Going analogue in the digital age
In the selfie age, when all it takes is a click to create a picture and seconds for the world to see it, few people remember the age of analogue photography. Rolling up the film inside a camera, leaving it at a photo shop, and the anticipation of savouring the prints one by one is all a memory today.
Surprisingly, analogue photography still has many enthusiasts in Kathmandu, who find the darkroom developing process delightful, or seek out treasure troves of nostalgia in old prints. Some of these old photographs are up at an exhibition by Film Foundry at Siddhartha Art Gallery, Baber Mahal.
“We found that there was not much awareness of analogue. It was like a lost craft. So we gathered analogue enthusiasts to share knowledge about this art form,” says Jagadish Upadhya of Film Foundry.
The exhibition displays black and white works by over 40 artists, including young enthusiasts, veterans and others who have passed away. On the ground floor are nostalgic black and white prints of a bygone Kathmandu. Open spaces, fields and hills stand out, landmarks like Swoyambhu, Boudha and Dharahara gleam instead of being shrouded by the city as they are today. Shreedhar Lal Manandhar, Bakhat Bahadur Chitrakar and others are considered pioneers of Nepali photography.
Photos from the Chitrakar family collection show men and women in traditional costumes, army uniforms and voluminous skirts. In one posed shot, a woman in flowing hair and graceful sari reads a book under a tree, and one wonders who she could be.
“We found the negatives of these images in the wreckage of my sister’s home after the 2015 earthquake,” says Pawan Chitrakar, who provided the images. “Obviously, they are valuable as photographic history and document old lifestyles. But sadly, we don’t exactly know who took them, though we can guess that they were my brother-in-law’s ancestors.”
Ashoke Rana, CEO of Himalayan Bank, inaugurated the exhibit and said there must be treasure troves of negatives and glass plates still hidden in attics. “I have come across many wonderful catalogues and been fascinated. They show us so much about our history, and provide us with a window through time, of days gone by,” Rana said.
A floor up at Siddhartha are works by young artists who have taken up analogue photography in the digital age, experimenting with materials like tea and turmeric to bring out different tones, and printing on Nepali paper for a distinctive feel.
“The purity of their intent struck me,” said Sangeeta Thapa of Siddhartha Art Gallery.
The photographers themselves say they are going back to an earlier technology because it forced them to think before clicking, getting the composition and light right. Today it seems like state-of-the-art equipment is all you need to create good photographs, but these analogue pictures remind us that it is the photographer’s eye that matters most, more than the equipment.
Life in Analogue
Siddhartha Art Gallery
Exposure to early photography, Smriti Basnet
Mobile darkroom, Yantrik
Shreedhar Lal Manandharhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRbpSbUIK-g&feature=youtu.be
At 80, the silver-haired pioneer of photography in Nepal is semi-paralysed and homebound. But it is clear from his photographs that Shreedhar Lal Manandhar (left, above, with his grandson) lived a full and active life. On display at Siddhartha Art Gallery are his photos of many festivals in Kathmandu.
“Back in the days when there were no cameras and I could not afford to import them, I bought everything second-hand, things that tourists left behind,” recalls Manandhar. His first camera was a Bobby Brownie that his father gave him when he was 10. Next, Manandhar acquired an expensive Leica from an expat.
Eventually the photographer acquired many such cameras, and only realised how rare his collection was when a foreigner came into his studio and asked to see a Hasselblad. He told Manandhar he would never get to handle such a camera in his own country.
Manandhar has a collection of over a dozen cameras, including an antique piece made in England in the 1880s, and keeps them securely locked so that moisture does not ruin them.
His iconic photo of Balkrishna Sama is now so ubiquitous that one forgets who took it. Then there are the dreamy pictures of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Nepal in 1961. But the one that seems dearest to Manandhar is the shot of his radiant bride that he took on their wedding day. Even as a bridegroom, he could not resist taking up his camera.
Manandhar refuses to use digital cameras, so he says he cannot compare them to his film equipment, but he speaks happily of the days when every frame was precious: “At King Birendra’s wedding I was sitting with ambassadors but people would not let me rest and dragged me to take photos. Dev Anand was here for the wedding too, and everyone wanted a picture with him. Not just a pose with him, but they wanted pictures of themselves feeding him sweets.”
Sabrina Dangol, 25, doesn’t have a darkroom of her own, but that has not stopped her from shooting on film and processing her own analogue prints, which are now on display at Siddhartha Art Gallery. The freelancer, who uses digital cameras for her professional work, started developing her own photographs after she came across Film Foundry.
“I used to play around with cameras when I was young, and was always curious about the process of developing photographs,” she says. “When I started developing my own photos, I loved figuring out how different chemicals can bring out different tints, and how the type of paper makes a difference to the tone. Besides, holding a physical copy of a photo that you have made yourself is kind of magical.”
Dangol represents a younger generation of photographers who are keeping the spirit of analogue alive in Kathmandu. Film Foundry conducts workshops on creating and curating photographs, provides space for youngsters to satisfy their curiosity and revive a technology considered to be on its way out. They buy chemicals in bulk and make their own mixture for the darkrooms, and experiment with colours, tones, and printing mediums.
“You would think that no one would be interested in this technology today, but that is not correct. We have so many young enthusiasts coming to learn all about analogue,” says Film Foundry’s Jagadish Upadhya.”You don’t waste time in the darkroom, you go there to spend time. Once you start working with analogue cameras, digital feels bland.”