Art And Culture

World’s Oldest Operating Photo Studio Closes in India

World’s Oldest Operating Photo Studio Closes in IndiaWorld’s Oldest Operating Photo Studio Closes in India

After more than 150 years of documenting the faces and landscapes of India, a photo studio that many considered the world’s oldest in operation has shuttered. Bourne & Shepherd, named for its founding British photographers, Samuel Bourne and Charles Shepherd, officially closed earlier this month, following its last owners’ loss of a 14-year legal battle over the company’s sole space, a building in Kolkata’s busy Esplanade area.

The studio — which, starting in the 1860s, produced cabinet cards and cartes de visite that propelled it to prominence — has since 1910 occupied an old, four-story structure owned by Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). What happens to its remaining archives and equipment, including a massive camera originally used by Bourne, a prolific travel photographer, is now uncertain.

“We only had the building on lease and due to a space issue, and a discrepancy on the rent, [LIC] wanted it back,” co-owner Jayant Gandhi told the India-based Writing Through Light. “We filed a case in 2002 and finally lost the battle to the court order.”

Now in his 70s, Gandhi also cited the difficulty of running the business at his age and the impact of digital technology as reasons for the closure. He and co-owner K.J. Ajmer had expanded operations to include work on commercial shoots and processing services for 16 and 35mm motion-picture film, but reaping strong profits still proved challenging. Gandhi told The Hindu that he now intends to try and preserve the studio’s archives and equipment, reported.

A petition asking LIC to convert the space into a museum has emerged on, but it has so far amassed fewer than a dozen signatures. Listed by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation as a Grade IIB Heritage Property for its “architectural style,” the building itself should at least continue to receive protection and proper maintenance from LIC; according to the corporation’s guidelines, only “horizontal and vertical addition and alteration compatible with the heritage building” are allowed.

LIC, however, has long neglected the structure. It still sports a massive hole in the roof that dates to 1991, when a large fire broke out. The main studio and library, then on the top floor, contained around 2,000 glass negatives — used to reprint images for sale — that were lost to the blaze.

At its peak, Bourne & Shepherd had numerous outlets not only across India but also in London and Paris.

Besides making portraits of people from Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna to English writer Rudyard Kipling, the photographers also documented important events including the Delhi Durbars of 1877, 1903, and 1911.

“The company became the de-facto official photographers to the British Raj in India; and produced portraits of successive viceroys and governors, as well as most high officials and major political events. Everyone who was anyone in British India, had their portrait ‘done’ by Bourne & Shepherd, at some point in their career,” according to photographic historian Hugh Ashley Rayner.