In Conversation with Arpan Mukherjee

Regular encounters with the Immediate surroundings and personal interpretation of daily life are the basis of Arpan’s work. He questions & criticises the discrimination, and political & economic state of society through research, documentation, and archiving. His works are process-based, and he uses the 19th-century photographic process to express his works.

The history of materials and processes of 19th-century photography fascinates Arpan as an artist. He works and explores the artistic possibility with the 19th-century photomechanical process. He investigates by looking at photographic documentation, history, chemistry and design. He uses his research and experimentation as a tool for his expression.

Arpan has participated in several international and national-level exhibitions and workshops. He has given lectures and conducted numerous workshops on printmaking and photographic history. Before the pandemic, three different bodies of his works were showcased in the Chennai photo biennale, Kolkata international photo festival, Lisue photo festival, and China and Serendipity Arts Festival. A new body of work from a long-term project was exhibited last Oct at Alliance France, New Delhi.

Arpan has received BFA & MFA in printmaking and is presently teaching as an associate professor in printmaking Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan. He co-founded Studio Goppo, a photography research studio at Santiniketan.

Cocoon: Such a big space like “Studio Goppo” that you came up with regarding the practice of alternative printmaking … How did it all start? How did alternative printmaking merge with your practice?

Arpan Mukherjee: I was never aware of the term alternative photography or whatsoever when I started with the work. I had a very simple start. It’s true that I use to take photographs like an armature photographer who takes photographs out of passion. I owned a film camera in my younger days and like it happens; I took images because I like to take images. I use to put films and take photos since there was no scene from a digital camera at that point in time. But my main practice was based on the visual arts. Then I went to college, I studied at Kala Bhavan regarding graphics and printmaking then graduation and masters happened. The possibilities of image making or the habits of image making along with the basics of paintings were some areas of practice at that point in time. While this was going on, a technical incident happened during the end of my masters, when I became interested in working with silkscreen, also commonly known as serigraphy, which became the main medium of my work for the sake of necessity in my image-making practice. The interest that grew more was in something called photo stencilling in serigraphy. Though there are many ways to do so, photo stencilling is a method. What happens in this process is that the dichromate salt, possibly ammonium or potassium dichromate salt…

By the way, I had a tremendous interest in chemistry in my younger days, I mean when I use to be in school. Like really very strong interest.

Anyway, so the dichromate salt, mixed with polyvinyl acetate glue, and then by adding a dye so as to visualize, acted as a coat for the silkscreen, a photosensitive coat. This was put on the screen and was exposed through a positive in presence of UV light and then after washing it with water the unexposed parts use to get washed away and the remaining exposed part use to stay on the screen. As a result, there was photo stencilling available, which used to be printed by ink. Now, this is a very brief description of the entire process.

There used to be a lot of experiments when I use to work in our department. So, the photosensitive element that formed were two separate products for dichromate and PVA. PVA that we use to get would usually be green coloured or sometimes mob colour or bright at times. That basically means that PVA has no specific colour, it was rather an added colour. This turned out to be an interesting form for me. Then I wonder if it was possible to use transparent PVA granules and add water colour with it and add dichromate salt and finally coat it in paper… Since I already noticed that usually grey tones come in the silkscreen. If it’s done well, it gets exposed or sometimes it doesn’t but the grey tone appears anyhow. Therefore, if it can be coated in paper and then exposed under a negative and washed with water, then there might be a chance for some authentic output. Interestingly the hypothesis worked out successfully.

This I am talking about approximately during 1999 – 2000. There were no such resources available regarding alternative photography, since this was the early stage of the internet, it was not yet spread around the world. I came across this technique during this time. Then while surfing in the library I came to about an existing process called Gum Bichromate, which is supposedly a similar process, apart from the use of gum in the substitute of PVA. This helped me to have a broader technical detail about the process, which however just stayed as a sort of knowledge for me.

I was facing certain problems right after the completion of my post-graduation. Since I went for a job in a designing company and was simultaneously a part-time teacher, I was not venturing more into my own practice. During that time, I was doing a lot of socially relevant works which has scope to comment on, since it had an economic power matrix relevance as well. I use to work on discrimination a lot. But then I realized that working on socially relevant issues sitting in a comfortable studio corner lacked a sense of empathy within me. On what basis am I working, since I have not experienced anything of that sort on a personal level. I don’t get out in the streets and participate in politics, nor I am associated with any kind of NGOs and social organizations and provide aid. I never go and teach in the night school. Basically, I don’t have any kind of contribution in terms of social help.

