PORTRAIT DRAVIDA: A Century of Studio Photography Paris, France 2018

PORTRAIT DRAVIDA:  A Century of Studio Photography was organized for the 25th ECSAS Conference (European Association for South Asian Studies)  held from 5 to 30 July 2018 at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, at 54 boulevard Raspail 75006 Paris.  The exhibition was open and free to the public from 5 July – 10 September 2018.

For the first time in Europe, “Portrait Dravida” presented the photographic production of popular photo studios in South India offering the public a glimpse of the variety and the practices, as well as the beauty achieved by  the 600 regional studios .

The S.T.A.R.S Project (Studies in Tamil Studio Photography and Society), a collective of researchers and photographers in collaboration with EXPOSURE (prev. PondyART Foundation) an association based in France and focused on making photography accessible to the public, presented an exhibition developed from the S.T.A.R.S physical and digital archives tracing a century (1880 to 1980) of practices, styles and photographic savoir-faire of public studios of the region.

In this region of the world, the photo studio was the unique point of access to photography for the grand majority of the Indian population. Individuals, families and eventually groups of friends visited studios for portrait sittings.  Portrait Dravida offered a sample of the backdrops, furnishings, and accessories provided to sitters opportunities to create the self image they wanted immortalised.   Standardized photos were introduced for identification and given the size of the population, this became a regular basis of income for the studios.

Studio photographers ventured out of their studios to immortalise individuals on their death beds or funeral ceremonies, but also to offer photo documentation for the public record of public events and as well as crimes and accidents.  Eventually institutions and corporations requested group shots and these were added to the photographer’s regular work schedule.

Further to the subjects of studio photography during the period, the exhibition included a representation of how, through a variety of practices photos done on glass or film could be also be colored or enhanced further by painting and tinting as well as trick photography.

The exhibition, Portrait Dravida, offered along with the images themselves supporting text on technical practices as well as social context collected by researchers on the S.T.A.R.S. team and a summary of how the archive itself was collected and documented from studios across South India.  

The S.T.A.R.S. Project is supported by the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library (Arcadia), the French Institute of Pondicherry, and the Foundation des Sciences du Patrimoine.

The exhibition was presented thanks to the support of ECSAS, CNRS and EHESS.