Early photographic work of the Hamilton Studios, Bombay [Ben Kyneswood, Sociology]

Early photographic work of the Hamilton Studios, Bombay [Ben Kyneswood, Sociology]

Originally published in British Library Endagered Archives Blog, January 14 2019

Hamilton Photographic Studio is a significant cultural asset for Bombay. It sits in Fort, a beautiful business district in the bustling port area of the city. Amongst the steady thrum and beep of the traffic-choked roads, the studio hides on a tree-lined side street as an oasis of calm. It is not just that photographers and clients create a sense of stillness in the moment of creation; this studio feels more like an art gallery or place of worship. Photographs of significant people line the walls and so visitors immediately commune with a sacred past. The effect is tangible, and on a very hot and busy day in late September 2018, this haven is most welcome.

Image 0 resize

Hamilton Studios was opened by Sir Victor Sassoon in 1928 to provide studio photography to the illustrious people of the day, including the British rulers and the significant Indian families. These include industrialist JRD Tata, and families including the Baldotas, Dubashes, Podars, Khataus, Vinod Khanna, Madhubala, Nutan, Maharani Gayatri Devi, Nadia Hunterwaali, as well a British aristocracy including Lord Bradborne and Lord Willingdon, and many upper-class people serving colonial Britain. When Sassoon left India after partition, the studio’s archive of glass plate negatives sat remaindered in cabinets, seemingly unimportant and unwanted. It was in 1957 when a young Indian photographer called Ranjit Madhavji bought Hamilton Studios and with it, the archive. The family still run the studio today.

The grandeur of the earlier era has been preserved by the Madhavji family. The studio is arranged such that it places the client at the centre of all of what is to come. The parlour, for clients to sit and talk about their portrait, is very comfortable, painted in a serene chalky green paint. The parlour walls host portraits of famous clients, including impressive-looking Maharajas and a portrait of a young Dalai Lama. Sitting there and observing, you would note the exceptional quality of the fixtures, doors and panelling, and how the high ceilings and generous space suggests high class comfort. Usually, sitters have tea and a long conversation to allow the photographer to understand the person more and plan the portrait. Today, this approach is still used.

Image 1

The parlour, with portraits (Photograph © Michael Cutts)

The studio room itself is a windowless, internal room, which retains much of the original equipment. Huge bulbs sit in vast silver pendants, whilst a contraption that looks like a pencil torch for the BFG hangs languidly above the head of the client as a spotlight. Curtains frame the space, a choice of backdrops. A 1928 Kodak 10×8 plate camera as big as a man stares from opposite, ready to be used, whilst smaller digital equipment discreetly lie on a table. Teak and steel filing cabinets, filled with negatives, line up, backs against the walls, as if giving as much floor as possible to the new photograph soon to be shot. It is all quite beautiful. The studio space, sometimes used for fashion shoots as well as portraits, has been assiduously kept for the future by Ajita Madhavji so visitors may better understand and experience another era. The conclusion is that a portrait taken at Hamilton is a treasure.

Image 2

The portrait studio (Photograph © Michael Cutts)

We are here because the studio is threatened from a number of directions. Over the past 90 years, the humidity of Bombay has wreaked havoc on this significant and important archive. Some 600,000 items, including negatives, prints and ephemera are still stored in paper sleeves and wooden cabinets and boxes, the earliest since 1928. The early negatives are of glass and are deteriorating badly, in themselves a story of exposure to unforgiving conditions. Caught between moving the negatives and letting them rest gathering dust, the family have left them alone for fear of damage.

The studio is also threatened by the possible redevelopment of the Ballard Estate. Originally the offices of import and export companies located directly next to Bombay docks, this once imposing estate now sits on valuable land. Redevelopment has been signalled since the 1970s with the calls getting louder as Bombay gets bigger and higher. However, a collective response from many tenants on the estate, led by the Madhavji family over decades, has meant a reaffirmation of tenant rights by the courts. Specifically, the threat that hangs over the photographic studio is that it must continue to operate as a studio and gallery to remain a tenant of the estate. Perhaps understandably, the ubiquity of digital photography has led to a decline in customers, but nonetheless Hamilton has survived, largely due to its reputation and heritage, and the hard work of the family. Right now, the Madhavji family is rethinking the future of the studio in order to maintain its location, relevance and status, with its fantastic archive, charming photographic studio and gallery space all feeding into a new business strategy.

An application for an EAP grant was successful on the basis that an archive from between 1928 and 1947 of approximately 25,000 negatives, prints and ephemera, be digitised and that the early negatives and prints go into new acid-free boxes. The digital archive will be made available online through the British Library on a non-commercial basis and through Hamilton Studios on a commercial basis. Ajita hopes that this project will act as an accelerant for her strategy and breathe new life into the studios. The application was made through Dr. Ben Kyneswood at Coventry University. His work, alongside photographer Jason Scott Tilley of Photo Archive Miners CIC involves helping owners of forgotten and historic archives digitise them in order to tell their story to a new generation. Their work on the Masterji archive from Coventry, UK, was exhibited in Mumbai in 2017 as part of the Focus Mumbai photography exhibition, and through that they came to know Ajita Madhavji and Hamilton Studios.

