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The art of archiving photographs

  • When does a photograph become archival material and why should we invest in archives?
  • Founded in 2006, the Alkazi collection has one of the largest holdings of 19th century photographs in India, collected mostly by its founder Ebrahim Alkazi.

An installation view of ‘Ephemeral’, curated by Rahaab Allana
An installation view of ‘Ephemeral’, curated by Rahaab Allana (Serendipity Arts Festival)

In 1854, John Nicholas Tressider (1819-98), a British civil servant with the Indian Medical Service, was posted to Kanpur, where he went around with a camera, making portraits of his family, colleagues, landlords and other local characters. His amateur interest in photography took a striking turn three years later, when the uprising of 1857 erupted in the city, and Tressider went about documenting its aftermath.

Now part of the Alkazi Collection of Photography in New Delhi, the images Tressider took, along with those by Felice Beato (1832-1909), Dr John Murray (1809-98) and other Europeans, preserve a crucial slice of India’s history beyond textual records. With its mishmash of intimate portraits and scenes of destruction, the Tressider Album (1857-63) remains one of the oldest “photographic diaries" in history. Not only is it a precursor to the proliferation of studio photography and family albums in the decades to come, it also prefigures the evolution of photojournalism as a profession in India.

Founded in 2006, the Alkazi collection has one of the largest holdings of 19th century photographs in India, collected mostly by its founder Ebrahim Alkazi. (Tasveer Arts is the other organization known for working on archival photography in India.) Ranging from work by Raja Deen Dayal (one of India’s earliest professional photographers) to Homai Vyarawalla (the first Indian woman photojournalist), the archive, as its curator Rahaab Allana says, “is an ongoing process" for “there is no limit to what it can be".

An archive is a system of storage and classification, usually with the intention of making it accessible to the public, though it could, just as well, be part of an individual’s personal habit. The word traces its origins to the Greek arkhē (government) and arkheia (public records), but its contemporary usage has come to refer to a wide and eclectic range of materials. From photographs families gather in albums to objects and mementos passed down through generations, an archive can be conceptually fluid and as private or public an enterprise as the archivist likes.

Scholars in the European middle ages trained their minds in the complex art of mnemonics. They honed their skills to build elaborate “memory palaces" inside their minds to sort out and store information efficiently. Then modernity gave us tools and technology to freeze time and preserve it more durably: analogue and digital photography, cellphones, the internet, and social media. The archive is now truly an infinitely elastic concept, more capacious and indestructible than it has ever been.

‘Harijan Girls From Banni’ by Jyoti Bhatt, 1979
‘Harijan Girls From Banni’ by Jyoti Bhatt, 1979 (Serendipity Arts Festival)

While digitization may have opened up the archive to exciting possibilities, the appeal of its physicality remains irresistible. The adventures of an archivist must start with the thrill of locating the sources to procure material from. “In India, old families, especially the erstwhile royalty, and old studios, are often sitting on incredible collections stored wherever they might have room for them—sometimes even stashed away in bedrooms or in cupboards under the stairs," says Nathaniel Gaskell, associate director of the Bengaluru-headquartered Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), speaking about his experience of travelling across the country looking for archival material.

India is a treasure trove for archivists. The tribe of file-pushers, institutionalized by the colonial bureaucratic machinery, persists in contemporary avatars. Stacks of documents gather dust in government offices across the country (the National Archives of India has about 4.5 million files in its holdings, though more still lie in oblivion in distant corners). In 2014, photo artist Dayanita Singh documented shelves of libraries, storerooms and sundry other archives dating from the pre-internet era. The result was the book File Room, which was not only an elegy to the gradual disappearance of paper trails, but also a reflection on the lack of a robust culture of preservation in India. In File Room, Singh also paid homage to her photographer mother Nony Singh, an inveterate hoarder of family photo albums and trunks of files, which were kept stashed under her bed for years.

The subtropical weather conditions, coupled with a general lack of awareness about the value of archiving, have probably led to the destruction of priceless photographs across India. But, increasingly, families and estates of photographers, sometimes the individuals themselves, are gifting entire collections to archives. The 4,000-5,000 photographs that currently exist in the holdings of MAP include work by the Mysuru-based photographer T.S. Satyan, Jyoti Bhatt from Vadodara (whose work is on display at the 2019 India Art Fair), and from the collection of Deepak Puri, former picture editor of the Time-Life News Service’s South Asia bureau, who facilitated the careers of photographers like Raghu Rai, Mark Ribou and Steve McCurry.

Working outside institutions, in 2010, Mumbai-based photographer Anusha Yadav began what remains a uniquely crowd-sourced online archive: the Indian Memory Project (IMP). The images featured on IMP are acquired through public calls on the internet in an attempt to salvage traces of a past pre-dating the advent of the internet in India.

“Anything that was documented yesterday is potentially archival material," Yadav says, “for it may become part of some study of the past eventually." As curator and archivist, she tries to maintain a “neutral ground", not bring her own political and cultural prejudices into the selection. Her criteria for choosing an image, and the story that accompanies it, are usually dictated by two questions: “Does the image have information that carries the essence of the collective?" and “Will it resonate with people who may discover shared or adjacent pasts?" IMP has 188 entries at the moment—the latest is from Joy Bimal Roy, son of the film-maker Bimal Roy, involving a story about his mother Manobina Roy and her identical twin sister, Debalina Mazumdar.

Over the last two decades, photography has become part of the repertoire of galleries and museums across India, though archival holdings are mostly accessed by researchers rather than the general public. The upcoming MAP building in Bengaluru, expected to open towards the end of 2020 to coincide with the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale, intends to put its photographic archives on display for visitors. MAP is also already setting up a conservation laboratory, in association with the Tata Trust, to formulate best practices in storing photographic prints. “We will offer our advice and services to other museums across India to help set up similar labs," Gaskell says.

While the restoration and preservation of prints remain important focus points in India, the boundaries of the archive need to be pushed in original directions too. “We are yet to fully come to grips with the potential for inter-disciplinarity that the archive opens up," Allana says. “Can the material in it be related to the social sciences, other arts, cinema, tabloid, advertising? What’s conceptually missing in our thinking about the archive is a reflection on the kind of cultural artefact a photograph really is."

In the meantime, archivists in the field are continuing to explore new ideas. An ongoing project at MAP, for instance, is collecting photographs taken in small-town studios of women and their parents for the primary purpose of seeking husbands. Through this project, MAP hopes to document the different ways people from the various parts of India dress up for this purpose and look at what that says to us from a social, historical and anthropological perspective.

The next time you scroll through Instagram, don’t let your eyes roll or glaze over. For all you know, these images could spark the imagination of a future archivist.

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