CHENNAI: Photo printing machines, enlargers archival materials, camera lens, preserved glass plate negatives and restored images boxed in safe containers. These were a few among the many types of equipment that caught our attention at the Inspire Madras studio on East Coast Road. Photo conservationist Karthik V is busy attending to calls and fixing up appointments. A black and white portrait of Ramana Maharshi sits pretty on the wall in the background. This was one of the first hands-on experience of restoring an image by the photo conservationist.
He has been restoring photographs since 1988 and has preserved 28,000 images of different time periods. Photo conservation is the science which defines the age of and damage to photographic objects, and steps that can be taken to arrest the same, recover the originals and to protect them from further damage. Science defines treatment standards and methods for each type of photograph.
In 1998, two people from Sri Ramanasramam Ashram approached him, seeking help to conserve images. It was a new concept and he heard the word conservation for the first time. “Going through the contents of the Ashram’s archives exposed us to films, prints, and photographs of all decades. We realised the mindful and alternative way of working with images beyond the aesthetic, tonality, dimension and material,” says Karthik, who began his career with industrial photography in 1985.
Any effort to conserve an image requires a solid foundation with an accurate analysis of the materials and medium. Physical and chemical property tests are performed. Identification of film material — glass plate wet collodion, glass plate dry silver gelatin, cellulose acetate film, cellulose nitrate film, and polyester film — is important. Karthik takes help from Chemistry professors, chemists, and scientists. Even humidity can harm a photograph. The environmental elements act as a catalyst in the deterioration process. Chemicals are hazardous. Cellulose nitrate is one such explosive material that has led to a fire in many museums. Silverfish is another cause for damage.
If one is interested in this, then they must read upon archival photography, boxing, print-making, binding, interleaving, storing and monitoring. “The Photographic Conservation in America was established in 1924. There are institutes offering a course in the field. In India, we roughly need 10,000 conservationists but there is only a handful. There is no awareness or courses. It’s a common practice
to take a photo, scan it in a computer and preserve as a digital medium. That’s hardly five per cent of the work we do,” he says.
‘Conservation of Photographs’ by Kodak publications is a bible for Karthik. After identifying an image, it goes through three layers of conservation to prevent it from buckling and crinkling. If it’s print, then the material is placed on a conservation mat, interleaved with a tissue and placed in a container box that has to be kept in right temperature conditions. Neem wood is used.
“We need a minimum of 500 images to start a conservation project since it requires trained conservationist and expensive raw materials. It can take four days to recover an image. We’ve our own archival boxes and acid-free boards are sourced from Aurobindo and Gandhi ashram,” explains Karthik, while showing an archival box which takes ten minutes to set up and lasts for 400 years.
Keeping memories alive
“India has a plethora of opportunities with its diverse photographic materials accessible. Photo conservation is a great career option. I’m open to accepting interns. We can also have a three-month educational programme to enthuse and spread awareness among people. We also have exhibitions of rare collections,” he shares.
Karthik’s team has worked with national and international projects. They restored 1,543 glass plate images of pioneering works of Dutch and German photographers of the 19th century. These are funded projects that go on for years of completion. Some of their other works include Kalakshetra. “I’ve interacted with a few conservationists in India. We seek each other’s help in case of queries. If a photograph is taken properly and preserved the right way then there would be no need for a conservationist,” shares Karthik.
Interest and curiosity
One need not necessarily be a photographer to be a photo conservationist. However, a few skills are required. One must have an abiding interest, cultivate scientific bent of line, be non-judgemental, open to analysis, factual, curious, attention to detailing, artistic skills and have good dexterity. An age-old photograph can help in understanding history, study monuments, art decor, architecture and help with urban planning.