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What's the point of a photographic museum?

Museo Camera in Gurugram had barely opened, when covid-19 forced it shut. Now, it’s back up and running, with a renewed sense of purpose

A view of a part of the ticketed gallery at Museo Camera, with the Camera Lucida in the centre.
A view of a part of the ticketed gallery at Museo Camera, with the Camera Lucida in the centre. (Photo courtesy: Aditya Arya/Museo Camera)

This isn’t the first museum or gallery space focussed solely on the photographic arts. But Museo Camera - Centre for Photographic Arts in Gurugram, wants to slow you down, take you back, and remind you what a complex and confounding journey cameras have traversed, before becoming the ubiquitous and taken-for-granted tools they are today.

As soon as you enter, a timeline display takes us through the history of Zeiss’s lenses. The atrium continues with a small chandelier made of Yashica twin-lens cameras. At a far corner is the exterior of an old school Bioscope — look through its peepholes and there’s an iPad inside it playing a Charlie Chaplin.

But it’s the adjoining ground floor gallery, the only ticketed space in the museum, that slows you down even more. It is thick with information. A detailed timeline begins with Louis Daguerre in the late 1700s, and spans across various milestones in photography interwoven with flashpoints in Indian and world history. It is peppered with important figures who catalysed photography’s history, and ends finally with the launch of Instagram in 2010. Once you are up to speed with all of that, there are roughly 3,000 cameras and various equipments on display, starting from the Camera Obscura, a pinhole camera, and a Camera Lucida, to vintage cameras from Kodak and Graflex, ending with those from Pentax, Nikon, and Canon.

Also Read: Show by four new photographers documents diverse worlds

Even for someone interested in the photographic arts, the space might seem overwhelming and quite like a fat textbook. But Museo Camera hasn’t yet had much of a chance with its audiences.

A beginning, interrupted

Owing to growing fears around covid-19 and the uncertainty of a lockdown looming in the horizon, Aditya Arya, the founder director of the space was forced to close within six months of its inauguration on 28th August 2019.

“On the morning of 16th March 2020, we had 630 bookings from schools and colleges and others, for the whole week. By 4:30pm that day, I had to call everyone [to cancel],” he recalls. Now, after a long 18 month hiatus, and just a few months after the harrowing second wave of the pandemic struck Delhi-NCR, Museo Camera is back in business, and just about limping back to normalcy.

The Stereo Kodak Model 1, popular between 1917-1925, is one of the vintage cameras on display at Museo Camera
The Stereo Kodak Model 1, popular between 1917-1925, is one of the vintage cameras on display at Museo Camera (Courtesy: Aditya Arya Archive)

“We now get about a 100 people a day, with about 40-50 visiting the ticketed gallery. But when young people come in here especially, I want take them on this whole journey from silver grains to pixels,” Arya, who has populated the museum section with pieces he’s personally collected over decades, says. The Camera Lucida for example, is something he almost couldn’t afford when he first found it at Portobello Road Market in London. Having separately heard about Arya’s plans for a museum, however, the seller decided to part with it at 1/10th of the price he’d first quoted. Arya’s sole purpose with this 18,000 square foot museum, is “to teach, impart knowledge, and make it a place that’s buzzing.”

A photographer himself, Arya is also the mentee of noted Indian photojournalist Kulwant Roy, and inherited his archives. In the ways in which Arya is using this meticulously set-up camera museum and its gallery spaces, he seems to be driven by an impulse to pay it forward.

For “the 32 GB Generation”

Even as the gallery readies itself to host the first ever retrospective of photographer Avinash Pasricha’s work — now almost 85, Pasricha is a redoubtable name in performing arts photography, having spent his career capturing classical artistes — the walls perpendicular to the gallery display stories and images resulting from a mobile photography workshop that the museum held with 12-18 year old children from villages nearby. “We’ve covered four villages so far — Chakkarpur, Nathupur, and Jharsa nearby, and one more workshop in Mandawa in Rajasthan.”

The visual language is the most popular in the world today, and such efforts will be like teaching them at least the alphabet, Arya says. Seasoned photographer and creative director Rohit Chawla too, echoes his thought about the popularity of visual language.

“Photography is no longer a craft. It’s a language the entire world speaks now. Everybody is a photographer, and given that context, creative photography its increasingly about the staged image where a photographer starts and creates like an artist of yore with an empty canvas. Banal documentation in an increasingly digital world where everybody documents is boring and passe,” Chawla says.

Arya wants to reach out to what he calls “the 32 GB generation — they shoot on a 32 GB card, and they spend more time deleting than creating.” To address this, he says, all prospective photographers need to appreciate how “photography did not just drop from the heavens into a 32GB card, it has a long, mind-boggling history.”

A museum and its community

The phones for Museo Camera’s village workshops came from a walk-in visitor, who happened to be from the marketing division at Apple’s India operations. Arya recalls that the man handed over “a bag with fifteen iPhone 12s and said ‘go ahead with your idea of teaching the art of seeing’,” no contracts or paperwork asked.

Also Read: Apple iPhone 13 brings massive camera upgrade, better display

Other brands that the museum has collaborated with include Fujifilm and Zeiss. On World Photography Day in August, Aman Chotani, a photographer with Zeiss, on a mission to document India’s various tribes and their cultures, had launched the results of this project as a book called The Last Avatar. An eponymous show too, followed at the space.

The Brownie Target Six-20, which was in the market between 1946-1952, on display at the museum
The Brownie Target Six-20, which was in the market between 1946-1952, on display at the museum (Courtesy: Aditya Arya Archive)

The museum is “for people, by people”, Arya says. The public-private partnership that helped build the space too embodies this spirit — the government of Haryana provided them the 18,000 sq. ft. space of prime real estate, in addition to another Rs. 8 crores for infrastructure. Crowdfunding helped with Rs. 3.5 crores, while Arya has contributed his personal collection of 4500 cameras and other vintage photography related equipment like flashes. The reading room too on the first floor, with shelves of photography books, old and new, has been crowdsourced.

Chawla however takes a step back, and sounds a word of caution: "I’m glad there is a photographic museum. The relevance of the past is wonderful to those who haven’t partaken in it themselves . [Spaces like these] are great attempts as long as they don’t become vanity projects.”

Avinash Pasricha: A Retrospective, till 22nd November 2021. 11 am - 7pm. Monday closed. Museo Camera, DLF Phase IV, Sector 28, Gurugram, Haryana 122002.

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