Therefore, I felt this unimportant to paint in a bubbled studio corner, without actually involving in the process. It felt like a sort of ornamentation for me. And this is extremely baseless and meaningless. Rather it is better to simply draw flowers in the studio.

Such a perception manifested and developed firmly within me.

Then certain questions arose within me, regarding the medium of work, its method of expression and the content of my work. When I was questioning my work’s content, then I started rejecting those ornamentations and started recontextualizing the sources of my work. And I certainly realized that I actually don’t have any real physical challenges. I am a kind of a happy young fellow from well-to-do family. I have no worries about living, since both my parents work, and I don’t have any lack to living well. I study in a good institution, where I have an impression of a typical good boy. I could not find any real challenge in my life at that point. I identified this to be my biggest problem. Somewhat like your magazine, I have been living inside a cocoon, and never left the comfort zone. I could go beyond this comfortable cocoon of society nor from my method of practice… All that I have done is to think and live in those thoughts from the other side of the shore from a very safe side. This introspection kept on increasing day by day, and I still believe to hold the same position even today. Looking at the world from a safe cocoon. But I felt this realization itself drove me long enough to challenge my method of works. I might end up doing something else other than making images.

So, from this artistic position, all this was born [Studio Goppo].

I felt that I no longer need to do real-time printmaking, rather I should simply sketch. So, my main method should be sketching. All these paintings in canvas or plates and further printing in expensive imported papers are all meaningless. From such a standpoint, I left everything aside and just went out to venture, with my sketchbook, pencil, pen and ink.

This gave me a scope to interact with a lot of people physically. Apart from the sketch work, the interaction became more important, since it helped me to unveil the ornamented cover of reality and witness the true reality.

Cocoon: You went close to people that way.

Arpan Mukherjee: Absolutely, since I myself, am a village boy, so when I went to the village, this misconception of romanticizing a farmer completely shattered, rather it is absolutely opposite and non-romantic. The farmer takes poison, the other day. However, attempting suicide by having poison can be romantic as well [Sigh]… That is from a different perspective altogether.

Anyway, the farmer’s suicide is for a genuine cause, and when I tried to be vocal about it, through my work, I realized that this too is extremely unempathetic of me. My head was bowed in shame. Like this what happened is that slowly my sketching practice also faded away. This led me to an extraordinary confusion, regarding what should I do. This confusion lasted for a long period……

Cocoon: This is after 2000?

Arpan Mukherjee: Yes, this is after my post-graduation days, nearly around 2001. Then I again started thinking of “let see, what can be done”. Since the camera was laying down unused, I decided to pick it up again. May be photography is the only medium, where I can be vocal about the challenges I was facing.

And I don’t know, why this preconceived notion existed for so long in India, especially during that time, which was however followed by an interesting liberalization in last 20 years, that “Photography is not an art”. This absurd question was in the air for quite a long time, even still some people think about it that way. Why does it have to be an art I still don’t understand. So, I realized photography could be the medium. If I do photography, I’d have to take the camera with me to the people, a realistic foundation is being made to me, and the evidential reality that a camera offers seemed very much important to me as this could be considered as a proof of something real everywhere, from such stand point my journey began and I started taking photographs.

Back then I used to use the film camera, film suddenly became very much less available and costly, and like what happens when you see a new gadget, being recently completed my post-graduation, started doing a job. Why not ask my father or using my job money to buy a digital camera?

So, a digital camera was bought. I started taking photographs. I am talking about digital camera because initially this is what I had, and the gum printing that I talked about… in the mean time I have practiced and developed a steady grip on it, and I discovered a website was recently launched called and I began visiting that site regularly. That was the only resource. And other resource includes our Kalabhavan’s valuable library where a few books were available.