The archive is known in Indian photographic circles enough for enquiries to purchase some of the collection to have already been made. Ajita has rebutted these, knowing as she puts it, that vultures always circle. What attracted her to the EAP fund was the status of the British Library, that commercial ownership remained with her, and that the project would give her a platform for her strategy whilst making the public, through the Library, aware of Hamilton Studios. The project is designed therefore as a capacity building project where Ben and Jason train not just Ajita and an archivist at the studios, but also interns from two Indian colleges. The interns, from the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad and from the Indian School of Design and Innovation (ISDI) in Bombay, will not just get valuable, paid, experience, but they will also develop a relationship with Hamilton that may last beyond the EAP project and into the next phase of the strategy.

Jason and I arrived at the studios for the first time in late September 2018 for a nine day stay. Our plan was two-fold: firstly, to develop our relationship with Ajita and secure the interns, and second to assess the archive, build the digitisation studio and begin training. The equipment was sourced from Genus IT in the UK, and on their advice included a Canon EOS 5DS and Kaiser copy stand and Pro-lite lightbox for the negatives, and a copy stand, light rig and book holder using as Canon 80D for prints and documents. Canon software is used for tethered live capture, whilst Adobe Lightroom 6 is used to invert the negative and add metadata. PPI is determined by the object size, but a minimum of 300ppi is used a floor: for some glass negatives that measure in 10 inches in size, this still produces a file that is rich in detail (but huge in file size). For smaller negatives measuring 6 x 4, 600ppi produces a file around 60MB in size. Finally, the files are saved to a shared OneDrive as TIFFS, given an EAP1117_[Hamilton catalogue number] file name, with details added to the spreadsheet provided by the British Library. At this point the items are logged onto a spreadsheet issued by the British Library EAP team.

Our first few days were spent carefully understanding the condition of the studios and archive whilst we waited for our equipment to be delivered. The archive itself is spread throughout the studios rather than in a single place, a result of a single room often having its own climate and issues: warm one side, damp another, dry over there, and termites, or white ants, over there. A first impression suggests chaos but this knowing method has saved thousands of negatives. The room designated for the project sits just behind the office and seemed the ideal space: a natural airflow between doors at either end, with ceiling fans above, create a comfortable working space except in the most humid conditions. We surveyed the room already organised by Ajita. Two workstations would face a wall where new electrical points supply cameras and equipment, with a UPS to protect the sensitive equipment from common power surges on the direct current electrical system in India.

Image 3 resize

The office used for digitising the archive

On day two we expected to receive our cargo from our supplier in the UK. These items include the archival boxes, copy stands, book holders and light rigs, including light boxes, which would form the backbone of our project. Unfortunately for us, the Indian Customs decided to investigate the cargo, and on deciding that several items needed prior declaration (they rated the copy stands as meteorological tools because of the metal used, despite our clarifications!) they held the items until an investigation was completed. They also questioned whether Hamilton Studios was the importer, not the University, through me, as a non-national, and therefore liable. This claim had implications for the Studios, who obviously were not in the import/export business, but would face large penalties if it was decided that they were.

The investigation lasted four months and involved conversations with different officials and the appointment of a Clearing Agent in India. Fortunately, Indian Customs eventually released and returned the items to the UK where we are now being permitted to apply to import the items. They still regard the copy stands as meteorological tools because of the metal used, and we are now sure they will not be pursuing Hamilton Studios for illegal importing. The lesson here is to never underestimate a bureaucracy’s ability to make work for itself and to always check and re-check, even when importing with a supplier who regularly supplies to India.

Despite this setback, Jason and I did not lose time whilst in Bombay. Ajita afforded us the great privilege of meeting her now elderly father over an evening meal at her home, a true delight. Ranjit Madhavji is a legend in Indian photographic circles as a recipient of many awards, and deserves international acknowledgment for his achievements. His stories of his upbringing, his life philosophy that led to setting up the studios will be recorded in another blog, but safe to say, it was the most wonderful use of our time. Ajita set about ensuring we were well looked after. Food from the nearby Café Britannia, whose ancient owner proudly met the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on a recent visit, kept us going as we examined the space, chased our equipment and taught Ajita and Gurujit, the lead archivist on this project, how to use the cameras with the software and the British Library’s archiving system. To ensure we could teach, we improvised a lightbox from an old light fitting. The electricians who supplied the new power points installed a square LED light into the light fitting and, after fashioning cardboard to fit the 5 x 7 negatives we were looking at, hey presto, we began to take photographs. This box was not the one we would be using in the future (we hope!) but for teaching Gurujit, who would them teach interns, it was very satisfactory.

Image 4 resize

Ajita is using the Canon MKIV 5DS with a macro lens looking at a negative sitting on the improvised lightbox. The tripod is an original of the studios and dates to the 1940s and is very beautiful.

The initial scoping and test scans and revealed fantastic stories, with data taken from envelopes, which gave us names, dates and addresses, and letters written to the studios requesting further copies. The studios kept correspondence, usefully writing date (including year) received on letters, as in this example below, from Shelia Jepsom, from June 1943.

Image 5 resize

Image 6 resize

Image 7 resize

Shelia K Jepsom, from 1943, requesting copies of her portraits, and especially for the copy in her nurse uniform to be darkened because of the effect of the light processing on the lips!

As we stand now, just into the New Year for 2019, we will be returning to Hamilton Studios in just a few weeks’ time, once the equipment has made it to the studios. We have appointed an importer in India to oversee this and to ensure we do not lose time to investigations again. From then we are ready to begin exploring the wonderful Hamilton Studio archive.

Please follow our work on @photominers on Twitter and check back here for more updates.