Starting the project took a bit of perseverance; where would I find the necessary chemicals and paper? I started by asking the local ‘photo shops’, the processing outlets where people take their films to be developed and printed. Photography is a big thing here, mostly for wedding and family pictures, which get digitally enhanced and embellished with fanciful backgrounds – all done on the latest version of Photoshop, by an army of photo artists in the cramped shop labs.
The language barrier was hampering my progress – ‘not possible’, I was told countless times, ‘digital only’! But that’s the only think I was told. In the end, Laxman suggested going to Pondicherry and ask there.
The first thing we did was to have a refreshment in the famous India Coffee House. We made for the only free seats, at a table where a lady sporting jeans – an extroardinary feat in an almost all-sari community – was already sipping a drink. We started a conversation with her above the ambient noise, and it turns out she had been to Chelsea School of Art where she had studied digital art and video…. we’d stumbled one of the very few people in India who practiced it.
Aditi, as she was called, took time to explain to us how video art is not at all understood or appreciated in India, but she belonged to a small group of artists in Cochin who exhibited in a gallery. After our conversation, back to our errand.
After asking in a few shops (‘not possible, digital only!’) we were given the address of a photo equipment supplier, which we found quite easily. The manager had part of what we wanted: good old fashioned photosensitive paper, but only 3 boxes. It was out-of-date, he told us, he’d just skipped the rest of his stock… No one wants it, it’s all digital now. He gave us one box, and told us we could buy the other two after testing this one.
Sun Photo Store in Chennai
Now I needed chemicals. We found a supplier in Chennai, unraveling a long chain of clues… I had gone to the Canon repair centre, miles away in another district of the city, to have my digital camera fixed. Waiting there was a lady who studied photography. She gave us an address, just by our guesthouse. The address no longer existed, but we discovered that our usual hotel was right next to the photography quarter… And so, going round all the shops, we discovered the only 2 retailers still selling paper and chemicals. Right by our usual hotel.
In the Sun Photo Store, the assistant knew exactly what we wanted, and flung a green cardboard box on the counter saying ‘developer’, and a further 3 clear plastic sachets of white powder and crystals. I asked what they were. ‘This what you need’. Start again. ‘What’s this?’
We didn’t manage to find what they were, except the crystal were ‘hypo’. The developer had instructions on the side of the box. We set off round the shops again, trying to find someone who could explain what to do with the contents of the sachets. We were given a phone number to ring, but I didn’t understand a word of what I was told.
Job well done… We have fish curry here
Eventually, a costumer in one of the shops arranged for us to visit his photography school. It was quite far, in a leafy suburb. The school was small, situated in a private house, and modeled on the latest Western design. We were expected, and after waiting for some time, ushered in the director’s office. I placed my sachets on the huge desk, leaving a smear of white powder on the immaculate glass top. ‘Nobody does that anymore, it’s all digital now’, the director said. He seemed reluctant to say anything about the chemicals, except that the crystals were hypo. Eventually we understood that hypo was the fixative, but still no idea about dilution.
Back on the bus. I had all I needed.