By then, I had completed other things and joined here (Shantiniketan) as a teacher, my early phase of joining as a teacher. Umm… so I continued these two things parallelly, after continuing for significant amount time the realization arouses that this standardized image of the photography, both visually and notion wise, what happened was my photographs started becoming very photo-journalistic, or like documentary type, that what I didn’t quite like it that I didn’t want to take this kind of photography or create such images, never wanted to specify it. I was interested in talking about much larger reasons, like I never wanted to show ‘Haruda’ (an example), ‘Haruda’ is a farmer and his image represents a farmer or the likes of his profession, farmer community, but now if ‘Haruda’ becomes specific then it is a problem. In case of documentary, or photo-journalistic works this specification is there, and there is a standardized notion to this. There the most important aspect is the image itself, doesn’t concern much with its representation or how it was printed. These things don’t matter. To that I had a disagreement as an artist. I realized that this could be problematic, as a result, two changes came along, firstly as an artist how I came to be, how I started and what kind of visual images started to emerge, secondly my medium of expression changed, method of printing changed. I absolutely hate inkjet printers, the cheap, devoid of layers and pigmentation of inkjet printers, I really hate it.

So, I started printing manually.

Cocoon: You shifted to a different approach, different genre, so initially, did it seem very challenging to you?

Arpan Mukherjee: I didn’t have any academic education in photography. It was not my course of study. There are many texts available that are beyond this kind of specialization. Say, History of Art, we all had to study it wherever in the college or during self-study whenever Interest aroused. I realized that there is no meaning to such specialization or these boundaries.

I might frown a lot of people, but I don’t believe in such divisions like food photography, wildlife photography, these specifications are meaningless. This is my own thinking. I think like this because the medium of photography or the practice of photography is confined within an image, if we don’t do this and see this from completely new perspective, suppose can we think like this, say, like I mentioned little while ago, food photography- this has a documentary element to it, it was an editorial element, so can we put it in a different perspective without calling it food photography?

Can we put an image of food in a political perspective? Or put it in other perspective that doesn’t specify it! If I just don’t limit myself by introducing myself as a street photographer, but an artist, then you see, my range is expanding, my field of work is increasing. That’s why I don’t introduce myself as a photographer, as I didn’t come from a photography background, I am an artist who thinks currently the medium ‘photography’ is important for his work, I don’t know next year I will still be working with photography medium or not, might as well take other medium, like I could feel ‘dance’ medium could be, although I don’t have any atom in my body for dancing, but I might feel next year that dancing is really important for my expression, I may go to get trained in dancing, this could happen.

Therefore, I am not limiting myself, from the institution of not limiting myself, these responses are arising, that there is not such specific thing as ‘photojournalism’ (definitely, it exists, but I am talking in terms of image making). This formulation or notion or norms create boundaries and an artist should not restrict oneself within these, this is my main topic of discussion, and that’s why I am speaking against these boundaries, norms and closed gates.

Cocoon: …. Standardization,

Arpan Mukherjee: Yes, I am talking beyond this standardization, like I have no liability of taking photographs, isn’t it?

So, If I have no liability and I take photographs only for myself, if it’s not my source of income, then I am answerable to no one, I have nothing to return, so there are ample of scopes to carry on such research-oriented works, and break free from the shackles of standardization.

My source of income is different, I earn my bread and butter from other means, so those who do this can say all of these so easily. Really. I can say this.

 But this also has an academic perspective. that also has to be taken into consideration, I teach a lot of students, so there has to be an academic perspective, so I will keep on speaking this out, whether I earn my bread and butter or not.

Cocoon: Recently, you gave an example a farmer named ‘Haruda’, if you took a documentary photography approach then you would only talk about him and others will be left out, like you said, this reminded me of an incident that you know a turbulent political atmosphere is prevailing over Gorkhaland, and I know a few people who are doing some archival works there, visiting homes and collecting photos from their family albums, keeping them with care, and preserving or representing their culture to us. So, under such a political atmosphere, doing such archival works, how much importance does it have to you?

Arpan Mukherjee: There are two misunderstandings or misinterpretations, I am not saying a picture of ‘Haruda’ will not represent the people like ‘Haruda’, the notion of just taking a picture of ‘haruda’ and printing it, this particular effortlessness, I am criticizing this. I am not saying when ‘Haruda’ is being properly documented (photographed), it will not represent the likes of him. So, there are two aspects of it, one is clicking a photograph of ‘Haruda’ without knowing anything about him, without knowing his involvement, his root or his background. Knowing none of these, which is a general tendency of newspaper photographers, I am criticizing this particularly.

On the other hand, I feel it’s tremendously important the work those people you mentioned, are doing.

