The red bulb stays on
The bulb overhead in the room seems to allow more shadows than light. Its dim red glow reveals the essentials—the enlarger standing on a small table, trays containing photograph developers and fixers, a water bed, negatives and printing paper. The shadowy outlines in dark corners hint at the furniture in the room.
Standing under the bulb, and working at the enlarger, the man’s expression is lit up in intense, furrowed concentration. The small room could well represent the inner, private world of printer Bikash Bose. It’s an intensely personal world; gaining admission to it hasn’t been easy as Bose kept trivializing his work (“there is nothing really to see”), as if to stymie access to the room. In this south Kolkata darkroom and in previous ones, he has spent a little under five decades bringing images to life in the washing tray.
It’s also a room that is in denial of the digital age swirling outside. Since 1967, when Bose first started work in a photography studio, he has never worked on anything other than film negatives. He has manually developed and printed only black and white images and never let his craft be blemished by the standardized short cuts offered by the computer and image-making software.
In Kolkata, if the 66-year-old’s profession has stood apart as an anachronism in the face of digital photography’s undaunted run, his work as one of the last remaining black and white printers is balanced precariously between the scarcity of printing materials and the diminishing number of connoisseurs of such work. While his singular devotion to this has somehow helped him survive the vicissitudes of technology, on more than a few occasions when we met, the soft-spoken printer spoke longingly of the time when black and white film photography reigned. During those times, he found little time for small talk, had assistants for help and work continued through night and day at his small residence-studio near Triangular Park.
On one of the days we visited his studio, the Japanese firm Nikon Corp. had just announced the launch of the D5, a DSLR camera which can shoot at a mind-numbing ISO 3.28 million, a development that left the camera community across the world in awe. Impervious to the leap in DSLR technology, Bose was poring over the portrait of an elderly man, gingerly touching up the face with a paintbrush.
The tiny sitting room is bereft of any vibrant colour, its walls and cabinets plastered with black and white photographs shot by the likes of Nemai Ghosh, Sunil. K. Dutt and Bijoy Chowdhury, all of whom are clients of Bose. Remarkable portraits of the late Ravi Shankar, Satyajit Ray and Mother Teresa, printed by Bose, decorate the scene. Piled carelessly in one corner are coffee-table photo books such as Ghosh’s Satyajit Ray And Beyond, Kushal Ray’s Intimacies with essays by Kunal Basu and Thomas Patrick Kiernan’s Calcutta Full Frame, some of the photography projects helped along by the printer’s masterly touch.
In between work, Bose dwells on his early initiation into printing through photography, using century-old plate cameras and the 1901-introduced 120 format film, which preceded 35 mm. He eulogizes the depth of field that the use-and-throw Sylvania and National flashbulbs afforded before the electronic flashbulbs arrived—image-making science that now seems at a medieval remove from current mass-market digital technology.
It was Ghosh—a photographer globally renowned for his body of work on Ray; a photographer-subject association, spanning more than two decades, that led Ray to consider him as a “sort of (James) Boswell working with a camera”—who helped Bose locate the current house and supported him financially in setting up his processing lab. They had formed a “rapport” ever since their first meeting in 1975, says Ghosh, and Bose can inarguably claim printer’s credit for the detail, crispness and tonal balance that one sees in Ghosh’s vast and impressive photographic oeuvre of Ray. Over the years, Bose would go on to repay the financial loan through his work for Ghosh, but he had cemented his reputation as a finicky perfectionist who attracted work from the likes of Ray’s son, film-maker Sandip, and occasional commissions from photographer Raghu Rai and cinematographer Subrata Mitra, renowned the world over for having pioneered the technique of “bounce lighting”, where light is reflected off a surface to produce a milder tone. A clutch of artists such as the late Paritosh Sen, Vivan Sundaram, Chittrovanu Mazumdar, the late Shanu Lahiri and Jogen Chowdhury also sought his services.
Bose has travelled a long distance from his childhood in a refugee camp at Ranaghat in Nadia district. Soon after his family arrived in West Bengal as post-Partition refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Bose lost his father—the tragedy threw the family into the hard labour and rigour of a refugee camp. After he finished high school in Ranaghat, the dire financial situation of his family compelled Bose to take up a job at a photography studio in the town. He joined as a helper and cleaner in the darkroom; in his inexperience, he once drained out expensive chemicals, he laughs. “The first time I saw an image getting processed was mesmeric,” he recalls. “It appeared from nothing, and I was besotted.”
Bose was a fast learner, picking up photography techniques by observing the studio owner. Soon enough, he was shooting passport photographs and weddings. He also shot funerals, a ritualistic tradition of preserving the memory of the deceased. Working for yet another studio, he would often find himself acting as the photographer for the local police station, going to sites of crime and the morgue to photograph victims of homicide, suicide and accidents, as well as those killed during Bengal’s active Naxalite era (from 1967 to the mid-1970s). “The police station covered a huge area, and there was regular flow of work,” says Bose, betraying no sense of irony.
It is Bose’s background as a photographer, Ghosh feels, that came in handy as a printer. “Often, I would wonder why a photo turned out badly, even though I’d given the right exposure, before Bikash would point out some problem with my lens or body,” says the 82-year-old photographer. At his Kalighat Road home, Ghosh is lounging under a giant framed photograph of Ray, printed by Bose. The photo and the printing are both exemplary—the abstraction of the composition heightened by three layers of shadows of Ray in the backdrop; the sheer delight of the framing complemented by the carefully drawn-out layers of tonal gradation. “One of the reasons we could build a rapport is because Bikash could deliver on exactly my vision,” says Ghosh.
That the printer never hankered after money, says Ghosh, shows his devotion to his work—but it also limited his potential. Photographer Swapan Nayak agrees. His recently completed series, Radha: A Love In Eternity, exhibited in August at the Tasveer gallery in Kolkata, was printed by Bose and involved long hours in the darkroom, “dodging and burning”, with “Bose deftly using his fingers, letting them dance around the light to achieve the right tonality”. “He continues to charge a pittance for every print and rarely counts the cash when a payment is made,” says Nayak. “There is not even a signboard outside his studio. He belongs to an old school where work is still considered religion.”