STARS is a multidisciplinary research collective which aims to investigate the history of Tamil studio photography between the 1880s and the 1980s as well as to protect and promote the rich and vulnerable productions photographic productions.

At the heart of the S.T.A.R.S. collective is the creation of the first archive of Tamil commercial studio photography.


The STARS project proposes to contribute to the world history of photography by conducting, for the first time in India, an in depth and multi-disciplinary investigation into the practices, productions, consumption and networks of commercial studios photography between 1880 and 1980 through an experimental collaboration on a unique corpus. A digital archive of 35 000 digitized glass-plates negatives, synthetic negatives and prints and a physical collection of 5 000 prints and negatives were
constituted between 2015 and 2018, with funding from the Endangered Archives Programme (EAPBritish Library/Arcadia) from homes, shops and studios in numerous localities in Tamil Nadu (South India).

Due notably to the restricted nature of the sources available in India, the study of photography has focused on two fields: colonial photography and photography of elites. In the context of the rise of postcolonial studies, most studies on photography in Asia have been attentive to the ways in which colonial governance set up vast campaigns of production of photographic corpuses in order to document their empire. Natural resources, archaeological sites, historical monuments as well as socio-racial categories were the prime targets of the colonial gaze and in this vein much of the
available literature focuses on studying photography as a practice of power and control of colonial administrations over its local subjects (Ryan 1997, Boetsch and Savarese 2000, Pelizarri 2003, Edwards 2013). The Indian elites, namely the numerous royal families, rapidly embraced this new form of representation and the photographs produced in this context have served as sources for studies on the princely courts, the photographic staging of authority and their function in the patronage of the arts and techniques (Sahai and Singh 1996, Carotenuto 2003, Pramod Kumar 2012, Allana 2013).

Consequently, as a handful of researchers have pointed out (Pinney 1997, Allana 2010), examining the relation of the majority of the Indian population to this new technique, which reached India the very year of its ‘invention’ (1840), is next to impossible given the absence of any substantial open access collection or comprehensive archive. However, millions of photographs were produced outside the restricted circles of colonial institutions and Indian courts. Indeed, and in contrast to what occurred in other colonial spaces (Werner 2002), the Indian colonial subjects very quickly embraced the medium and began opening studios, first in the presidencies’ capitals (Madras, Bombay, Calcutta) and from 1880s in smaller towns and cities (Thomas 1979, 1992). Unlike what happened in Europe, the photo studio remained for over a century ‘the dominant institution of popular photography’ (Mahadevan 2013). For the vast majority of the Indian population, the purchase of an individual family camera remained extremely limited until the 1990s, as cameras were not  anufactured in India and were subject to heavy importation taxes. The significance of the photo studio in the landscape of Indian photography is even more far reaching, as most public and private institutions also relied on it for their photographic needs (police, judiciary, press, schools, etc.). Thus the collection we built up documents the appropriation, production and consumption of photography by the emerging middle-classes in South India over a century (1980-1880). Beyond their semantic these images also allow us to address yet another important blind-spot in the field of photographic studies:  photographic conservation in tropical climates. While digital photography is a burgeoning field in India, the preservation and restoration of analog photography is in its infancy and there are no specialized courses on conservation issues (Szafran, Lopez and Loprin, 2018).

The STARS project is therefore anchored on four major scientific ambitions:

  1.  To provide reasoned access to the corpus of digitized images, so that it can be mobilized for further research. From the beginning of the project, we intend to integrate the corpus into the research data repository of the EHESS, a collaborative and open access platform relying on semantic web and digital library standards, and offering long-term data preservation. Simultaneously, we plan to elaborate a dedicated data management plan (DMP) in collaboration with the team of EHESS data scientists.
  2. To use the physical collection (5,000 prints and negatives) as a model laboratory for the development of new knowledge in the field of photographic conservation in tropical environments. In collaboration with the Institut National du Patrimoine, two worksites-schools, associating Indian and French students are planned, as well as restitution workshops for south Indian studio photographers in order to locally disseminate the experiments carried out and to assist in the
    development of good conservation practices in India.
  3. To intensively interrogate the existing corpus, both digital and physical. Two main approaches are proposed:
    1. Selected participants will work to put this archive and its production in context: how did the diffusion of the technology take place during the colonial era, despite the challenge of obtaining the necessary products from overseas? Who entered the photographic profession, how was it achieved and how was the professional know-how disseminated? At what pace and on account of which socio-economic factors were photos studios opened throughout South India?
    2. Another set of participants will interrogate the archive thematically, contributing to the renewal of several fields of history and social anthropology. For instance, what does this century of studio photography tell us about the evolution of depictions of childhood, of the changing representations of conjugality? How does the material culture (clothing, jewelry, accessories of ‘modernity, etc.) of the urban and rural areas reflect differently in the images and which cues are given as to the regional, caste and sectarian background of the sitters? What can be learnt about the relationship to dead, the depiction of the corpse and the ritualization of death within the family group, from numerous post-mortem photographs in the collection?
  4. To further unravel the visual syntax and technical grammar of south Indian studio photography, it is important to collaborate with practicing photographers. Significantly, it is the creative investigation and production of two renowned photographers (N.Pushpamala “Native Women of South India”/2000-2004 and O.Cullman “The Others”/2009-2013) which have till date offered two of the most comprehensive understandings of the specificities of studio photography in India. Continuing in this vein, the selected photographers will, mobilize the corpus and produce their own personal artistic investigations, providing thereby new resources relative to the interpretation of studio photography.

In order to achieve these four ambitions, we have set up a resolutely interdisciplinary team of specialists in photographic conservation, artists, historians and anthropologists. As we successfully experienced during a first work-site school in June 2018 (CNRS-IFP-INP-Labex Patrima), the idea is to maintain a constant flow of exchange (of data, hypotheses, ideas, questions) between conservators, artists and social scientists through the implementation of a collaborative platform and regular meetings (seminars, creative residencies, worksite schools, etc).