I don’t like to classify or decorate it by giving it a name, archival. I would like to say it this way, a team of photographers, or a team of artists is carrying on this research work by going there, they are doing such investigation just to know another human being, or to know Gorkhaland, so truly, to know Gorkhaland the family album of its people is really an important aspect. We have to know, we have to know of their lineage, the body of their claim, these documents can be recognized as proofs to their claims, so this is an important body of work.

That is a very important factor and I am not denying the importance of this work. I don’t know their detailed work method and finally how would they think about the outcome. If I were a part of them and do the work, it will take a non-linear shape. After collecting the information, as an artist, I would improvise it in a different way. There might be a question about this identification as well.

Cocoon: I have recently seen one of your works “FAIRER PEOPLE = BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE = POWERFUL PEOPLE” please tell us something about the work.

Arpan Mukherjee: This work initially started and triggered up when in 2012 “Fair and Lovely” company gained 3000 crores and as I am doing this work for a quite long time, I observed that Iodides and Bromides of Silver are sensitive to blue UV light and it has a strange consequence and that’s the reason when we see the old pictures often observe the skin tone of the people often seems very dark whether they were fair or dark. There is no discrimination. Every picture of Indian people seems to be dark and the Europeans whose skin tone is more towards blue they seem to be fair in those pictures. On other hand, many Europeans gained the reddish or brownish skin tone after coming to India and their images also seemed to be dark-skinned. That means those who are working in the ac room will be fair and those who are working in the field will be dark-skinned.

The main point is that a book named “Oriental races and tribes” has been published in seven volumes. That was the first documentation of Indians and how they look like. That spread in the whole world as anthropological documentation of Indians. These two factors worked as my inspiration and from this thought came to my mind. I interviewed a group of students. The characters you see in those images are all of my students. They came from different parts of India. I shared these ideas to them. Interestingly, those who has darker complexion had a history of using “Fair and Lovely” or similar fairness ointment. This does not even work but people think that if they use those ointments they will look better and others will notice them. When those ointments failed to do their work, either people leave them or still use them with lots of down feeling. I saw people using those even after getting mature. I was very curious to know about their history. From those interviews, many personal experiences had come. As a result of these discussions, this idea raised that fair is beautiful and beautiful means powerful and this equation developed in our society that fair people are beautiful people and beautiful people are power people. At that point I was thinking about the ways of expressing this idea. I realised that this can be done with the digital images just by using a blue filter but it would be meaning less as I have the alternative process that was used at that time. I was talking about research, there are some books where the exact recipes of wet-plate collodion of different times had been written. I started following those recipes to make salted collodion. There is a method to prepare salted collodion. This is a process of image making where a sirup-like chemical named collodion is used which is bit sticky. Iodide and Bromide salts is being mixed with that chemical in a certain percentage. This percentage varies time to time, chemicals had been changed with time. Someone uses Potassium iodide and Potassium Bromide others use Cadmium iodide and Potassium Bromide. This alteration has been done through time.

I took the Formulas that were popular around India at that time from a book by Waterhouse, which is very well documented and published by Alkazi Publication and there are many other important books. After making the formula, it has been used to make those images. As a result, a very long exposure time was needed to capture those images also I had to use bright sunlight. They also respond in this process in different ways, someone covered face with waxing and spray water on it, and someone used powder because the white colour would be responsive, by doing this they were mocking the idea of fairness so it has a performative element as well. That’s the reason I don’t call it a documentary, it does not document anything it has performative and staged elements. So, I rather call it a staged photograph which has the nature of a documentary.

Cocoon:  If a student is planning to work with an alternative process, how can he start or manage to work with such an expensive process?

Arpan Mukherjee: You need to understand the factor in a different way. We became very familiar with the technology. Companies like Nikon, Canon, Sony etc are launching new cameras and technologies almost every day and photographers are spending thousand to get them. Even if they don’t have the money for their bread and butter, they are saving prices to get new technology. Companies are forcing them to get it through different means like an advertisement. I had a phone which was working in good condition but when I bought a camera for a video documentation, I realised that now I need c type port in my phone to sync with the camera. As my cheap phone does not have the c type so I had to buy an expensive one. We are falling in this corporate trap every day and this trap reach its hight in the camera market and it not only affected the photographers but also the non-photographers as well.

Cocoon: Companies even divided their consumers into different groups.

