Hunting for vintage cameras in Jaipur
A late afternoon walk in the old quarters of Jaipur -- chaos, color and crumbling architecture -- was the start of an interesting photographer's quest for me.
It began when I stumbled upon a man in his late 40s clutching a set of old black and white Polaroid pictures.
"Madam, look at my minute camera, one picture please, one minute," he said.
I turned around and there was a tripod-mounted 1860 Carl Zeiss wooden camera staring me in the face. The body of the camera was covered with worn out black leather and set with brass hardware.
Not long ago, there were many street photographers scattered around Jaipur but now Surendar and his brother Tikam Chand are the only ones still working these old box machines.
In fact, their cameras have been doing daily duty for last three decades.
"This camera was bought by my grandfather, and then my father used it and now me and my brother," says Surendar.
As he observes tourists armed with big lenses and cameras passing by, he remarks, "Photography is an art, which is getting lost in this digital madness."
Vintage portrait for a hundred bucks
The old box camera, set against the backdrop of a Rajasthani palace's salmon colored walls, suddenly appears to me like a gateway to a world lost. And the camera, the keeper of all its stories.
Before the advent of metal and plastic cameras, such handmade wooden cameras were used during pre-Independence when photography flourished under the patronage of Jaipur's royal families, who hired photographers to take their portraits.
But today Surendar, a proud owner of five of these box cameras, feels lonely in his profession as most of his friends have sold their cameras.
However the sudden arrival of a tourist bus makes him jump to his feet. He lures a group of middle age French tourists to get a souvenir taken.
As a photographer I can tell you, using these wooden cameras is an art.
Surendar adjusts his camera lens back and forth on an ancient track and then loads the negative paper. He keeps ducking beneath a black cloth to ensure that the frame is up to the mark. Then he moves to the front and artfully removes the lens cover for a fraction of a second to capture the image.
There is an inbuilt black room at the back of the box, where he is busy dipping the photographic paper in fixer and developing chemicals to produce a negative. Then again the whole process is repeated to get a positive.
Most of his clients are either occasional tourists feeling pangs of nostalgia or a local villager in need of a passport photo.
The price of the finished portrait? Rs 100, and for a passport size Rs 30.
A photographer's art and living
The next morning, with a few hints from old Jaipur residents, I moved to Ram Niwas Garden to find more of this dying breed of street photographer.
But they turned out to be people of the past, the only remnant an old backdrop used by a small photography studio.
Raju, the studio owner, now works as a tourist guide by day and wedding photographer by night.
On further investigation it turns out that his father was a street photographer and he still has his wooden camera given to him as an heirloom lying in the store.
"It is so cumbersome to use old cameras and it's a struggle to find fixer and chemicals," moans Raju.
Whereas for the Chand clan the trusty old box seems to be the brothers' most precious possession, as it supports their family of five.
A nearby tea stall owner and friend of Surendar Chand, adds, "He is an institution, something which has not changed. Without fail he turns up every day and sets up his temporary studio here close to Hawa Mahal."
For a small price I purchase a wooden camera from Raju. Already it encourages me to start thinking of photography as more than just the frenzied act of clicking a button.