Connecting with historical photographic processes

In the age of digital photography (where analog cameras have largely been pushed to the brink), how would you react if someone told you that it is possible to print photographs from flowers and fruit? That it is not a new trend but practiced since the middle of the 19th century? Well, it was a side of the technique related to photography that I knew nothing about, “alternative photography”.

Although the photography world is still divided over the exact definition of the phrase, according to Wikipedia, “alternative processes are often referred to as historical or moneyless processes. Most of these processes were used by early photographers. Unlike today’s instant photography, the processes require a lot of understanding of chemistry as well as the photosensitivity of different materials, to say the least. These handmade photographs are often unique creations, like that of an artist’s canvas. One of the popular processes of the first era was daguerreotypes. Even the once familiar “blue print” or Cyanotype fell into this category.

It was just after the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and I came across Studio Goppo located in the Tagorian country of Shantiniketan in West Bengal. Owned and directed by Arpan Mukherjee, artist practitioner and art educator at Visva Bharati, and his wife Shreya, an art historian and scholar of the history of Indian photography, the studio is dedicated to the study and practice of alternative photography. The Mukherjees largely work with techniques and practices prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with particular attention to those prevalent between 1850 and 1888.

Arpan and Shreya Mukherjee, founders of Studio Goppo

During their passionate study of the subject and making prints using ancient processes, the duo not only acquired important knowledge about the processes and characters of the material used, but also collected many books and equipment.

While researching the subject, Arpan Mukherjee had visited (he still visits) many old studios and camera shops in Kolkata, Lucknow, Varanasi and other old cities in India. “I even visited old studios and camera shops in small towns like Suri (West Bengal), which often resulted in spectacular finds,” he said. “I was amazed by the knowledge of the ‘jugaad’ of the elderly owners.”

According to Mukherjee, knowing how to prepare the chemicals is very important. With the spread of digital photography, the trade in photographic chemicals is also in decline. Obtaining a chemical ingredient can also be tricky as it may have become obsolete.
“Alternative photography is a highly chemical process,” Mukherjee said. And as parents of two children, they realized it could be dangerous to have the various chemicals lying around in their home studio. So they built a separate space with their own resources and named it Studio Goppo. According to Mukherjee, “Goppo is a Bengali word meaning little stories. In our studio, we want to bring together small stories, ideas, practices and research around the world of photography.

Anxious to share their historical and practical knowledge, the couple decided to organize workshops for people interested in this branch of photography. They have also developed their own hybrid methods, combining old and digital processes.

Building on the response to their workshops with participants from all over India, they introduced private tutorials and artist residency programs. If necessary, tutoring participants are also taken for outdoor training. For example, a wet plate collodion tutorial may take place outdoors where all chemicals, equipment, and a dark tent for imaging must be carried. At the end of a workshop or tutorials, participants have the opportunity to exhibit their photographs. A proud Mukherjee described how many of his students and workshop participants have opened their own studios in different cities.

Studio Goppo will host a series of short group workshops in August this year and is also inviting applications for artist residency and private tutorials for the current year. Workshops will cover gum dichromate color printing, the new cyanotype, gum and vegetable dye printing, and negative collodion and albumen wet plate printing. Course details, fees and dates are available on the website.

Interestingly, Shantiniketan is one of the most scenic corners of India during monsoon. Dark clouds and rain, greenery, soaked red earth, form a painterly scene. Attending the workshop can therefore be a perfect excuse in case you also want to go on vacation.

Michael E. Marquez