A place to learn about a 150-year-old photo-making technique

It looks like a damaged sheet of film. A hand places it on a tray and the lights come on. The hand then proceeds to pour a colorless liquid chemical fixative, consisting of sodium thiosulfate and lab-grade distilled water, onto this sheet. An image fades, slowly. First, a shadowy figure, then of course, the eyes of Tara, an independent pup, clearly captured in a moment of curiosity, confusion, and almost mischief appear. The shiny little gem on her collar matches the sparkle in her eyes. It’s a moment of absolute magic.

The short video is on Instagram, and a great introduction to photographer Sarang Sena’s latest project, C(See) Y(Why) Studios, through which he offers portrait services, made by a photographic process, called collodion “wet- plate”, used in the mid to late 1800s.

The 35-year-old fashion and publicity photographer began experimenting with a variety of wet plate photographic processes, including tin type and ambrotype, in 2018. He had used the year as a sabbatical from his trade missions, learning these processes and chemistry. it would be better.

Earlier this year, he launched the ‘Class of Yesterday: C (See) Y (Why) Studio’, a space at Sainik Farms, Delhi, to bring in interested people to pose for a unique portrait of themselves. . , and watch how it is processed to come to life, slowly.

Sena even made images using wet plate techniques to document the first phase of the covid-19 lockdown. In a series of photos titled “Contributors”, he made portraits of workers in essential services like health personnel, cemetery caretakers, photojournalists, bus drivers and employees of municipal companies in the capital.

Some of the subjects in these images look ethereal, almost like otherworldly beings floating in a grainy background from a bygone era. Subliminally, it speaks to how isolation has made most of us feel, relative to others and to the physical spaces of the outside world that we have inhabited almost mindlessly, even days before we could no longer . ‘Contributors’ was published in Vogue Italia in June 2020.

Since beginning his career as a photojournalist 17 years ago, Sena changed paths early on to become a freelance photographer. His father, he says, was the reason for his initial interest in photography. “I still remember how every summer he made us go through slides of photographs. The images of the summer of class 6 are still etched in the memory!” he recalls.

In an interview with Salon, he talks about the C(See) Y(Why) Studio space, his daily routine here, and how the wet plate process is always a creative eye opener for him. Edited excerpts.

Tell us about your current studio and/or workspace.

Yesterday’s Class: CYStudios is a one-of-a-kind space in India, located in Delhi, we specialize in the making of silver-on-glass photography known as Ambrotypes. It is an extremely functional intimate space with lots of natural light and warm interiors. Furniture and artwork are all handcrafted by me, the space has a vintage vibe in a contemporary setup.

Music and hardening of photographs on the workbench
(Sarang Sena)

How has your usual darkroom/workspace evolved for wet plate processes?

I moved to this location as I was experimenting with chemistry and faced a steep learning curve – the need for a larger space became imperative. A dedicated room has been turned into a darkroom for the process, with an adjoining bathroom as a chemistry lab.

Unlike an ordinary darkroom, this darkroom does not support a wet area nor does it consist of an enlarger. All chemistry is freshly prepared in the chemistry lab and brought to the darkroom as needed. The darkroom in this case is a working area with trays and a silver bath, and lots of distilled water with archival glass sheets used as film surfaces with various cleaning agents for the glass sheets . Most visiting assistants (those who reserve the space for a portrait) call it the mad scientist’s “red room”!

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

The daily ritual is to ventilate the space, control ambient temperatures and regularly maintain chemistry. So on a normal day you would find me moving between the lab and the darkroom doing a maintenance check.

Tell us about special and memorable moments with the wet plate process, or in this space, when photographs come to life.

The portable darkroom box built by Sena, with an 8X10 camera

The portable darkroom box built by Sena, with an 8X10 camera
(Sarang Sena)

Recently, I traveled to Jaisalmer with the aim of making landscape images using a portable darkroom box I had built during lockdown.

I had a limited amount of chemistry with me and the whole trip was a great experience. I had to rework the chemistry because the working temperatures in Jaisalmer were so much higher than in Delhi, where the formulas had been tested. Still managing to troubleshoot, I removed a nice 8×10 Ambrotype plate. It’s a keepsake marked on glass in silver for eternity. I will cherish this photo all my life.

Entitled Nowhere, the Ambrotype Sena plate shot in the Jaisalmer desert

Entitled Nowhere, the Ambrotype Sena plate shot in the Jaisalmer desert
(Sarang Sena)

Is there a dream space/room you’d like to trade this one for? What would that be?

Right now, I’m really happy with the space I’m working in. As for the future — I’m busy photographing in the present, so I can’t really say.

Who are the artists whose work moves and inspires you?

The ‘Dream/Life’ series by photographer Trent Parke (it documents the streets of Sydney over five years, available on the Magnum Photos website). Most wet plate work by (photo-artist) Sally Mann. I also admire the works of Francis Bacon (artist of the 20th century) and the words of Charles Bukowski kept me going.

Can you share a memory of one of your earliest photos – how was it born, where did you take and/or process it?

One of the first photographs I did was in Tamil Nadu in 2004-5, a portrait of a child hugging his mother around the legs, following the tsunami.

mother to son

mother to son
(Sarang Sena)

What is the one thing that has always been at your workspace/desk over the years. Why?

A portrait of my father, which I made in 2006. My father received the Helen Keller Prize for his work with the visually impaired and the blind. the India Today Group asked me through my editor to do an intimate portrait of him.

On December 1, early in the morning around 5:30 a.m., I woke up to photograph my father. He was enjoying the sun sitting on his rocking chair listening to his audio books. This is the last photo I took of him.

Reminiscence - Legacy

Reminiscence – Legacy
(Sarang Sena)

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Jack C. Nugent