The positives behind negatives

Updated: May 12, 2019, 08:00 IST | Ekta Mohta

In the arteries of Chor Bazaar, Prashant Raghunath first discovered his love for analogue film, then he discovered the 4,000 negatives of an unknown, brilliant Parsi photographer. In a small way, he's trying to popularise both

The positives behind negatives
Analogue film photographer Prashant Raghunath at his homemade film processing lab. Once he buys an enlarger, he’s going to convert one of his bathrooms into a darkroom. Pics/Shadab Khan

Six or seven decades ago, an amateur photographer, armed with a Rolleiflex 6x6, marched through the streets of Bombay, looking for light and looking for life. He found both, captured them, and entrusted the negatives to studios that have since been lost to time: Kanti & Co., on Arthur Bunder Road; Central Camera, on D Naoroji Road; and Spectrum & Tricolor, opposite Strand Cinema. While the prints seem to be lost to time as well, the remains survived: more than 4,000 negatives, still in their original sleeves, with the nom de plume JS Mistry written in cursive on the face.

By some sleight of hand, the negatives landed in the hands of a hawker at Chor Bazaar, and caught the eye of Prashant Raghunath, an analogue film photographer, lugging his own Leica M6. Raghunath bought them, and in his makeshift processing lab at home, has started the process of cleaning, scanning and enlarging them. "I compare Mistry to Vivian Maier," he says. "In the US also, there was a photographer like me, who bought Maier's works at an auction for $5-6. He started developing and scanning the photographs, and then started researching on her. She's world-famous now. Similarly, Mistry should also receive that recognition."

A Rolleiflex 2.8F model, A Leica M6 with a 1950s lens and Bessa 1, a medium-format camera
A Rolleiflex 2.8F model, A Leica M6 with a 1950s lens and Bessa 1, a medium-format camera

Raghunath, 40, is a banker on weekdays, and a camera collector, film processor and photographer on weekends. Originally from Pune, he moved to the city three years ago, and as so often happens with newcomers in Mumbai, was guided to his destined path. "I was roaming around Chor Bazaar and Bora Bazaar, when a street vendor, quite coincidentally, showed me a Mamiya 645 camera. I was hesitant since I didn't know how to use it. Then I returned home and researched on YouTube. After two days, I called him and purchased it." Since his first analogue camera in January 2017, he has acquired more than 25. The irony is, when he was in slow-paced Pune, he used digital, and now that he's here, he's gone analogue.

"Since I've switched to analogue, I've changed a lot from within. Whenever I used to shoot digital, I used to be impulsive. I wouldn't think about the subject. In analogue, I can't review it immediately. So, I am more focused on the composition. I know that this is the moment; if I don't capture it properly, I'll miss it. It's become a type of meditation for me."

In the last two years, Raghunath has collected over 25 analogue film cameras, 4,000 negatives and more than a thousand slides
In the last two years, Raghunath has collected over 25 analogue film cameras, 4,000 negatives and more than a thousand slides

As there aren't second chances in analogue, "I need to interact with people for a good picture. And when you do that, you can create an ethnographic map of Mumbai. Most cabbies are migrants from Jaunpur. Those from Satara are in the painting business. All the tempo owners at Sassoon Dock are from Nagar area. There is an underlying meaning to every crowd. Redevelopment will definitely affect these people."

Before they disappear, before the city goes through another makeover, Raghunath has embarked on a long-term personal project called Changing Landscapes of Mumbai, to capture the here and now. He has started with Chor Bazaar and will soon include the areas affected by the upcoming Coastal Road and Dharavi. "After 10 or 20 years, anyone who researches Chor Bazaar will have this documentation. This will help, both from an urban planning and a cultural point of view." He's shooting on analogue because, "I want this to remain for the next 40-50 years. The negatives I have acquired are from the 1950s.

The first analogue photograph Raghunath captured on his Mamiya 645
The first analogue photograph Raghunath captured on his Mamiya 645

They are still in good condition. On digital, I don't know what I shot 10 years ago and where I've stored it." Seventy years apart, Raghunath is treading the same path as Mistry, in letter and in spirit. "Mistry was a thoughtful photographer. His framing and composition were completely different from what we see in Indian photography. Very clean images, with a lot of negative space. In the contact print, he has meticulously captioned each of the 4,000 photos. So, he must also be working on some photography project. I'll have to do more research on him now."

Since June last year, Raghunath has been processing everything in-house. "When I gave my rolls to a lab — I won't take their name — they messed up one roll, and they lost another one. I thought to myself, 'I'm thinking so much about the frame and composition; what if something happens to it? It's better that I learn myself.' So, I started watching videos on YouTube and attended a few workshops." With a tub, a thermostat, a dark bag, a development tank, chemicals and a scanner, his setup is short of an enlarger to be called a full-fledged darkroom. "The film can be developed in the dark bag, but for printing, you need a safe light, an enlarger and a dedicated room. I'm going to convert one of my washrooms into a darkroom this year. That's the only option in Mumbai."

This DIY attitude is another quality that sets film photographers apart. "Film photographers are more involved in the process of the photography than the output. They are calm and slow in nature. They want to do their own thing and won't run after exhibitions, grants or publicity." And just like that, a clearer picture emerges, as to why the world hasn't heard of JS Mistry yet.

Also read: Tracing the 'Struggle' of emerging actresses from Mumbai's film industry

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