CHENNAI: Twenty-two years ago, Dr AV Arun came across two damaged Yashica TLR cameras at Moore Market. Curious, he checked them out. A night full of research later, he developed a passion like no other. He began collecting cameras. Cut to 2017, he opened Dr Arun’s Photography and Vintage Camera Museum in ECR to display his collection.
“Growing up, I was always interested in photography. After coming across the damaged cameras in 1997, I began collecting more. Some are bought at flea markets abroad or in auctions at a reasonable price. Sometimes, I have had generous donors who’ve given their unused cameras to the museum. For instance, there was an elderly widow who had received a twin-lens camera as a wedding gift from her late husband. In 2009, she gave the camera and told me to preserve it,” he says.
The museum houses more than 1,800 classic, rare cameras from the 19th century onwards. Dr Arun claims that it is the only open photography museum in India. The oldest camera in the museum is an 1870 Meagher film camera made from brass-bound Spanish mahogany wood with dovetail joints and fittings, and leather squared cornered bellows.
It was manufactured in London and is still in pristine condition. “The camera was with an elderly man from Chandigarh whose grandfather was a photographer for the British. My friend who knew about my collections picked up the camera for me. I was not aware of how old the camera was and neither the person who gave it to me knew. It was only after a lot of research that I found out that it was made way back in 1870,” he shares.
Dr Arun is a dentist who also teaches at Saveetha Dental College. For 20 years, he collected the cameras and safely kept them at his house. In 2017, he decided to open the museum to house all his memorabilia, after he received requests from photographers, college professors and students to display the vintage cameras for people to see. “Some of the cameras are rare and I felt that it should be seen by people of all ages. I wanted them to appreciate the collection as it is a depiction of the vast and glorious history of cameras and photography,” he says.
Models in the museum
It took him more than 21 years to accumulate all the cameras, and he continues to add to his collection. Showing us around the museum, where all the cameras are encaged in glass cases, Dr Arun also demonstrated how to take pictures with some of them. One of them was a miniature Steky model 1950 camera made in Japan, which had interchangeable lenses and shutter adjustment. Another one was an 8-feet-long camera named Hunter Penrose process camera made in 1893, claimed to be one among the only two pieces available in the world — the other one is in Australia.
His collection also includes monorail cameras from the 1940s which are rare and were used to take pictures of wide spaces especially in the field of architecture. These cameras were made in Japan and Germany. Graflex Fairchild K-20, an aerial photography camera used during World War II, and The Zenit Fotosniper from the 1960s a sniper type camera said to have been used in Russia during the war, are on display.
Besides the cameras, the walls of the museum lead us on a nostalgic trail with some old photographs of Chennai city. Alongside the cameras, visitors can also learn about the creator of the cameras housed here. One can also get a glimpse of the historic development of photography and various processes involved.
Dr Arun says that it is hard and rare to find vintage cameras in good condition. “If someone comes across a good vintage camera and they are willing to sell, they quote an exorbitant amount. So, I cannot buy a lot of rare cameras. Some dealers buy cameras and sell them abroad, and I have to compete with them. A lot of our country’s precious assets are being sold outside. I hope people will donate their old cameras to the museum and make this national heritage grow,” he says.
Dr Arun tries to balance his dental practice, teaching at the university and spending time with his family. “After practice, I reach home at 10.30 pm, have dinner and rest. Then I start researching on cameras that I am set to acquire, and write up about them, which will go along with the display in the museum,” he says. Working round the clock to add to his collection does not tire this 50-year-old. “Once, I had to go to Puducherry, as an elderly French citizen, who was leaving back to France the next morning, wanted to give me an old camera.
So after practice, I went home for dinner, slept till 3 am and went to meet him. The camera was given to him by a foreign photographer who had visited Puducherry in 1975,” he says, adding that the stories he gets to hear about the cameras keep his passion going. The museum is open on all days, except Tuesdays, from 10 am to 8 pm. Entry fee is Rs 70 for adults and Rs 50 for kids.