Arpan Mukherjee: Look at the phone business as well, they do their business through the camera, through social media and eventually those social media collect your personal data and gain their profit by selling it to different clients. We are in a strange cycle and it has a connection with alternative photography.

We never look it in a way that industrial need is way too much than our personal need. I don’t need to capture an image with a 48-megapixel camera, I can produce enough good pictures with 12 megapixels as well, but I am choosing 48 megapixels and for that buying an expensive camera setup because I am a victim of this system. Before digital technology this idea does not even exist, though it exists, the ways were much more different. The industrialisation of photography started on 1888….

Cocoon: Kodak…

Arpan Mukherjee: Kodak… when they started saying that “You press the button, we do the rest” is exactly when the advent of industrialization in photography can be marked.

What did the people do before that? People use to make their own plates, and prepare their own emulsions and printed their own works. Some raw materials they use to collect from the market. However, I can show you thousands of advertisements, to prove that the photography industry existed even before that, where people were producing raw materials like paper making and all. But it fades out gradually as much we go backwards in time.

And the business regarding the photography…. To make a business, standardization becomes crucial. Whenever something is produced in a factory, it has to be standardized anyhow at any cost. It is impossible, to have a business on an individual characteristic, without standardization. Hence industrial support needs to come, for the benefit of industries. Today in order to print a newspaper or a magazine, I have to take photographs digitally, as technological support. And when I have to print in lakhs, it has to be done through a machine only.

But when I make one image and print that one image at my place, I no longer need industrial help. I don’t actually need any large-scale investment for this. So, this possibility is always there where as an artist I have the freedom to make my own image, and print it at my own will.

Now let’s consider that to take the image silver is important, and might seem to be expensive, but it can be printed anyhow, in much cheaper and easier way. Moreover, what happens is that, a different aesthetics develop in the process, which should not be forgotten. That means it has a technical part for sure, but what is alternative photography for that matter ….

The photography technique that is predominantly handmade, which has a lot of possibilities. I can literally create everything through hand, and that aesthetics can never be reached by the inject printers. There is no one sitting in Japan, who will decide what my print can look like. Isn’t it? So, I am in charge of my decisions totally. To do so it has to be practiced through your own hand. And that is exactly when, your print will be different from mine.

Let’s take for example, I am making a gum print. During the process of gum printing there is a possibility to use brush while developing it. So, you will use the brush in a certain way, and I will use the brush in other way, someone else in another way, which changes all the print results.

So, to address this aesthetics itself, weather it is going with my work and the issues I want to identify needs to be defined.

And the aesthetics of photography keeping Facebook and Instagram aside, the rest perception of photography, where a limited people discourse about image making and working seriously, there this intervention becomes extraordinarily important. Why should that be standardized?

Cocoon: That means for you photography is a personal and sort of devotional process…

Arpan Mukherjee: Absolutely, for me it’s like a way of living life. I don’t at all identify myself as a photographer. Not at all.

Cocoon: You don’t even sort of want to generate an income source from it by selling the works.

Arpan Mukherjee: Not necessarily. Though there is an art market out there, but that is not my objective at all. But having said how I came across photography I definitely think photography needs to be perceived from a personal level. So, like you mentioned earlier that alternative photography is quite costly, but certainly not all alternative approaches are costly.

But this extremely important for all alternative practitioners or people working as an artist, to know “Koto Dhan e Koto chal” [what it really means]. This would be a mistake to consider photography as a standardized subject. People in that way will never understand the major role that photography can play.

I am making a work, with utmost attention, with proper research. But the methodology of expression needs to be identified. Whether there is an involvement of materials in it. The materials have their own histories if that can be involved or not. Like I have talked about the work I am making, using the 19th-century techniques as a reference to its historical context. To see if the reference is giving a hike in the scale of the work or not.

Cocoon: To represent the process in a way.

Arpan Mukherjee: I can talk about another body of work, done in Barbil, Orissa’s iron ore mines. I was working on a project there with a self-made pinhole camera, its downstairs will show you.

So, I was making images in Xray film, and the project basically was on a river alongside the mines and collecting images. A river is certainly a very interesting place, since all materials from the valley, ultimately gets physically collected along the river by its geographical nature. Hence one can get a quick glimpse of visuals regarding the activities happening out there from a historical standpoint as well.  

