Friday, September 18, 2015

Preserving Historical Photographs in India: A Collaborative Approach to Conservation

As early as January 1840, Thacker and Company of Calcutta were importing daguerreotype cameras and advertising them in the daily paper, Friend of India, but the first-known commercial photographer was F. Schranhofer, who had a calotype studio at 2 Kyd Street, Calcutta (1849). In 1850 Augustus G. Roussac opened a daguerreotype studio in Bombay. Two years later, J. B. Newland opened a studio for daguerreotype studio at 6 London Buildings, Calcutta. Though daguerreotype studios persisted as late as 1868, they gave way to calotype establishments in India as everywhere else. Fred Fiebig, who was an experienced lithographer (1847), turned to calotypes and took a large number of studies of Calcutta, Madras, and Ceylon.1

It might seem somewhat incongruous to think of applying the idea of traditional knowledge towards the whole field of photography, and the science and art of its preservation. However, in the day and age of the digital camera, the techniques and processes of darkroom photography are becoming more and more a lost art. Historical processes in photography are even more in the realm of arcane. This poses many challenges to a conservator of photographs, vis materiel and process. Here, I will first expand on the scope of photographic objects that a prospective conservator would have to deal with, and how the idea of traditional knowledge ties in with the practice of photography. After doing so, I will propose methods whereby a greater understanding can be had of photography, and how the practice of not just conservation of photographs, but also the history of the photograph in India can be enriched.

Where photography first emerged is a contentious topic, with supporters on the sides of both England, and France. However, what is not contentious is that the spread of photography to India was not without its complications. The Indian climate was so radically different, and the conditions so much more harsher then that of western Europe that not only the photographer, but the photographic process were affected. Possibly the first photographer in India, John McCosh2 had this to say about photography in India

I would strongly recommend every assistant-surgeon to make himself a master of photography in all its branches, on paper, on plate glass, and on metalic [sic] plates. I have practised it for many years, and know of no extra professional pursuit that will more repay him for all the expense and trouble (and both are very considerable) than this fascinating study ...The camera should be made of good substantial mahogany, clamped with brass, made to stand extremes of heat. The flimsy, folding portable cameras, made light for Indian use, soon become useless … French paper, Canson frères is the best, and does not get damaged by damp so soon as English paper3

The first commercially feasible photographic process that allowed multiple prints was the calotype, of Fox Talbot. The process was based on the idea that sensitised paper could used as negative materiel, and a variant of the same could also be used as a positive printing materiel. While simple in concept, the execution was a lot harder. The calotype process is notably finicky, and requires absolute chemical purity and proper technique. Reading correspondence from the period, one is struck by the necessity for proper paper for the process. Talbot himself preferred to work with paper from Saxe or Rives paper mills. He also suggested that the most optimal paper for the work according to his process was manufactured by Whatman's Turkey Mill establishment.

Today, calotypists still spend most of their time looking for the optimal paper for making negatives. When I started working towards making calotype negatives, I found to my dismay that almost none of the paper found in India was optimal. The presence of alkaline buffers negate most archival papers. Residual bleaching compounds make most commercial paper useless, and the lack of proper quality control make unbuffered rag or Daphne papers a wasteful enterprise. Consensus is that Canson still makes the best paper for calotypes.

Of course, with all methods of working, there was sizeable variations in the techniques used. There were as many variants of the process, as there were practitioners. In England, Talbot's process reigned supreme, whereas across the English Channel, Pelegry's method was more popular, using Whey as a carrier for the photographically active salts. In India, Alexander Greenlaw used his variant of the process, making for easily transportable negatives which could cope with the extremes of temperatures. Down south, Linneaus Tripe had his own variant. All these different processes were then printed on salted paper, or albumenised paper, or platinum/ palladium paper et cetera.

With the coming of wet collodion, there was some measure of uniformity in the process, and a large part of our photographic history is collected in wet collodion negatives. Photos of the Mutiny by Felice Beato, landscape views of Samuel Bourne, and portraits of Lala Deen Dayal are all in wet collodion. Most conservators are already familiar with the primary materiel used in these process. Cellulose Nitrate is dissolved in ether and alcohol and halide salts are dissolved in this solution, making a film, which is coated on a glass sheet. The issue is that the heat affects the drying rate of the plates, making it a tricky operation, and many photographers stuck with calotypes.

Attempts were made to make the wet collodion plates dry down slower, and honey, glycerin, beer, casein, whey, and a multitude of expedients were tried. In my meager research, I have not found mention of any such arcane methods being used in India, however, possibilities still remain. It was not until the coming of mass produced gelatin dry plates that photography was standardised the world over. This leaves us with a window of around 60 years, where variability and lack of standardisation makes for a trying conservation effort.

