Preserving the Past

Madras, Tamil Nadu

In a small four-room studio below street level in Chennai, a man works day and night to save India's past. Karthik V. is a commercial photographer by trade who also specializes in the restoration and archiving of historical photographs.

 

About five years ago, Karthik opened Fine Grain Photography and Conservation, a photographic restoration company, to save some of India's most significant historical photographs before deterioration claimed them forever. At this time, photographic conservation is virtually unheard of in India. It isn't profitable, it isn't easy, but if you ask Karthik why he insists on doing the work, he simply replies, "Because it needs to be done."

 

"On a national level, no one knows that something can be done. No one knows that photographic safety is possible. No one knows that these images can be protected," Karthik says.

 

Karthik and his staff work out of a small, 400 square-foot office that consists of a desk and chairs, a printing room, a developing room, and a drying room. The pipes are rusty, the faucet drips, and water damage blankets everything less than a foot off the ground. Because of the temperate climate, much of the year the office and photographs are under threat from heat, humidity, and flood.

 

"Last month we were hit with such force that the water was coming up through the floor, there was rain water coming in under the door, and we had water coming through the roof so we were forced to stop operations immediately," he explains.

 

However, the weather is not the only problem that Karthik and his crew face while trying to preserve the images. Nearly all of the leading suppliers of photographic equipment and materials have pulled out of India, so Karthik and his staff are forced to buy almost all of their supplies from the United States, United Kingdom, or Germany. Since they import their supplies, Fine Grain must also pay the importation fees associated with each product—often costing them more than 100 percent of the actual retail price. In short, they pay more than double for everything. 

 

Still, through all of the hardships Karthik and his staff have endured, they manage to save thousands of historic images each year and produce some of the finest silver prints in the world. Their work is often displayed internationally through traveling exhibitions. 

 

To date, Karthik has sunk more than 2 million rupees (approx. $40,000) in debt trying to save India's photographic history. He now lives in a small three-bedroom home with his wife and two sons. With creditors constantly knocking at his door and too few customers to pay the bills, Karthik's personal security and the security of India's photographic past remain in question.