘landscape- photographs’ were sold as collector’s items, mementos or as the chronicles of the times .A catalogue that was published on behalf of Howard Rickette Ltd, London, declare Newman and Co., of Calcutta/Kolkata, as its agent and provides an elaborate list of photographs (or ‘scenic beauties’) of Shimla, Lucknow and Kolkata etc., that was up for sale. These were apparently being advertised at a
 particularly high price. Initially, the company had a Day-Light Studio on Chowringhee Road, Kolkata, sometime at the turn of 20th C and where they skilfully utilised the daylight to take indoor photographs.

Among other things Mr.Das, also reminisced how around late thirties the affluent and the enthusiasts would often acquire “Box Cameras worth Rs.3.75/- to Rs.4.50/-”. This little anecdote strikes a chord with the accounts of Mahin of Chokherbali (Tagore), who so discreetly took photographs of Bindoni in languid afternoons. In fact, Sidhartha Ghosh in his book Chobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha (roughly ‘the photographic practices of Bengalis’), Ananada Publishers Pvt.Ltd., Kolkata, 1988, quite interestingly shows how the Tagores and Upendra kishore and Sukumar Ray (besides the others) were deeply fascinated by photography. As matter of fact, certain photographs (of children) taken by the legendary Upendra kishore Ray (Grandfather of Satyajit Ray, who did half –tone blocks professionally), does have an uncanny ‘neo-realist’ look about it! For many such ‘amateurs’ as well as ‘professionals’ photography was considered to be an artistic endeavour in same way they understood and
 defined paintings or more precisely the entire ethos ‘portraits’ (done on canvas with ‘oil’).  

Consequently, as far as the varying cultural practices of Bengal-photography is concerned the shift from the late 19th C photographs of the deceased that had symbolic meanings attached to it (for example, the story of the photograph of Budhadev Basu’s departed mother ‘seated’ beside his father is somewhat well known), to exotic locales and iconic images of revered people of the early 20th C, to eventually the everyday ‘photos’ and working stills/ publicity material of the studio era- narratives are long and engaging. The project hopes to explore some of the narratives. However, that would come later, meanwhile, the scanning of about 400 negatives is done, and as we arrive at the last chapter our task of cataloguing and interrogating the images begin. 

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