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A time-lapse portrait of India

An 1860s-era camera shows how high- and low-tech devices keep the country running, sometimes more smoothly than others. Rickshaw ride to the space agency, anyone?

September 02, 2009|Mark Magnier

JAIPUR, INDIA — Tikam Chand wheels up on a rusty bicycle, navigates past a tangle of pedestrians, the odd beggar, a pile of garbage and kiosks selling Coke in battered green bottles, and unties a 50-pound camera that took its first photograph around the time President Lincoln was assassinated.

It's been doing daily duty ever since, much of it on this stretch of sidewalk in front of the maharaja's palace -- used first by Chand's grandfather, and then by his father and now, for the last three decades, by Chand.

"Digital cameras can never give such joy," the 42-year-old photographer explains. "Nor will those new cameras survive getting dropped on the ground all the time."

(Nor are digital cameras susceptible to termites. Fortunately, his camera is made of a type of hardwood that is difficult for insects to penetrate.)

Show the least bit of encouragement and Chand, garbed in Western dress, a large black mustache and an earnest manner, expounds on its personality, history and quirks, the image of the god Krishna he keeps inside the camera to bless his pictures and profits.

The quaint if rather unwieldy anachronism befits a country that seems torn between two centuries. It's a land of engineering graduates, information technology companies and an ambitious space program. They coexist alongside human-powered rickshaws, ancient typewriters that clack outside courthouses for petitioners trying to meet complex case-filing requirements, and government offices where ribbon-bound files, some untouched for decades, are stacked 6 feet high beneath slowly rotating ceiling fans.

It's all a rather charming throwback, unless you're trying to get something done and your file was last seen in 1973.

This is a country whose most famous car, the Ambassador, based on Britain's 1948 Morris Oxford technology, saw few changes over five decades of production, only grudgingly adding power brakes a few years ago, and even then in only a few models.

Nowadays, however, roads are clogged with the gamut of global brands, with India's Tata Motors this year unveiling the Nano, billed as the world's cheapest car at about $2,500.

"That's the contradiction of India," says Pranav N. Desai, a professor and regional editor of the World Review of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development. "From World War II-era Ambassadors to the Tata Nano."

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For Chand, the older the better.

"Computerization has made us lazy," he said. "Clicking pictures used to be an art. Now the thinking has disappeared and all they do is click a mouse."

With a flourish, Chand sets about serving his first customer of the day. Surender Tanwar, 28, a house painter, needs an ID picture for an insurance document. He pays 50 cents for a 1-inch-square black-and-white shot. "The others charge too much," he says, "so I come here often when I need a photo."

Actually, most studios charge less than a dollar for a dozen color shots, but maybe Tanwar hasn't checked this decade. Nor does the phrase "time is money" figure much in Chand's marketing plan, though the nostalgia stirred by seeing his camera at work is -- as the MasterCard ads put it -- priceless.

At one point, Chand says, this box camera was called the "minute camera," perhaps a reference to its then-lightning-fast speed. A Google search of the term doesn't pull up much, but then Google is so tomorrow. Watching Tanwar's photo develop suggests that a more apt name might be the "15-minute camera."

Chand sits Tanwar down on a chair nearly as old as the camera, combs his hair and wipes the sweat off his face. Then he adjusts the camera's focus by sliding the ancient lens back and forth along a track before ducking beneath a large piece of fabric at the back to slide the photo paper behind a glass plate.

Snapping the image involves nothing as humdrum as a button. Instead, Chand scoots around to the front and removes the lens cap for one or two seconds before scooting back under the coverings, sticking his hand in tubes made of a bluejeans leg to shift the paper from developing chemicals into the fixer, then into a plastic bucket to rinse off the chemicals.

If that sounds complicated, you haven't heard the half of it. All this work has produced a negative. He repeats the whole process to produce a positive.

For those interested, he also offers a "deluxe service." By rubbing chemicals on the negative, he can blacken your hair, add a royal mustache or finesse some other human insecurity. Who needs Photoshop?

All the calculations are done by instinct, he says proudly.

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As a satisfied Tanwar heads off, Chand pulls out a grainy black-and-white shot of his grandfather, the patriarch of the photo dynasty, wearing thick, dark-framed glasses and a Punjabi hat that vaguely resembles a fez. Not only did his grandfather start it all, he says, his photo was taken with this very camera.

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