Personal Essay

Photo by Vivek Muthuramalingam

The Slow Pleasures of Analog

In March 2013, within a few days of arriving in Goa, I stumbled upon an old, traditional bakery in a corner of Calangute that produced the Goan staple bread, poee. I spent the following nights in the heat of the bakery, talking to the poders (bakers), sharing chai with them, and photographing activity around the ovens and places they rested in between shifts. I even followed a few of them while they went about delivering the poees.

In the mornings, I returned to the darkroom to ponder how I could use my chosen medium of printing—salted paper prints—to bring in the element of Goa into my work.

Salted-paper prints of the poders (bakers) and the bakery in Calangute where they worked tirelessly making poees through day and night. One of the ingredients for making the print was seawater, sourced from beaches close-by. Photos by Vivek Muthuramalingam.

I was one among four artists invited that year for a two-month long ALTlab photography residency hosted in a family estate in Dongorpur in north Goa. A guest house had been repurposed by the Goa Centre for Alternative Photography (Goa-CAP) to accommodate a lounge with cane furniture, a library of photo books and cyclostyled manuals, a nook for an ageing desktop computer tethered to a scanner, a verandah with red oxide flooring, and a photographic darkroom of a very special kind.

The program’s intention was to rekindle and foster the learning of analog photography—a term used for all the chemical processes to capture an image, typically on paper, film, or a hard surface—and encourage contemporary artists to adopt them into their practice.

Due to the resounding popularity of digital photography among the masses, many of the analog processes have been forgotten, and pushed to the brink of extinction. While they are unique and have their idiosyncrasies, analog processes have celebrated the diversity in photography, allowing the artist a variety of variables to play around with.

They require skill and practice, and hold a place akin to handlooms in the world of textiles.

At Baga beach in Goa, I collected sea water and diluted the concentration of sodium chloride (one of the main ingredients of the process) to the prescribed two per cent with which I could then make prints of the photographs I had taken at the bakery. The real beauty of the process was, however, a pleasant surprise—the organic substances that came along with the sea water, like plankton and algae, imparted its own tonality and hue to the print. So, prints made with water collected from different beaches in Goa looked delightfully different from each other. And, this was a great excuse to go beach hopping every now and then!

Krishanu Chatterjee’s commentary on the state of the fishing industry in which big trawlers are taking away the livelihood of small, traditional fishing communities, is portrayed through a series of salted-paper prints.

The darkroom that formed the hearth of the program was designed and prepped for all things analog—more specifically, historic and alternative processes of photographic printing. Many of these processes had been devised during the dawn of photography, the mid and late 1800s—from the simple blueprints or cyanotypes that use iron salts, to the more skill-intensive, wet-plate collodion technique through which an image is directly captured on a piece of glass, or polished metal.

While these might sound rather niche and experimental in nature, they are, in fact, the stepping stones to the modern photographic prints. The silver-gelatin prints—the glossy black-and-white photographs often seen framed in our parents’ and grandparents’ homes, made with startling clarity and wide tonal range, and most likely shot in a studio with a certain rigour and technical expertise—owe their existence to these early photographic processes.

Although I began my foray into photography in the late 1990s with a film camera, I had embraced digital with élan. My then-clients and editors demanded that I make the shift, and it made economic sense too: I was no longer restricted to just four rolls of film to finish a three-day assignment. In 2006, with my first digital camera, a Canon 30D DSLR (a generous gift from my brother Lokesh) that shot a magnanimous eight megapixels, I began my humble stint into digital photography! For comparison, today’s phone cameras shoot with much higher resolution.

While it was impossible to ignore a digital ecosystem’s convenience, spontaneity, and seeming limitlessness, there was something amiss that I couldn’t then put a finger on. The joy of photography was beginning to fade away in the endless space of memory cards and hard drives, or lasted only a few fleeting moments on flickering monitors. I realised that the act of making pictures no longer felt nourishing, and picking up the camera did not inject me with the same excitement that I had experienced with my analog cameras. I even began to doubt my choice of pursuing photography as a career.

With the intent to share what they create in Kanike’s dark room with a larger audience, the studio put out a request via social media, asking people to share their mailing addresses. Over 75 cyanotype postcards were sent out free of cost to the respondents.

At the GoaCAP residency, it wasn’t all about getting our hands dirty and spending long hours in the confines of the darkroom perfecting our techniques.

It was also about discovering the landscape and culture of Goa through long walks, visiting mining towns, writing haikus, drinking endless Kings beers, and eventually finding an appropriate medium to express how we felt.

It was a deeply personal exploration of Goa beyond its touristy beaches, and I loved the challenge it offered.

After the Goa residency, I made truce with photography, taking comfort in the fact that I can always slip back into the world of analog when I desired. Photography was no longer limited to just black and white, and colour, as we were made to believe, but in fact is a multiplicity of colours, tones, textures, and surfaces, that could all be made by hand.

