Family portraits started appearing in Tamil households in the 1880s. The early Tamil commercial studio photographers created their own visual language to represent south India’s individuals and families. Creating a digital archive for this material is vital as the material is endangered by chemical, climatic and human factors.
Though photography in India started exclusively for colonial administration and elites, by the 1880s commercial photography studios had found their way into the bazaars of the Presidencies, and family portraits started to appear inside Tamil households. Before then, in South India, there were no local forms of popular portraiture aside from the representations of divinities. Tamil portrait photography rapidly developed into a rich practice, where technical inventions, ingenious adaptations and artistic achievements went side by side. The material in this project dates from the 19th century to the 1980s, with mechanised photographic processing.
The photographs are deteriorating rapidly due to the processes used for developing them, which is accelerated by the tropical climate of southern India. The lack of awareness of the importance of such material means that many photographs are discarded and destroyed.
Stemming from a pilot survey project in 2013, the project digitised collections in 15 locations across Tamil Nadu, which amounted to 31,780 images. Team members were given extensive training in digitisation, image processing and metadata. Collection owners were also given hands-on training in preservation, which helped enhance the owners’ understating of the value of their collections.