Representing Self and Family. Preserving early Tamil studio photography (EAP737)

Aims and objectives

This pilot project will document and preserve Tamil studio photography, and therefore family portraiture, since its appearance in the mid-late 19th century up until the introduction of mechanised developing and printing, which radically transformed the practices and productions of studio photography.

Photography arrived in India in the 1840s, and the first photographic society in South India was created in Madras in 1856. During the early decades of Indian photography, the constraints and costs of acquiring photographic equipment meant that photography was accessible almost exclusively to the colonial administration and Indian elite. However by the 1880s, commercial photography studios had found their way into the bazaars of the Presidency’s medium size towns, and family portraits started to appear inside Tamil households. In South India, prior to the arrival of commercial photography, there existed no local forms of popular portraiture aside from the representations of divinities. The early Tamil commercial studio photographers created their own visual language to represent south India selves and families, combining the uses of props, accessories, backdrops, over-painting, collage, montage.

There is a real urgency in preserving these photographs. Many of the earlier photographs produced by the commercial photo studios are showing signs of deterioration due to some of the chemical processes used for developing and printing during the first decades of photographic productions. The climatic conditions of South India are extremely detrimental for photographic prints and negatives, even for those printed from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. With the advent of mechanised processing and printing followed by the digital revolution in photography, many of the old photo studios have closed down and their archives of glass-plate negatives and film negatives have been destroyed, either through lack of interest or space to conserve them. Families themselves have started discarding the portraits of the older generations. Although important and interesting Indian photo archives exist both in India and abroad, no archive of popular family portraiture has ever been constituted.

A survey report will be produced of the early commercial photo studios in eight target towns and a preliminary sample of photographs, negatives and glass plates will be digitised.


The project team were able to conduct fieldwork in the eight target towns (Chennai, Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Karaikudi, Kumbakonam, Madurai, Pondicherry, Tirunelveli), and were also able to carry out surveys in an additional six towns (Chidambaram, Jayamkundan, Meencuruti, Pollachi, Tindivanam, Villupuram). In each locality, the oldest photo studios where sought out and in total 100 photo studios were approached over the course of the pilot project.

When visiting the studios, the team members interviewed the studio owners on the history of their studios and asked several specific questions on the evolution of the practice of photography. Whenever it was possible, i.e. whenever the owners had kept a photographic collection and allowed our team to see it, the team members have approximately assessed the quantity and the quality of the remaining archival material. In many instances, but not all, the owners of the photo collections have given their consent for a future digitisation of their archives in the context of a major project. Also, family members of studios which have closed down over the last 30 years were also sought out, as some of them still hold the archives of the old family business.

This survey has confirmed that these unique photographic productions are severely endangered by chemical, climatic and human factors and their digitisation is urgent. The team members have noted that in most of the cases, either the owners had destroyed whole collections for lack of interest or lack of space, or the remaining photographic material is in a state of severe degradation due to poor conservation conditions.

The project team were able to digitise a sample of around 1000 photographs from some of the studios surveyed, from private family collections, and from those purchased by the team in local second-hand shops.

Survey report (PDF file 282 KB)

Photographs of the various studios, photographers, equipment and samples (PDF file 6,623 KB)

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: