Many may have missed the opening of Museo Camera on August 28, 2019, a museum brimming with zeitgeisty objects that bring to life the art and history of photography. Closed during the lockdown, it has opened to minimal footfalls after Covid-proofing itself. Hand-sanitizers are in evidence and physical distancing norms are being subtly monitored.
The museum’s gallery spaces are being used for an exhibition on Lockdown Diaries, which showcases the work of 60 emerging photographers. Quarantined in their private spaces, savouring their solitude, they have collectively documented a rare slice of the challenging times. Many of the streetscapes photographed by them are reminiscent of Robert Adam’s serene and poetic nightscapes.
Others are time-travel into their own personal histories. What one misses are visceral images of life on the margins, of the terrible predicament of tens of thousands of migrant workers trapped in the hunger pandemic. If only they had crawled out of their comfort zones to tell the stories that were waiting to be told.
Museo Camera grew out of a partnership between the India Photo Archive Foundation and the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram, and is based on the personal collection of photographer and visual historian Aditya Arya.
The corporation provided an unused badminton court spread over an area of 18,000 square feet for the venture. Aditya was there day-after-day to oversee the construction process. He worked on a shoe-string budget, read every available book on museum-design and took the help of friends for architectural specifications.
Sitting under a roof that has a steely industrial feel, Museo Camera is the largest not-for-profit photography museum in South Asia. The exhibits are exceptional: more than 2,500 cameras, hundreds of original prints, photographic equipment (and related ephemera) from 1850 to 2020, are assembled in two small gallery spaces.
It is also a world drowning in unrivalled historic images and texts: from daguerreotype images produced on silver-plated copper plates, to print advertisements from the 1870s and 1880s.
History through lenses
Visual stories carry the weight of history. They are our safety net against the fallibility of memory, and bring to life the extraordinariness of both exceptional and the most quotidian of moments. Swiss photographer Walter Bosshard’s 1930 photo-essay of Gandhi’s Dandi March did what reams of typewritten text could not do. Equally engaging were his images of Gandhi shaving with a Gillette razor, of his being amused by a story in the Times of India.
Fifteen years later, American war reporter Margaret Bourke-White photographed a quintessentially Gandhian moment of non-confrontational protest and resistance. The evocative image of Gandhi and his spinning wheel told a story that went far beyond words. Margaret’s photograph was immortalized in a tribute in Life magazine after Gandhi was assassinated. Of no less significance were the photo-essays of Henri Cartier Bresson taken before Gandhi’s assassination.
Aditya Arya’s own museum journey began with the creation of a foundation that highlighted the historical value of photographic archives and collections. The India Photo Archive Foundation has restored the rich visual archive of Kulwant Roy and given it the recognition that it deserves. The collection brings alive the tumultuous years that saw the birth of an independent India: seeking out stories of struggle, angst and grit and also beauty and hope. The genesis of the collection can be traced to mid-1930s Lahore, when the Gopal brothers and their protégé, Kulwant Roy, introduced photojournalism in the Indian sub-continent.
The golden era of photojournalism, which began in 1930, coincided with the publication of magazines like Paris March, Look and Life that recognised the role of photo-essays in transforming the way people perceived reality.
Surrealist photographers used the medium to explore the “worrying strangeness” of the world to the delight of avant-garde publishers, even as the development of portable cameras with faster exposure time, gave war photographers the chance to document stories from the frontline during the tumultuous World War II years, each story bleeding into the other.
The period produced extraordinary visual storytellers like 23-year-old Hungarian photojournalist Robert Capa. Capa worked as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the 1948 Arab-Israel war, using a small 35mm Leica camera to take photographs in the heart of the conflict zones. He joined soldiers in the trenches, remarking, “If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough.” Tragically, he was killed when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam in 1954.
The images that stood the test of time were not only related to war. Capa’s portraits of Picasso and his lover Francoise Gilot at a seaside resort in South of France in the summer of 1948 were a rage as were his images of Picasso playing in the sand with his son Claude, revealing a side of the artist that was rarely seen. Photographers increasingly embraced a genre of documentation that was experiential and interpretative, their lens seeking out human stories shrouded by statistics. The outpouring of images was extraordinary. Using the street as their studio, photographers went about challenging the visual vocabulary of status quo, finding a new assertive political language that disregarded the rules of formal composition.
In 1947, Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Rodger, William Vandivert and Henri Cartier Bresson created Magnum Photos, a photographer-owned cooperative, to feel the zeitgeist of the time, without being beholden to magazine editors. Several of the best politically engaged photojournalists of the day were invited to join Magnum, including Raghu Rai. Between them, they covered the major events of the century and were celebrated for their era-defining images.
Independent of Magnum, several young photographers continued to freeze the decisive, stand-alone moments of history. “Guerrillero Heroico,” the 1960 photograph of Cuba’s revolutionary photojournalist Alberto Korda, canonised Che Guevara and made him the poster boy of revolution. The barbarity of war spelt out in Nick Ut’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack, became an indelible image of Vietnam War – one that led to global outrage.
The hunger pandemic in Sudan in 1993 was exposed to the world by Kevin Carter’s photo of a famine-stricken girl being stalked by a vulture. Carter took his life months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the image, saying that he was haunted by vivid memories of the ravaging famine.
The genocidal impact of methyl isocyanate poisoning in the Bhopal gas tragedy was exposed to the world through the photo-essays of Pablo Bartholomew and Raghu Rai. The soul-stirring image, of the burial of an unknown girl that received the World Press Photo of the Year award, was taken in colour by Bartholomew while Rai settled for a monochrome tone. Together, the images work like Kafka’s description of stories that grieve us deeply, working as an axe for the frozen sea of amnesia.
