At 141 Surendranath Banerjee Road in the New Market area of Dharamtala, in the post-colonial city of Kolkata, stands a dilapidated building named Photographe. Established in 1840 by famous Calcutta lensman William Howard from Britain, the studio was taken over by the British photographer and traveller duo – Samuel Bourne and Charles Shepherd and renamed Bourne & Shepherd in 1866. Unfortunately, after successfully documenting Indian-pictorial history for more than one-hundred-and-seventy-six years continuously, the world’s oldest and longest-running photo studio was shut down in June 2016.
In its glory days, the Bourne & Shepherd Calcutta studio had four corresponding offices in Shimla, Mumbai, London, and Paris, besides numerous affiliates all over the subcontinent. Along with a team of thirty in-house photographers, including Samuel and Charles themselves, the studio thrived, running prestigious official assignments for the British Government and enjoyed the patronage of royal Indian families, upper-class British officials, and high-profile businessmen.
The universe of photography had much evolved since the description of the world’s first concept of a camera in the form of the camera obscura (Latin for dark room) by the Han Chinese philosopher Mozi between 470 to 391 BC. The natural optical phenomenon of projecting an inverted image on a wall in a darkened room by allowing light to enter through a small hole on a screen had come a long way since the eleventh-century designs. By the seventeenth century, with the addition of a lens on the tiny opening of the screen, these large dark rooms were made into small portable camera obscura devices in tents and boxes to assist artists in their drawings.
Much before the invention of the photographic camera, it had been known for hundreds of years that certain substances such as silver salts, darkened when exposed to sunlight. A series of experiments in 1727 by German scientist Johann Heinrich Schulze showed that light alone and not heat or exposure to air led to the darkening of the salts. In 1777, Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele’s discovery of Silver Chloride being especially susceptible to darkening from light exposure and its capacity to be insoluble in ammonia solution was a key breakthrough in photography.
Sometime between 1790 to 1799 Thomas Wedgwood, English photographer and inventor, became the first man to capture permanent pictures on materials coated with a light-sensitive chemical. The first permanent photograph of a camera image, however, was taken in 1825 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor using a sliding wooden box camera made by Charles and Vincent Chevalier in Paris. The photo was made using an 8-hour exposure on pewter coated with bitumen. Niépce called his process Heliography.
Then in 1839, Alphonse Giroux, a French art restorer and ébéniste, developed the first photographic camera for commercial manufacture and called it the daguerreotype. Following Giroux other manufacturers quickly produced improved variations. The collodion wet plate process gradually replaced the daguerreotype during the 1850s. Finally, in 1855, photographic film was pioneered by George Eastman, an American entrepreneur and founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, when he started manufacturing paper film before switching to celluloid in 1889.
The art created by Bourne & Shephard, in the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century was, however, in a class of its own. It could be referred to as the golden era of photography. Frames captured by the duo ranging from the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas to the bustling banks of Varanasi to the royal weddings in the princely states to the portraits of the Tagore family to iconic political events are immortalised treasures of the first-ever Indian photographic history.
Today it’s perhaps impossible for one to even imagine travelling with forty-two coolies carrying darkroom equipment, chemicals and glass negatives, giant wooden bellow cameras and tents for photography. Well, that’s how it was done in the studio’s glory days. Bourne sold his shares to the business and returned to England in 1870. Following him, Collin Murray took over, continuing with Charles Shepherd. Then in 1879, Charles also left and returned to Great Britain.
After 1911 the studio changed hands so many times that it became impossible to track all the owners. Arthur Musselwhite was the last European owner, who took over the studio in 1930. Musselwhite auctioned the studio to its last owners in 1955.
By 1950 the company had lost most of its thriving business. The departure of the British and the end of the royal era were the main reasons for its demise. The company, however, kept on surviving, operating through its studio in Calcutta city. Finally, in June of 2016, after losing a fourteen-year long legal battle with the Life Insurance Corporation of India, owners of the Photographe building, Bourne & Shepherd, brought down its shutters permanently. “Things are not the same anymore, technology has changed,” were the sad words from Jayant Gandhi, the last and ageing owner of the studio Photographe.
Chitrokoot Chaki stood on the opposite footpath of the Photographe building and stared at the bygone studio without winking. The teeming hordes of pedestrians elbowing and pushing everyone around this bustling part of the city did not bother the photographer. A loose-fitting shabby bush shirt atop a pair of dirty brown corduroy trousers and blue-n-white Hawaiian rubber slippers clearly indicated that the man in his mid-fifties was not an aspiring member of the society.