I have found a crematorium and also found a pregnancy test kit, and also old X-ray films, containing hospital stamps, where probably a person has passed away. Ironically, I have even found kingfisher beer cans in the river. How did it end up there? Though there are few industries. But it is in the middle of a village predominantly of indigenous people, who don’t even like to consume beer at all. They prefer their local drinks. Then how did the beer cans appear?

That means there is a flow of money in that region probably because of the presence of certain industries. How does these industries exist? They are covered with huge walls around, within which industrial colonies are built. 

I was making images of all these. There are some red dusts available in the iron ore region. I collected some iron dusts with me back home, and printed some gum prints using the iron dust as a pigment. This is a possibility that the gum print can provide, considering the fact that it’s a relatively cheaper medium. All it needs is gum, dichromate salt and only a little bit costly paper. And as a colour pigment, I used the iron dust. And because of iron ore, it gave an interesting output, which was quite thick, and have glitter effect on the print. This helped me to finish an entire work. I made the images out there, and collected soil from their and printed the work in the paper. This gives a sense of completeness to the work.

Cocoon: It’s like a total representation through the journey.

Arpan Mukherjee: Absolutely. But now, you may not identify that as an iron ore, for which I will write it down, have a reading of it.

It does not matter for me, but I feel my work to be complete enough, I sort of lived the images for sure.

Cocoon: Sir, what do you prefer as an end product, exhibition or book?

Arpan Mukherjee: Workshop. Because the workshop is the only process that can build a sense of viewership. Book also has a certain viewership but on a certain distance, even in exhibitions from a certain distance. A well-curated exhibition is absolutely appreciatable for me. But again, it needs to be well curated. If images are only hung in the walls, the process does not complete. 

But we had to sort of agree with this model, but if you talk about preference then I would mention workshops, where my viewers will work simultaneously with me. And will sort of understand the journey of the image-making.

Cocoon: Once you have mentioned about memory in a certain talk regarding the footprints of a deceased person. Then you were talking about this as neither being a photograph nor being a print, but certainly has an immense value attached to it. If you could elaborate on that …

Arpan Mukherjee: Again, my memory being very fragile as far as I can recall, that for people like us who have a fragile memory they need certain objects to memorize certain things, through which I can recall, rethink about the subject matter.

The footprint that you are talking about is that in our Bengali culture, I am sure in many other cultures as well, when someone passes away the persons footprint used to be taken by covering their feet in ‘alta’ (red dye), and the footprint used to be hung in their home, this was a tradition, maybe not so common nowadays but back in those days I have seen red dyed foot print of somebody’s mother or father used to be framed and hung in the wall, so why they do it, that’s not a photograph or a painting or a picture of that person, just a footprint. This is interesting that that particular footprint or the matrix belonged to that particular person, so it has an evidential reality. It is evidence that indeed it is a footprint of say, my father. That print came from him and it will remain, it will not disappear ever. This way of memorizing the diseased person, who is no longer alive, this has a connection to our memories, I believe I might have discussed this when talking about relationship between image and memory.

Photography also plays similar role, when it was said that photography couldn’t be a lie, it was valued similarly. But when the digital age came, editing age came, I am not saying that back then no editing or manipulation took place, but they weren’t as precise as of today’s due to technological advancements. Now this authenticity towards photography has diminished due to this age of precise photo manipulation

Now it raises questions or doubts – What effect it brings to his memory or it may even have no effect on someone’s memory. I still remember a photograph of my grandfather, in black and white, someone in the village may have taken it, neither it was well exposed nor well printed, composition was bad – grandpa just sitting on a clay veranda, so when that photograph was given to a studio in Bolpur, then digital technologies like Photoshop had been in use, so they took him out of misery of village environment and placed him in a sofa, that sofa looked so weird, like anyone can tell that the sofa was a fake and he didn’t even pose sitting on it. But this gave rise to a new aesthetics, which is really interesting that I am taking an old image and integrating it into a different scenario that has an interesting aesthetical intervention. That’s really fun.

Cocoon: I have seen in some documentaries like ‘City of Photos’ where people, in and around Delhi were posing in front of Taj mahal with their hands juxtaposed to hold the tip of Taj mahal and so on… after Photoshop came

Arpan Mukherjee: Yes. This in fact even happened before the time of Photoshop. Film camera enlarger when used for printing, this thing was possible even happened so. Many methods were available. Humans have always found a way to manipulate a photograph.

