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A place to experience a 150-year-old photo-making technique

Class of Yesterday, a studio space by photographer Sarang Sena is about experiencing wet-plate collodion, a photo making process from the 1850s

A self-portait of Sarang Sena, made in the Ambrotype photographic process
A self-portait of Sarang Sena, made in the Ambrotype photographic process

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It looks like a damaged sheet of film. A hand lays it into a tray, and lights are switched on. The hand then goes on to pour a colourless liquid chemical fixer, made of sodium thiosulphate and distilled, lab grade water, onto this sheet. A picture fades in, slowly. First, a shadowy figure, then sure enough, the eyes of Tara, an indie pup, clearly captured in a moment of curiosity, confusion, and almost-mischief come into view. The little shiny trinket on her collar match the spark in her eyes. It’s a moment of absolute magic.

The short video is on Instagram, and a great introduction to photographer Sarang Sena’s latest project, C(See) Y(Why) Studios, through which he offers portraiture services, made through a photographic process, called collodion “wet-plate”, used in the mid to late-1800s.

The 35-year-old fashion and advertorial photographer started experimenting with a variety of wet-plate photographic processes including tin-type and ambrotype back in 2018. He had used the year as a sabbatical from his commercial assignments, learning these processes and the chemistry it requires, better.

Earlier this year, he launched the ‘Class of Yesterday: C(See) Y(Why) Studio’, a space in Sainik Farms, Delhi to have interested people come in, pose for a one-of-a-kind portrait of themselves, and watch as it is processed to come alive, slowly.

Sena even made images using wet-plate techniques to document the early phase of the covid-19 lockdown. In a photo series called ‘Contributors’, he made portraits of essential service workers like healthcare staff, graveyard caretakers, photojournalists, bus drivers and municipal corporation workers in the capital. 

Some of the subjects in these images look ethereal, almost like otherworldly beings floating in a grainy background of a time in past. Subliminally, it speaks to what isolation made most of us feel, with regard to other people and the physical spaces of the outside world that we inhabited almost unthinkingly even a few days before we couldn’t anymore. ‘Contributors’ was published in Vogue Italia in June 2020.

Since starting his career as a photojournalist 17 years ago, Sena changed tracks early on, to become an independent photographer. His father, he says, was the reason for his initial interest in photography. “I still remember how every summer, he would make us go through slides of photographs. Images from the summer of class 6 are still engraved in memory!” he recalls.

In an interview with Lounge, he talks about the C(See) Y(Why) Studio space, his daily routine here, and how the wet-plate process is always a creative revelation for him. Edited excerpts.

Describe your current studio and/or workspace to us.

Class of Yesterday: CYStudios is a one of a kind space in India, located in Delhi, we specialise in making photographs in silver-on-glass known as Ambrotypes. It’s an intimate space which is extremely functional with lots of natural light and warm interiors. The furniture and the art works are all handcrafted by me, the space has a vintage vibe in a contemporary setup.

Music and curing of the photographs on the work bench
Music and curing of the photographs on the work bench (Sarang Sena)

How did your regular darkroom/workspace evolve for wet-plate processes?

I moved to this place as I was experimenting with chemistry and was facing a steep learning curve — the need for a larger space became imperative. A dedicated room was made into a darkroom for the process, with an adjoining washroom as the chemical laboratory.

As opposed to a regular darkroom, this darkroom doesn’t support a wet area, nor does it consist of an enlarger. All of the chemistry is prepared fresh in the chemical laboratory and brought to the darkroom as and when required. The darkroom in this case is a work area with trays and silver bath, and lots of distilled water along with archival glass sheets used as film surfaces along with various cleaning agents for the glass sheets. Most of the visiting sitters (those who book the space for a portrait) call it the ‘red room’ of the mad scientist!

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

Everyday ritual involves airing the space out, keeping a check on the ambient temperatures and regular maintenance of the chemistry. So, on a regular day you would find me moving between the lab and the darkroom doing a maintenance check.

Tell us about some special, memorable moments with the wet-plate process, or at this space, when photographs come alive.

The portable darkroom box that Sena constructed, with an 8X10 camera
The portable darkroom box that Sena constructed, with an 8X10 camera (Sarang Sena)

Recently, I travelled to Jaisalmer with the goal of making landscape images using a portable darkroom box I had constructed during the lockdown.

I had a limited amount of chemistry with me and the entire journey was a great experience. I had to rework the chemistry since the working temperatures in Jaisalmer were so much higher than in Delhi, where the formulae had been tested. Still managing to troubleshoot, I pulled off a beautiful 8x10 Ambrotype plate. It’s a memory marked on glass-in-silver for eternity. I will treasure this photograph for my lifetime.

Titled Nowhere, the Ambrotype plate Sena shot in the desert of Jaisalmer  
Titled Nowhere, the Ambrotype plate Sena shot in the desert of Jaisalmer   (Sarang Sena)

Is there a dream space/room that you’d like to swap this one for? What would that be?

In the present, I am really happy with the space I am working in. As for the future — I am busy making the photographs in the present, hence can’t say really.

Who are the artists whose work moves and inspires you?

The ‘Dream/Life’ series by photographer Trent Parke (it documents the streets of Sydney over five years, available to view on the website of Magnum Photos). Most of the wet-plate work by (photo-artist) Sally Mann. I also admire (20th Century artist) Francis Bacon’s works, and the words of Charles Bukowski have kept me going. 

Can you share a memory of one of your earliest pictures — how did it come to be, where did you shoot and/or process it?

One of the earliest photographs I made, was in Tamil Nadu in 2004-5, a portrait of a child hugging his mother around the legs, in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Mother to Son
Mother to Son (Sarang Sena)

What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace/desk over the years. Why?

A portrait of my father, which I made in 2006. My father was honoured with the Helen Keller award for his work for the visually impaired and the blind.India Today was doing a feature on him, and since I was at that time employed with the India Today Group I was asked by my editor to do an intimate portrait of him.

On the 1st of December, early in the morning around 5:30am, I woke up to photograph my father. He was soaking up the sun sitting on his rocking chair listening to his audio books. It’s the last photograph I made of him.

Reminiscent - Heirloom
Reminiscent - Heirloom (Sarang Sena)

Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.

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