He clenched in his hands a worn-out brown leather bag slinging across his shoulders. The way he held the satchel close to his chest indicated that whatever was in it had to be very dear to him. He did not care when someone pushed him on the busy footpath. He did not care as long as no one touched the bag cradled in his bosom.
Chitrokoot looked sadly at the dilapidated building, which once stood at the helm of the world of photography. He felt miserable thinking how the state Government was unable to hold on to this priceless piece of history. He thought how unfortunate the people of Bengal were to lose this opportunity to turn the building into a world-class museum of photographic history. Bengal had lost a great potential tourist attraction while Delhi had just set up the world’s largest museum of photography.
Thirty-five years ago in 1983, when he was twenty, Chitrokoot had got his first job at the Photographe building. Not as a photographer but as a peon to run errands and keep the place clean. Soon everyone at the studio realised that the peon had a great eye for photography. One of the leading photographers, Shorkar da (big brother) took a special liking to Young Chitrokoot and started teaching him the art of film photography. Gradually his dedication and hard work paid, and in just five years, Chitrokoot rose to become a photographer of the Bourne and Shepherd studio at the Photographe building.
Eight years before Chitrokoot came to the Bourne and Shepherd studio, the foundations of the demise of his would-be career as a film photographer were already being laid down in New York’s Rochester city. There, in 1975 Steve Sasson, an engineer at the Eastman Kodak Company, invented the first-ever digital camera using parts and leftovers around the Kodak factory. The breadbox size camera took twenty-three seconds to capture a single black and white 0.01-megapixel image saved on a cassette tape. It was surely the beginning of a new era in photography.
When Chitrokoot had finally become a photographer in 1988, it was another step in the dusk of the golden era of film photography. In the same year, the Fuji Photo Film Co., Ltd. unveiled the world’s first true digital camera, the Fujix DS-1P with a 2 MB SRAM memory card of five to ten photo capacity, at the Photokina trade show in Köln Germany. By this time, the Bourne and Shepherd was already a struggling enterprise, and there were clear signs that the studio would not perhaps survive in the twenty-first century.
The next three years was a great learning experience for Chitrokoot, as he travelled across the country taking many photographs on official assignments along with Shorkar’da. Then in 1991 as Kodak created and unveiled to the world the first-ever digital SLR camera, a disastrous fire broke out in the Bourne and Shepherd Photographe building.
The devastating fire destroyed most of the studio’s archive of negatives, including the 22,000 negatives that Bourne bequeathed to the studio before he sold out and returned to England in 1870. It was one of the greatest losses in the world of photography. After that, the studio could never really regain any of its past glory.
The shock was too much for Chitrokoot’s mentor Shorkar’da and the unknown stalwart of photography passed away in a sudden stroke without the world really missing him. On his deathbed, the old lensman had called Chitrokoot to his home and gifted the lad his most prized 1955 Leica M3. The priceless camera had an undeveloped roll of thirty-six film still inserted in it. Shorkar’da had taken thirty-five shots with it and one more picture could still be clicked before developing the film.
“Chitro, this camera perhaps contains my life’s best work. Thirty-five of the best and most eventful photos that I have perhaps ever taken are captured on the undeveloped film still inside this M3. I always wanted the thirty sixth or the last click to be the best. Unfortunately, I could never find another place or event to my liking, which I could capture with my last click on the film. I want you to take the last click and then develop the film and use the photos as you wish. Of course, the camera is yours to click many more masterpieces,” saying this Shorkar’da went into an eternal sleep.
Eleven years after the fire, in 2002 the studio faced a lawsuit by LIC, the legal owners of the building. Then after fourteen years of legal battle, the studio drew its final curtain in 2016. Now in 2018, twenty-seven years had passed since the dreadful fire. Chitrokoot had been unable to make a promising career in photography. Occasionally Clicking photos at budget weddings and getting solitary assignments once in a while, he somehow managed to sustain himself.
Now the Leica M3 was a story in itself. It is considered by many to be one of the best cameras ever built. When Leica advertised the M3 as a “lifetime investment in perfect photography,” they did not realise how true a statement it would be. As most of the M3s sold today belonged to people who have left this world, the cameras outlive their first mortal owners standing true to their original advertising.