The camera remains at the frontline of protest and resistance, documenting wars, stories of human rights violations, famines, migrations, and political and social strife. In recent times, Nilufer Demir’s 2015 photograph of a Syrian boy, washed ashore to a coastal town of Turkey after his rubber boat capsized, was one of the most defining images of the Syrian refugee crisis.
It impacted the world much more than the unabated number of body-counts that filled newspaper pages. European governments opened their closed borders to trainloads of Syrians just like they did in 1977. Back then, the photographs of fishing boats packed with South Vietnamese refugees taken by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams facilitated the entry of more than 200,000 refugees in the United States.
The passion for authentic reportage encouraged David Goldblatt, Leonard Freed, Werner Bschof, Peter Magubane, Helen Chadwick, Mari Mahr, Eman Helal, Shirana Shahbazi, Ron Haviv and dozens of other hard-hitters of international photojournalism to fight against unimaginable odds to publish their work. Many faced long prison terms. Jurgen Schadeberg, who played a big role in documenting the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and whose photo-essays of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Ruth First became key symbols of resistance, was frequently arrested.
John Downing, the celebrated Fleet Street photographer made the front page in 1972 when he was thrown into a Kampala jail. Closer home, avant-garde photographer Shahidul Alam who documented the movement for democracy in Bangladesh was arrested in 2018 for exposing the government’s violent response to student protests.
Evolution of cameras
Museo Camera’s visual stories begin in a micro-studio that houses the replica of Camera Obscura, an ancient optical device. Stories of technological breakthroughs that shaped photographic history come alive in the museum, beginning in 1826 when a French scientist named Nicephore Niepce created the first permanent camera photograph. His work was outweighed by another contemporary inventor, Louis Daguerre whose 1837 still life, titled L’ Atelier de I’ artiste is thought to be the first daguerreotype to be produced.
The origin of photography is also associated with the invention of British scientist Henry Fox Talbot. His process, the calotype, was reproducible and became the most widely used technique in the pre-digital era.
Aditya’s search for cameras began in the flea markets of Red Fort and Jama Masjid during his undergraduate days at St Stephen’s College. His obsessive passion took him to scrap dealers, niche auctions, old camera dealers and flea markets in Europe.
The cameras collected by him over the years are the main protagonists of the visual drama on display at Museo Camera: Lubitel cameras, 8 mm movie cameras produced by Zeiss Ikon, FED-the Russian rangefinder, the twin-lens reflex cameras manufactured by Rollei, Yashica and Mamiya, the folding Graflex press cameras used by photo-journalists, the Century Universal large format cameras, Watson’s field cameras, rare aerial cameras used during World War II, Polaroid SX-70 cameras, the $ 1 Brownie cameras, and Vageeswari, an Indian camera that remained a global obsession for four decades. “I often wonder what these cameras have seen: ecocides, genocides, love, compassion…interior monologues…” remarks Aditya.
The museum devotes an entire section on Kodak. Founded in 1888 by George Eastman, the company established an unrivalled monopoly on photographic film. In 1935, Kodak launched the Kodachrome colour film.
The film saw unparalleled creative and commercial success. “I love to take photographs/so mama do not take my Kodachrome away’’, Paul Simon’s lead single from the 1973 studio album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon struck a chord with generations of listeners who were in love with the saturated colours of Kodachrome. The success story ended with the onset of the digital age in the 1990s and the beginning of an era where image-making owes as much to computing as it does to optics.
In today’s digitally mediated world of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, billions of images are uploaded every day, creating parallel and juxtaposing visual stories. The efficiency and alacrity with which images are transmitted, manipulated, stored and retrieved, has transformed everyone who owns an iPhone into a potential citizen-journalist. In a world drowning in the photographic image and its digital doppelganger, the role and agency of the professional photographer has become the subject of polemics and counter- polemics.
Digital vs analogue
Museo Camera engages with the issue of analogue vs digital by retaining its prime focus on analogue processes. It has well-equipped studios for hands-on workshops, seminar rooms, a multimedia resource lab, a library where photography bibliophiles hang out, and a museum store that retails rare photography and art memorabilia. It encourages students to discover the magic of the darkroom, of 35mm films and SLR cameras, and the joy of exposing silver-coated strips of negatives to light. Aditya conducts workshops on vintage techniques such as cyanotype, salt and other print processes from the 19th century, and wet plate photography.
“In addition to specialised workshops and guided museum-walks, we host the most delightful and rigorous talks and events,” Arya said. “But everything came to a standstill during the coronavirus induced closure. We were allowed to reopen in August, but with several restrictions. We are still in the process of re-energising ourselves. It is like coming out after a prolonged period of being on life support.”
Shared memories bring comfort in disquieting times: of rolls of 24 exposures tossed into the travel-bag before a vacation, of the heady delight of putting a new film in the camera, of portraits being clicked by placing the camera on a tripod, of amateur attempts to document the trippy campus counterculture of the 70s.
In today’s hyper-visual era, the post-lockdown museum experience at Museo Camera certainly heightens the nostalgia for grainy analogue images. A smartphone can create an analogue representation of the 1970s film and can even add signifiers of age such as washed-out colours and scratches. But it cannot retrieve the physical and tactile feel of 35mm cameras and black and white or coloured films that are used to tell stories that do not blur the boundaries between truth and post-truth.
Ironically, it needed the existential threat of a rampaging virus to warm many of us to the power of analogue images and their ability to start thought-provoking conversations that could turn the course of publishing history.
Sujata Prasad is a former civil servant, author, art-columnist and an Advisor Museums to the government of India.