Personally, it was about slowing down, and making time for rumination as I went about coating the sensitizer over deckle-edged papers, and making myself a cup of tea while I waited for them to dry. I could choose cyanotypes if my theme dealt with memory, or perhaps, loss. Salt prints or Vandyke Browns, if I felt ‘sepia’, and wanted to bring the textures out. Wet plates, to make timeless portraits that transported me to another world. It was a liberating thought, and I returned to taking pictures well aware that the journey of a photograph is much longer, and more rewarding than a print spewed out of a machine.

Salted paper print of writer and poet Jeet Thayil's portrait, made on handmade paper from Pondicherry.

From a series of prints made by Vivek Muthuramalingam as part of the photographic documentation for Biome Environmental Solutions, a Bengaluru-based design firm with a focus on sustainable architecture, ecology and water.

While at GoaCAP, I had been influenced by the artist and printmaker Arpan Mukherjee, who mentored us for a short while. We stayed in touch sporadically, but when he announced the setting up of a studio called Goppo in Santiniketan, I knew that it was time to renew my vows with analog.

I was so taken by the quietude of Santiniketan, its omnipresent modesty and the slow pace of life, that I was actually tempted to move there! In between the steady flow of chai at Goppo and long bicycle rides, I learnt how to make surreal-looking prints on glass using a large format camera—a technique called ambrotype. It comes from the Greek word ‘Ambros’, which means eternity. The prints that are directly made on a sensitised piece of glass, with a large-format camera, show no sign degradation or fading with age.

In 2019, after I had returned from another art residency in Munich, I finally found the courage and confidence to set up a dark room of my own.  In November that year, artist Indu Antony and I rented out an apartment in Cooke Town, Bengaluru, turning one of its bathrooms into a darkroom. Aparna Nori and Krishanu Chatterjee, two lens-based artists, joined us soon after, to form a loose collective. We called it ‘Kanike’, meaning ‘gift’ in Kannada—it was a much deserved gift that we gave ourselves.

The darkroom at Kānike, a studio for practise of contemporary art in Bengaluru.

Pages from the 'Jolly Bird', a book that was collectively produced at Kānike during the covid-19 pandemic.

Just a few months after Kānike was founded, the world was hurled into a pandemic. While the collective came together based on intellectual and artistic interests, in the ensuing period of uncertainty, the space transformed itself into an island of comfort for us. During the following months, we knew it was necessary to document the strange times we were going through. We wrote, made images and drawings, sewed, and all of this culminated into a beautiful handmade, hand-bound artist book.

The pandemic also reminded us of the importance of human touch and its effect on our mental health. The darkroom helped us appreciate tactility, and kept our hands occupied—whether it was mixing chemistries, brushing the sensitizer solution over surfaces, using papers of different textures, or washing the prints under running water. It was extremely therapeutic, and so, every morning, we actually looked forward to working in the darkroom, and exchanging notes with colleagues.

Indu Antony's salted-paper portraits of anonymous women are made from photographs that she randomly found, picked up from street corners where they were abandoned, or from discarded heirlooms.

Along the edges of these photographs, Indu Antony weaves her own hair and over a period of time, the print disappears to leave behind only her hair. "The strands serve as an organic frame that, as the print becomes less and less visible, will ultimately hold a void but itself will persist as the living residue of each work, as a form of presence purely dedicated to the inscription of absence, and as a witness to/testimonial of our existential fragility."

At Kānike, we believe that retracing the steps to a more diverse photographic culture, and celebrating the inevitable variances of handmade work enriches our artistic journey. It allows us a much needed plurality with which our work can be expressed in a more individualistic and broadening manner. As a studio, we are also aware of the imminent threat of photography being homogenised. So, we regularly invite diverse practitioners to try their hand in our darkroom: to enable them to understand what photography used to be, and what it can be.

As for me, the studio and the darkroom in particular has been a place I return to, in order to detox myself regularly from the digital realm that consumes me otherwise. And, to pay homage to the ancestors of photography without whose efforts the joys of the medium wouldn’t have been possible today.

About the author

Vivek Muthuramalingam is a Bengaluru-based visual storyteller using the medium of photography, writing, and communication design. He studied fine-art at the Ken School of Art, and has a degree in medicine from Kolar. Vivek is partial to ideas that coax a narrative and inform a deeper connection with the subject. He strives to dedicate his abilities for projects that can illustrate and inform socially relevant, ecologically urgent and culturally important themes. In his writing, he enjoys penning memoirs.

Vivek’s photographs have appeared in The Sunday Guardian, Motherland Magazine, TimeOut, Al Jazeera, Domus India, NatGeo Traveller India, HuffPost India and The Indian Express. His work has been featured in Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, the WHO and UNESCO journals. You can find him @drvivekm on Instagram.