In fully working condition, fitted with a 50mm f/0.95 NOCTILUX-M lens, Chitrokoot’s M3 was a rare, priceless and highly sought after iconic photographic equipment. That was the reason he perhaps clenched onto the leather satchel. In the bag, he carried his treasured M3.
Chitrokoot had two other cameras, with which he earned a living, but they would not fetch a dime if sold in today’s world of digital photography. His M3 was however a different story. Basant Tripathy the owner of a booming modern-day photo studio and store in the same area of the Photographe building for long had wanted to buy Chitrokoot’s M3.
Tripathy was not a photographer but was a hell of a businessman. He knew the camera’s monetary worth and though he did not want it for money, he simply wanted to have it showcased in his store as a central display. He had earned a name in the photography business but yearned true respect, which he somehow thought the M3 would get him.
While many studios including the mighty Bourne & Shepherd dwindled and died, Tripathy had managed to turn his small shop into a happening store for modern photographers. He had known Chitrokoot for many years and always wanted to acquire the M3. For this, the businessman kept on increasing his offer every time he met the melancholy photographer. Chitrokoot had always refused till now. Today he had a reason to perhaps say goodbye to the most beloved thing that he possessed.
Looking at the skeletal building and feeling the outlines of the M3 with his hand from outside the leather bag, tears rolled down his eyes as he reflected on how much a failure he had been. Was there anything he could do to give some meaning to all this wasted life invested in photography? Could he contribute something to humanity? That was the biggest question in his mind.
Not only had he been an unsuccessful photographer despite having a good eye for photography but had also been unable to honour his mentor’s dying wish. Not only had he failed to let go of the nostalgia of film photography and embrace the digital era but had failed to shoot the thirty sixth or ‘the last click.’
He wondered about the possible thirty-five photos that Shorkar’da had clicked with the M3. He wondered would they be priceless? He also wondered did he really deserve them? They were not yet developed as he was yet to take ‘the last click.’ He had promised his mentor that he would not develop the film before clicking the thirty-sixth film.
He felt miserable thinking that today he was finally about to part with the M3 but after all, it was for a cause nobler than the universe of photography. It was for humanity. The shabby photographer looked around the street and thought he had to take the last click before parting with the camera. He was about to sell the camera but the film in it was his mentor’s legacy. Was he ready to let go of it without taking ‘the last click?’
Forty-eight hours later a doctor walked out of the main operation theatre of a Neurology hospital after conducting a six-hour-long one of a kind brain surgery on a nine-year-old girlchild. The mother of the child burst into tears as the surgeon announced that the operation was a success. She thought her child would die without being operated.
The child’s father had disowned them and said that he had nothing to do with them. The man had an established business, a legitimate family, a wife and two children, whom he would not compromise at any cost. This was an affair outside the marriage, and being the heartless miser that he was, he disowned the affair’s existence. A few days ago, the mother had barged into the man’s shop, screaming out her frustration and begging for him to save their daughter’s life but the man threw her out of the shop without having a second thought about it.
“Who paid for the surgery doctor,” asked the mother in disbelief as for the past many days she had been frantically roaming the city, knocking on doors trying to collect money to save her child’s life. She could not believe that the operation was conducted suddenly.
Without saying much, the doctor handed over a sealed brown envelope to the mother. “The man who paid for your daughter’s surgery, left this envelope for you,” said the doctor and left.
After a while, as emotions settled, still in disbelief the mother gently opened the brown envelope and read from a note rolled on a small cylindrical object. “It is the child’s father, the miser shop-owner who has paid for the surgery. I am just a stranger who happened to be in the father’s shop the day you came to plea to him to save his daughter’s life. I returned a day later and sold my most precious possession, which he had been wanting for so long. That money paid for your child’s surgery. Do not reveal this to him, that’s my request,” were the words written by the unknown stranger on the little parchment.
Tears rolled down the mother’s eyes, as she was unable to comprehend the benevolence of someone she had never met. She wondered why do people do the things they do? Why the father of her child was the way he was and why a stranger behaved in such a way?
To a certain extent, she could understand the reason behind these actions but could not comprehend why had the stranger given her a small roll of old camera film. What was she to do with it? Was it valuable? Had he really given it to her to use in any way? Did he think he did not deserve it? Was it something unfinished, which he simply could no longer keep?
Thinking long about it and unable to make much sense, she placed the film away in a small red velvet jewellery bag and stored it in her steel almirah along with a few gold and silver trinkets that she had been saving for her daughter. She thought, for who knows someone someday may make good use of it, till then it would just have to be in her safekeeping.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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