One small history of Indian photography – Part two

(In the first chapter of this blog entry, I introduced Prabhu Photo, a state-of-the-art photo lab in Bangalore, India where I had my E-6 slide film processed for merely a decade. The changing business climate for Prabhu photo is a bellwether for the changing imaging landscape in India.) I was such a regular at Prabhu that I kept my own loupe (magnifier) at the lab and I also had my own set of cotton gloves for handling the film without fingerprints. The young men who worked for Prabhu ended up knowing the drill as well, including knowing not to cut my film and what kind of coffee to bring me half ay through my edits to keep me awake. Those sessions at the light box alternated between exciting and heart-breaking, depending on how well or badly I had done in capturing on film what had been in front of my camera.

Periodically, I would tease Prabhu and ask him which new piece of machinery “I had bought” with all the E-6 slide processing that I did through his lab. I also shared copies of the various magazines that had published the work I had so carefully created and he had equally carefully processed. You can see much of that work on line at:

http://www.davidhwells.com/commercClipsIndia/index.html, http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/pdf/2000/200005.pdf,
http://www.aliciapatterson.org/APF2003/Wells/Wells.html,
http://www.aliciapatterson.org/APF2102/Wells/Wells.html

These days when I see Prabhu, we laugh about those days. Not just for nostalgic reasons, though that is part of it. Slide processing, with its incredibly exacting requirements was a world we both understood and worked comfortably within. For me, it was exhilarating to see my work so soon after I had exposed the film. (Ironically this “system” was anticipating the immediate feedback that comes with digital photography.) For Prabhu it was good to see that all of his investment of time and energy had paid off.

By way of background, Prabhu had earned a Bachelors of Science in agriculture in college. But his first love was photography and so he pursued that love, just like so many photographers have. He made some money early on doing wedding photographs. Then he started pursuing his real love, wildlife photography. After succeeding at that, with honors from British, French, Australian and American photography societies, he started teaching photography in Bangalore. His next step was to build a first rate film-processing lab so the growing photo community in Bangalore had a place to get film developed at the highest standards.

Prabhu was awarded one of the annual Rajyotsava Awards. The awards are conferred by the state of Karnataka (where Bangalore is situated) to celebrate achievements by eminent figures in fields, such as the arts, literature, music, dance, theater, journalism, sports, medicine, education, agriculture, Information Technology and Science. He received that award in 1989, just before the 1991 opening of India’s economy, which spurred so much of that nation’s growth. Prabhu used that same award-wining focus and dedication in E-6 lab, to earn the distinction of being the first Kodak “Q” lab in South Asia. At that time, there were only 150 Kodak “Q” labs in the whole world, with the vast majority being in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Today, of course E-6 processing is a dying art and no one seems to care about Kodak “Q” lab designation. Prabhu now processes E-6 maybe once a month and admits that despite his best efforts he cannot control the quality of the process since running a processing machine just once a month is not conducive to the best quality control. If you Google “Prabhu Photo” you may even find complaints about the inconsistency of his E-6 processing. His current processing is probably not that consistent, due to circumstances beyond his control. But, rest assured that the thousands of rolls of film of mine that he processed over a decade attest to his work ethic.

But, having once been the master of an old and outdated craft is not something you can live on! Astutely, Prabhu saw the end of E-6 coming with the arrival of digital imaging in India. He saw photographers like me using less and less slide film so he knew the end was in sight. Over the last six years, he has shifted his business away from E-6 (and B + W film processing) towards digitally printed color photos. He has invested in computers to run the processors, scanners to enable customers to make new prints from old images and has trained many people to work within his “system.” He brought the same work ethic to this new process.

In talking to him recently it turns out that even he could not keep completely ahead of the changing nature of photographic imaging. Today, the fact that my wife and I are still making and sending actual prints appears to make us “old school.” Apparently Indians are in a headlong rush, like much of the rest of the world, to display their photos on computers, telephones, digital picture frames, etc. Wedding photographers, in India, the U.S. and across the world are increasingly delivering their work as slide shows or movies, never to be actually printed. To a larger degree than Prabhu or most any one anticipated, the market for physical prints is rapidly declining.

I am sure this will sound old-school, but I suspect that collectively we will come to regret this obsession with showing work only digitally, without ever making prints. Of course the print is more physical, more tangible and that is one advantage. Also, digital file formats change rapidly and the day will likely come, sooner than we think, when we will not be able to view many of our digital files. The tragedy then will be that the photo labs of the world, meticulously run by professionals like Prabhu, will no longer likely exist.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is to make sure you archive your digital files in many places and in multiple formats (both the camera maker’s RAW file format and Adobe’s DNG format.) Making two versions of each file increases the likelihood those files will be viewable decades down the road. The real lesson it is to make prints and keep them in an archival storage system, as I do. Those prints, though technologically primitive, will always be “readable” regardless of the technology of the day.

(A post-script: Before leaving India, I spoke to Prabhu about where his business now stood in the wake of the rapid changes in the market for photographic printing. He told me that he was about to get into high-end, large-scale archival ink-jet printing. He said that in Bangalore there is a growing market for those prints, as compared to the declining market for smaller prints destined for photo albums. In my experience, he has the skills required and the work ethic to make a go of it. Always the survivor, I will be checking back in with Prabhu in June, when I next return to India.)

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