Flashes of uncertainty

photo memories

Flashes of uncertainty

Rain pattered gently on the roof as the wind sighed in the trees while a melancholy afternoon unwound to suit my nostalgic mood soon after the death of my mother. Going through old papers, I saw an album with old black and white pictures. In a trice, I was in a time warp, as I revisited old haunts and saw old faces.

The prints — small rectangles of black and white magic had scenes from daily life, weddings, picnics, beloved dogs and cats, little boys stiff with pride in scout uniform, a foggy garden and a potting shed seen faintly through the mist of time where a formal group gazed glass-eyed into the camera. There were birthday parties, babies in prams, old retainers, drivers and cars, and formal portraits. It all seemed to be so long ago.

A host of other memories sifted like blessings onto my heart as I looked at these old black and white prints. I began to think of my own long romance with photography and the wondrous changes I had seen. Yet the past beckoned.

It beckoned with a magic which was quite different from the magic of technology today. It beckoned with an air of expectancy different from the instant gratification of seeing your photograph in colour in today’s digital age. Its allure lived in the glorious uncertainty of transformation  — of raw film into negative, of negative to print, of print to enlargement and the pulsating excitement of each stage.

I began to relive the excitement of a 10-year-old who was given a brand new Kodak Baby Brownie as a birthday gift. It was an enormous gift for that day and age. Dizzy with excitement, standing on tip toe, I listened intently to a senior salesman at the old G K Vale buildings in Bangalore, as he taught me the basics. I was hooked from day one and never looked back.

Film camera aficionados will remember the variety of choice between Kodak (yellow and black), Agfa’s orange and blue, Ilford’s green, Gaevert and not forgetting Ferrania and Ansco cartons containing films of different speeds. The sheer excitement of slitting open the carton, the amalgam of smells of paper, film and cardboard which almost exploded on opening. Eight or ten shots. That was all that you had on 127 film. Squinting against the light, you’d look at ghost images, wondering whether they were ‘under’ or ‘over’ or too dense.

One recalls the agony between the choices of Promicrol and D76 developers as pundits held forth on FG and EFG — to conjecture on what Ansel Adams or Cartier Bresson used were subjects of lively debate. But there was no instant solution. The surge of excitement started when you opened the envelope. Deliveries were made usually in the evenings and it was quite common to see groups at GK Vale, EGK & GG Welling on South Parade (Now MG Road) and Photo Speed on Brigade Road.

Trembling hands gingerly opened envelopes followed by squeals of delight or sighs of exasperation as the results were seen. Then came the further excitement of choosing a suitable print for an enlargement, cropping, sizing down, experimenting with ratios to suit paper sizes. Should it be 8X6 or 12X15? Should I go for a Kodak paper or for Agfa’s Brovira 117? Glossy or matt? Questions of infinite delight.

Magic in the dark


In the dark room, you could see the magic come alive. The thrill of seeing your image larger, and finally locked down, the paper being brought out of lined packets and centered — all this in the ruddy glow of a safety lamp. Finally, the print itself, limp, awaiting the hot embrace of the drier. The print came up at last to be admired, seen again and framed if it was really good.

The time frame speeds up. The Baby Brownie was deemed fit for babies and I graduated in degrees to basic box cameras like the Gevabox and the Isola, to rangefinders where focusing became more accurate, to a twin lens reflex, and finally to 35mm, which followed through the years.

All along I coasted along with black and white, as colour was still too new and quite unaffordable. Imagine going to the Lal Bagh flower show ablaze with the kaleidoscopic colours of thousands of flowers and looking enviously at some foreigners blazing away with formidable Leicas, Hasselbads and Rolleis.

One could only drool and sigh while reading magazines like Popular Photography, showing a cornucopia of photographic riches, and rail against Nehruvian benevolent socialism which denied us such joys.

The Japanese rescue was at hand. Japanese optics, toughness and superior technology slowly wore away the German advantage. Dave Duncan from Life had captured those unforgettable gritty images of the Korean War not on Leica’s but with a brace of Nikon’s under very trying conditions.

American magazines and snooty distributors like Burleigh Brookes in the States promoted the new Japanese brands. This rubbed off on India where discerning photo buffs avidly followed test reports and photo trends. Slowly, a lot of Japanese brands began to make their mark. Prices became reasonable and as you looked around, finding a German camera became as difficult as looking for a needle in a haystack.

Burst of colour

Then, in one of those strange inexplicable cycles, colour films and colour slide films became available. Now, instead of sending TPs for processing to Australia or America and waiting for months, you got to see your slides in a day or two. I walked endlessly, chasing sunrises and sunsets, flags and processions, flowers and butterflies bringing colour into my life. Life for film-users became increasingly difficult. Roll films vanished.

While black and white sales dwindled, colour films offered dazzling choices. A rash of QSS labs proliferated. Colour albums became ubiquitous in houses, covering weddings and possibly every stage of childhood. Early colour prints showed pink brides, purple grooms, sepia mothers and walnut-faced men surrounded by ghastly children in assorted bilious pinks and greens, most of them red-eyed. Colour delighted Indians despite total colour distortion.

Change was inevitable. The fast talking IT pro conversant with digital technology found digital cameras a breeze. The pro now had all the bells and whistles he wanted and with instant recall to satisfy the most demanding clients. Film was going, going, gone!
Old-time film photographers and slide enthuasists bemoaned the lack of definition but the digital juggernaut rolled on.

Soon even the die-hards had to succumb. So as I hear the death knell of film, my mind goes back to Bangalore long ago when hidden delights in the pictures here beckoned virtually in the heart of the city.

When mild August weather brought up banks of scudding clouds, nimbus and cumulonimbus marching across the skies with delicate cirrus whipped up by winds high up against blue skies without the haze of today’s pollution. When the exuberance of youth thought nothing of cycling miles to capture the texture of light and the serenity of the Roman Catholic cemetery off Hosur Road.

In the print, tranquility seems frozen in time, a bittersweet memory of a vanished era. In the other picture, you cannot imagine that a small lake called Richmond Lake existed behind the Baldwins Girl School, where small boys fished for minnows and intrepid aquarists looked for guppies. The scene has changed with time. Richmond Lake is only a memory overtaken by a hideous gaggle of goods vehicles, autos and food vendors. But the old pictures recall the gracious old Bangalore.

To me, Philip Larkin says it all about old photographs. “In short, a past that no one now can share,/ No matter whose your future, calm and dry/ It holds you like a heaven and you lie/ Unvariably lovely there,/ Smaller and clearer as the years go by./ Unvariably lovely ,smaller and clearer indeed are the faces and places I loved so much long ago/ that they still come to me in the silence of the night and the speaking silence of a dream as the years go by and come back to speak and haunt me in the magic of what I would call photomemories.”             

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