The Darkroom Project: The Art of Photography with Swapnil Sonawane
Known for such enduring symbols of modern-day Indian cinema as Angry Indian Goddesses, Pan Nalin’s Faith Connection, and India’s first Netflix original, Sacred Games, Swapnil Sonawane is a cinematographer with many an accolade up his sleeve. A lover of photography, and of old school image processing, Swapnil’s appreciation for the artform began when he was only a child, visiting his father’s photo lab, a colour lab in Pune that went by the name ‘Supreme Colour Lab’.
“I realised that more photographs were taken at our house, more than my friends at school,” Swapnil reminisces.
While other children would exchange little trinkets and sweets to mark the arrival of the Diwali holidays, Swapnil and his sister would find themselves distributing little greeting cards, fashioned from photographs of butterflies and other eye-catching wonders, complete with little handwritten notes to accompany them. “These were pictures that my father or his friends had taken,” Swapnil laughs. “It was an everyday thing- it wasn’t just photography, there was always good music at home. It was good aesthetics that were a part of my early life.”
Visiting his father at the photo lab, a young Swapnil would spend his days learning from other photographers through the pictures his father developed, and gorging himself on photography magazines. When he first tried his hand at photography, he admits he employed his childlike innocence, coupled with a touch of trickery to get his way.
“I would go out, take pictures, come back and put my rolls in my dad’s pouch that he would take to the office, and a few days later I would get my rolls processed in prints.” Swapnil reveals, “I think I got into photography because we had our own lab, otherwise it would have been very expensive for anybody to buy rolls, process them and print them.”
Fast forward to a few years later, when in 2002-03, the digital camera infiltrated Indian shores, and the photo lab shuttered its doors almost overnight. “No one was shooting film anymore.” Swapnil remembers, “I thought then that this was it, digital was going to be my thing- and it is, in many ways- but over the last 2-3 years I’ve found myself going back to where it all started, I’ve been going back to silver gelatine, and film and film cameras.”
°The Darkroom Project
Take a deep breath, and let us transport you back to the era of analog photography. You step out into the wild with your film camera in tow, the film canister within it imprinted with the latent images of your adventures upon your return. Images you can’t see just yet, but that exist there nevertheless. Exposed to the light, they would be lost forever. In order to fix the image onto the roll, it must be first loaded onto a spool and developed in a darkroom. The image, now developed on the film, reveals itself, a fragment of your adventures crystalised in time, but it cannot yet be taken into the light. It must be fixed further and dried off.
“That’s it- once fixed, the image will last a hundred years,” Swapnil says, “or whatever the lifespan of the film is,” he laughs.
It is this very process that Swapnil fell in love with, that he found himself returning to all these years later. Without his father’s photo lab (and a little trickery) to rely on, Swapnil now develops his films in his kitchen or bathroom sink at his home in Mumbai.
“The process has become equally important to me, almost as equal as the photography.” Swapnil says, “And that’s only one way- there are multiple processes- which is what I’m discovering during lockdown.”
Isolated within his home like the rest of us, Swapnil has been experimenting with different styles of photography, and of hands-on image processing. Trying his hand at Cyanotope photography, Swapnil explains how by using two simple chemical compounds available off the shelf, (or with a few calls placed to the right people, Swapnil interjects) paper can be made light-sensitive. A form of Shadow printing, Swapnil spends many a day in his backyard, placing plants and leaves upon paper to reveal an image. “Imagine it, these processes have been around forever, 100 to 150 years,” he says.
A process that demands more discipline than shooting with a regular digital camera, capable of shooting over a thousand images in a day, analog film cameras have the capacity to hold about eight pictures at a time. “Imagine an SD card that only lets you shoot 8 images, you really have to think about each and every photograph that you take, and not waste a single one.” Swapnil explains, “You can’t go back and delete either, once its shot its shot, you can’t go back and delete one and shoot another one.”
While he admits the process is what truly tugged at his heartstrings, old school image processing isn’t a necessity for everyone. “There’s a reason why someone says they prefer Nikon over Sony or Canon, because the feel that the image one camera gives is better compared to the other, and the good part is you have all of these cameras to choose from!” he explains.
“It’s just another tool that was developed over a century.” Swapnil says, “It has history, it has some quality to it that is more than just dots and pixels. There is something which is hard to put into words- you can call it organic or all of that- but personally, there is something which is raw and real about just making images out of chemistry and not pixels.”
°Isolation and Inspiration
Much like the rest of the world, Swapnil has been locked away at his home in Mumbai, staving off boredom with one pet project or another. From his experiments with image developing to harassing his significant other into sitting for photo sessions, Swapnil has been keeping himself busy, sometimes making pinhole cameras from old discarded iPhone boxes (which take seriously good pictures, he says with pride) and other times experimenting with large-format film. With over 30-35 cameras in his arsenal, (an approximate number, for Swapnil explains he has lost count over the years) the cinematographer has found inspiration in his surroundings, shooting still life and empty spaces, void of people, a far cry from his time on set.
“One creative pursuit feeds another- photography feeds the cinematographer in me, though they are both completely different forms of image-making,” Swapnil says, “Photography is where I come back to breathe. Even the smallest crew on a film set is 30 people, whereas when I go out to make pictures, it’s just me. There’s a kind of simplicity to how I shoot, and what I shoot that gives me a bit of peace.”
When asked what advice he would give to others hoping to follow in his footsteps, Swapnil stresses that there is no defined path to success. Having worked in advertising and as a graphic designer for a number of year before finally breaking into cinematography, Swapnil is a firm believer in sincerity, and sticking to your dreams.
“If image-making is what you’re looking at to do in whatever form, cinematography, photography, or otherwise, that’s one thing you have to keep on doing- that’s how you get better at it.” He says, “I can’t help but make images. If you give me a matchbox, I will figure out a way to make images with it. That’s the basis of me, I have to go out and make images one way or the other, that has been the one constant for me, the only one that I can see is constantly wanting to create images. That has always helped me, I hope that will help someone else too.”