The ambition of the pilot project EAP 737, funded by the Endangered Archives Programme (British Library- Arcadia), was to explore the feasibility, scope and extent of creating an archive of family portraiture produced in the commercial photo studios of Tamil Nadu, since their appearance in the second half of the 19th century up to the introduction of mechanized processing of negatives and prints in the 1980s.
The project aimed to locate different productions of black and white manually processed studio photography (prints, negatives and glass plates) which are rapidly disappearing either through natural degradation but also often voluntary destruction.
This pilot project was designed around two outcomes. Firstly, and most importantly, a written survey of the early commercial photo studios in 8 target towns, aiming at identifying photographic material to be digitized in the context of a major project. Secondly, a preliminary sample and listing of digitized photographs, negatives and glass plates sourced from three different types of locations: photo studios, private homes and second-hand markets.
The main activity carried out during this pilot project was implementing the survey of photo studios. The team conducted fieldwork in the scheduled 8 target towns (Chennai, Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Karaikudi, Kumbakonam, Madurai, Pondicherry, Tirunelveli), as well as 6 other 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.
This survey has confirmed that these unique photographic productions are severely endangered by chemical, climatic and human factors and their digitization 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.