BOX CAMERA, ARPAN, KALA BHAVANA & PRINT MAKING
1.jpgI never expected to come across a box camera in Santiniketan, that also in this age of digital photography. It appeared almost like a magic box to me- perhaps if one shoved his hand through the long hanging cloth-glove a rabbit will appear from no where! But incredibly, this one is a camera, where the hand through the cloth-glove will actually set the film plate inside the camera after the focus has been set in a light-tight compartment! This is also a kind of wizardry none-the-less! We are actually at the basics of photography-one may conveniently call it the home-made photography.
2.jpgThough Arpan Mukhopadhyay, faculty member of graphics department, Kala Bhavana, home made this box camera following his artistic instincts; box camera of this type has a long history. This relatively cheap instrument was used extensively in former Afghanistan where the Kabuli-wallahs made a long queue in front of the Indian embassy at Kabul for visas to get into India. Host of such low-cost box cameras were a regular feature at the road adjacent to Indian embassy in Kabul. In fact in several places where large-scale unskilled labour migration was an issue, often such box cameras were used for low cost photography. Printing a photograph from a negative then may take just half an hour to half a day, depending on the solution used. Incredibly with appropriate chemical solution a negative can be printed within 20 minutes under direct exposure to sun-no need of a black room either!

5.jpgThe technique behind this box camera is rudimentary and can be found in most school textbooks where the method applied in a pinhole camera is described. A simple magnifying glass is used as the lens, several apertures can be selected to suit the photography, the long handle at the back is used to adjust the focus. Then the box is shut from all ends to prevent light from entering and the negative film is then fixed at the focus by own hands pushed through the cloth-glove at the side of the box. After the initial set up is done, the camera lid is opened manually to give the right kind of shutter speed as thought perfect by the camera man- Arpan Mukhopadhyay in this particular case!
The photographs above and below are been posted as an illustration of the process.
9.jpgArpan Mukhopadhyay first got curious about this historical trend of photography in his student days in Kala Bhavana. Later he took a keen interest in this kind of photography purely from the point of view of application human imagination in using box cameras. The great amount of human intervention needed to make such kind of photography and the huge possibility to apply new techniques in print making from such negatives made him more inquisitive about the prospect of box cameras being utilized for artistic print making. Now, he has managed to introduce printmaking using photosensitive elements along the course studies in graphics department of Kala Bhavana; though the box camera remains his prized personal possession.
10.jpgThe inverted image at the focus plate appeared interesting. The haze in the middle is due to the light entering though the viewing slot at the back from where my digital camera was focused. The image can be made much sharper using a pinhole aperture, and naturally without any light entering from the back we can expect a crisp image at the focus plane. Several photosensitive materials can be used as the film. Unexposed X-ray plates remain the most favourite one for the photographer because the cost and ready availability. Glass pates coated with silver gelatin can also be used. In this case the photosensitive silver compound remains a fairly costly issue, and might not become affordable for students.
14.jpgThe several types of negatives and the different kind of prints using several types of photosensitive chemicals opens up a huge scope in print making. As far as I could gather print making from a negative using photosensitive elements is a huge area open for exploration. In the non-digitized days, many photographers used innovative methods in print making; and as this is basically a chemical process new ideas can always be incorporated to the existing thoughts. In fact Arpan, at this point of time is tremendously excited and equally confused about the almost unending possibility of using different type of photosensitive materials to get different effects in print making. Using a ferrous photosensitive solution he printed one negative on hand made paper by direct exposure to sunlight within 15 minutes! I was frankly amazed. More subtle texture in this print will gradually be visible within half an hour more when the print dries up completely!


Inspired by several experimental ideas Arpan is keen to explore new colours and textures in his prints. Experimentation is going on using the ‘Boyra’ (Remember- Boyra tree near Sishubibhag?) and Haritaki to create newer tints. Incidentally usage of Boyra, Haritaki and others as colouring agents is a traditional knowledge in India, but mostly applied in textile craft and hand painting than printmaking by photosensitive compounds. The brown and green from Boyra & Haritaki can add newer possibilities to printmaking by photosensitive elements. Students from the Alternative School of Photography from Goa visit Arpan now and then for in-depth study of such type of printmaking by using box cameras. This particular area is yet to develop fully in Kala Bhavana, as photography is not a subject taught here. Arpan is more engaged in Kala Bhavana on print making using photosensitive materials and concentrates on photography and negatives at home.
17.jpg18.jpgSome such print makings can be interesting. Considering the almost unending possibility in this area including super imposing using different photosensitive elements; it can be a confusing field without a clear vision about how to express in such a medium. Arpan at this moment is in experimentation mode with
The negative itself, using different materials glass, X-ray plate and acrylic sheet.
The box & digital camera. He is going to stick to the box camera now for such kind of images.
Using of different photosensitive elements to create different effects.
The medium on which the positives are to be printed, glass, handmade paper or any other suitable medium.
All these makes the task quite complicated for him, so much so that when I asked him to arrange a exhibition of his prints he was totally unsure if the works he has done deserves to be exhibited or not! He has so much more to do that he is just not able to fix a time frame of when and what to exhibit.
His predicament is understandable as photography as he visualizes and such kind of printmaking is an untouched area in Santiniketan. With the student interest being lukewarm in these unconventional methods there are actually not many people to egg him on.
But as exstudents we are naturally excited over the prospects in printmaking and are absolutely amazed by his box camera. Arpan, we appreciate your interest whole-heartedly, please carry on with the zeal of a young horse, just as it always should be!
After all, people like you, are the future of Santiniketan.


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  1. taani says:

    Simply amazing!!

  2. Shubhashis says:

    Comment from taani..
    Beautiful and hats off!! Arpanbabu ke to botei, Shukulda, tomakeo!!

    • Shubhashis says:

      err, the comment thread got little botched up, I reckon. Thanks Taani, tell Anurag to have a look at this, these primitive boxes are genuinely amazing, and costs almost nothing!

  3. prosit says:

    This is a very interesting article elaborating many aspects of simple camera, developing etc. It took me back to school days and as late as 1983 while passing out of Science collage Calcutta, the valedictory group photo session used a camera very similar to this ( wide angle lenses were not very popular and inexpensive then) and the shutter speed was controlled by the photographer ( a “Dadu” like fig of course!) by removing the Lens Cap for a Sec or Two ( its only him who had the correct estimate in his mind!!!) and all of us shouting ‘gili, gili,gili…..! It’s unfortunate Arpan is not finding enthusiasts in Santiniketan – catch hold of some “idle minds” like us brother. Sukul will help.
    Thanks a lot for the posting.

  4. Boisali Biswas says:

    Wow! This is indeed amazing! What a vast area to explore! Loved the use of boyra and horitoki, didn’t know they could be used for this. Looking forward to seeing where this takes you Arpan. The last 2 pics are beautiful!

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