This very abbreviated history of photographs through process serves to merely illustrate my point that the photograph, and its conservation is not a simplistic matter of working with gelatin prints. I have not even started talking about the esoteric printing processes used in history. Images were made using uranium salts, gum arabic, casein, iron salts, platinum salts, et cetera. However, the majority of the photographic firmament in India is unaware of this variety of techniques. The few people who do practice these processes do them just like craftsmen do, working in obscurity and in small numbers.
I posit that the methodology of working in historical photographic processes is analogous to that of a dying art form, and as an extension, practitioners are reserves of knowledge that is specialised, and restricted to them. What I want to say is that people still using these processes to make photographs are reservoirs of traditional knowledge, and it is high time that we as conservators use this valuable resource to help us do our work better.

This interaction between the photographer and the conservator is doubly necessary in India, where so much remains to be known about the history of photography. A collaborative effort between the conservator and the photographer can yield not only to better understanding on part of the conservator, but greater insight into the technical art history of photographs. I recollect the first time I found out that many a time, while working on Indian Miniatures, conservators working on the wasli would find bills and ledgers on the interior sheets. While those scraps were a cost saving expedient for the maker of the wasli, for the conservator and the art historian, they are a valuable window into the world where the painting was made. I can only wonder what could emerge with conservators working on photographs. With an entire scientific arsenal at our disposal, we as conservators can make new inroads into the study of photographs. Using XRF and Raman spectroscopy to accurately trace the maker of anonymous photographs by process variation, identifying matériels, adding provenance to photos without any history, all these things are in the realm of possible.

For the longest time, a question troubled me. Why would calotypists import paper from Europe, at excessive cost, when paper making was firmly established in India? Why did Greenlaw not use paper from Sialkot, or Srinagar? Why didn't Samuel Bourne not print on Daphne paper from Nepal? Or did anonymous, and impecunious photographers use the ingenious paper for their work? Working with conservators and art historians, we can all try and answer questions like this, rather then relegating them to the mind of an itinerant graduate student. Would we find parallels between the photographic industry and the miniature painting schools in India? Was there exchange of information there? Answers to questions like these would make for greater knowledge in the history of arts in India, and the amateur art historian and photographer in me very excited.

The question now arises, that how can we go forward with this greater engagement? I propose that the work in this direction be methodical and following precepts set forth by folklorists, and ethnologists. For those working in the field of historical photography, it is common knowledge that written materiel and patents are essentially useless for learning the process. The patent applicants would remove important parts of the technique, or obfuscate, to detract unscrupulous photographers willing to steal techniques.

However, the first part of the study of historical photographs should be a thorough literature review. Thankfully, most of the photographic literature is out of copyright and freely available online, for the benefit of antiquarians and researchers. Reading multiple accounts at one's leisure, a conservator can piece together the rudiments of the process across varying differing accounts.

The second step is recording the processes of contemporary workers. The methodology and the stories of the workers are not only a part of the intangible heritage of the photographic trade, but also a valuable resource for conservators, providing insights into the minutiae of the various processes. An oral history, or a video recording would not only suffice, but would also leave valuable materiel for the coming generations, so the knowledge of these processes does not die out.
As a side note, This is especially necessary in these troubled times when digital photography has completely uprooted film photography, and relegated its knowledge to nostalgic photographers and people with interest in the science behind photography.

Thirdly, collaborative workshops should be held, where the conservators themselves learn how the processes work. This hands on experience is valuable for the conservator, not only because handling the materials is the best way to understand how the object is made, but because it gives the conservator the ability to stand in the feet of the original maker of the object. Once the conservator actually makes an image, short cuts and areas where errors can emerge become readily evident. These insights can inform the procedure of preserving and extending the lifetime of the object.

Finally, funding should be allocated for residencies in photographic techniques, where conservators and materiel scientists can study the processes at length. The Andrew W. Mellon foundation had a long running project, where they would give grants to photograph conservators to spend extended periods in the George Eastman House in Rochester, working with historical processes. The research was subsequently published online for free, for the benefit of conservators and practitioners. A similar project here would make for considerable progress in the still nascent field of conservation of photographic materials in India.

This summer, I spent my time looking through old trucks and cupboards across Delhi, looking for old photographs and negatives. My findings were astounding. There is an entire folk archive of the Indian life, residing in shoe-boxes and under beds in this country. The photograph is the most democratic of art forms. Eastman Kodak's motto of “You press the button, and We do the rest” comes to mind. Everyone has had their photos taken, and there are millions of photos, printed on fading colour paper, or decaying negatives, of trips, theater shows, birthdays, weddings, and each instance of life as we know it. The onus is on us as conservators to ensure that these valuable documents do not disappear.

At this juncture, I do have to say that I apologise for not giving any concrete information on how to work on old negatives or prints. This is not a technical paper, but more of a call to arms for us as heritage preservationists, to also work on preserving an important aspect of our history, that until now has been relegated to the sidelines of preservation departments.
1 Thomas, G. "The First Four Decades of Photography in India." History Of Photography 3.3 (1979): 215-26.
2 Again, as with most photographic minutiae, there is considerable conflict on this topic. Dr A. Toussiant is of the view that a Frenchman Jules Leger took the first photograph in India, en route to establishing a Photographic studio in 1945. The topic is fraught be debates based not on factual accuracy, but national pride.
3Desmond, R. "19th Century Indian Photographers in India." History Of Photography 1.4 (1977): 313-17.