Arpan Mukherjee: This body of work is a long-term project, carried out over a long period of time, the main focus or subject matter is something like this. During the 70s and 80s many families in the villages were migrating in the cities, and this migration rate arose a lot in the 80s, we are also a part that we migrated in the city from a village, the thing that happened was, due to this migration a massive change happened in the villages, home after home, lawn after lawn were vacant – and stood there abandoned. This was just a visual change. On the other hand, agriculture faced a grave challenge, because the lands were vacant or those people were reluctant to farm.

So, what that did was this culturally the upper class, educated society they used to play big roles in the villages that they used to engage all the other classes educationally or culturally. This thing stopped. I remember that my parents used to teach people at night school in our village. Those people, who work in the fields or work as labours during daytime, come to night school. My parents thought them, but when they came to town, this voluntary works of teaching people had been stopped. Culturally it was rich as well. Theatres, Jatras, music shows used to take place in different special events like Independence Day or pujas. All of these stopped. This put a deep impact in the village arias. The mode of the village started changing, people started changing with it. Sports started vanishing slowly.

I intervened this to look deeply at the reasons and think about the visuals I can create from this situation. This is a compilation of my own memory and memories of different people who came from village or still staying in the villages. I started mapping them through different interviews I took of those people. This is the main structure which is going through a long time and I worked in different mediums.

In those mediums, some are very significant. One of them is calotype process, calotype is a process of making paper negatives where paper is transferred into films with the use of chemicals. Paper become film and it is used to capture image and developed it. After a wax layer is been set on them which make it translucent. This negative can be used later to print photograph.

If we talk about calotype, it has a historic context which is, that calotype has been in practice in India during the initial days of photography and it has been used for documenting India. At that point, people captured panoramic images in the calotype process. These panoramic images are used particularly for city-scape. This is a British process which was invented in Britain, on other hand Daguerreotype was invented in France and a tussle was going on between these two countries because these two processes have been invented in a very close period. Calotype is the first process which gave the idea of negative.

For me it was important because it was a British colonial process and they also brought the colonial education process to us. The differentiation between rural and urban has been created mostly by them. They established universities in the urban arias and one have to go to the universities to study. Our Indian system of education in ‘pathshala’ had been doomed and shifted to a modern education system and it has a connection with this migration and the method of documentation as well.

I choose the primary area and started making panoramas from such a perspective and then I was doing panoramas. Was clicking photos of my village, so it can be like this. I am also displaying the negatives. So this kind of panoramic vision. This was my home in the village. Where I used to live in my childhood. These houses are all empty now, all are abandoned. Now only one family lives in one of them now. So returning there again and staging some photographs where my family history is involved. So rather than showing my personal history I tried to give it a universal approach. All these figures here have a past, except this one. This is a negative print and I also did an albumin positive print. This is the positive print, this is done using that negative panorama photo.

I am going to show you some more of my work. This one is also a very important place for me in my village, named ‘Lakkhi Tala’. It is a community space. Every village has its own space like this surrounded by old trees. All the stories start from here. Then I did a positive print of this negative image like this. This is also an albumin print but it is done using three negatives, the previous one was done using four negatives and there was a movement from left to right when I was photographing this space. I tried to show the camera movement here intentionally.

Besides this, I was also collecting photos and albums from there, my own family album as well. I was also collecting broken materials there. I got some ceramic tiles and I started printing those album photos on these tiles. You need some lights to see these. Now this a very interesting, this method is called photo ceramics. Once upon a time photo, ceramics was considered one of the most expensive processes. Those who were very rich at that time wanted to do this because there is permanency here. It was embedded in ceramics. So I tried to do this process because these were all perishable memory and all these silver gelatine photo prints were getting bad.

Cocoon: This is good. If it were paper it could tear.  

Arpan Mukherjee: It could break (laughing). But these ceramic prints go with these old photos because this is like a memory that is forgotten as time goes by. There are some works along with these, which I did and used the wet plate collodion method. Not necessarily in that particular space because I was trying to interpret my thoughts in these photos at different times. Then I made some large prints of those photos, like this one. This is from a glass plate negative and I was experimenting with different printing methods. This photo is printed using charcoal.

A maximum of these negatives are destroyed like got scratched or overexposed etc but I kept all those with me very carefully and tried to make all these prints gradually. 

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