Studies in Tamil Studio Archives and Society (S.T.A.R.S.)




Alexandra de HEERING

Start Date: May, 2015
Status: Completed

Project Details

Department Social Sciences
Duration 4 Year(s)
Funding Agency(ies)

British Library


Team Rameshkumar KOTHANDAPANI

Project Description


Photography arrived in India in the 1840s. The first photographic society in South India was created in Madras in 1856. During the early decades of Indian photography, photography was accessible almost exclusively to the colonial administration and Indian elite. However by the 1880s, commercial photography studios had found their way into the bazaars of the Presidency’s and family portraits started to appear inside Tamil households. It is important to note that, in South India, prior to the coming of commercial photography, there existed no local forms of popular portraiture aside from the representations of divinities.

  • Tamil portrait photography, often facing restricted access to technological improvements, rapidly developed into a rich practice, where technical inventions, ingenious adaptations and artistic achievements rubbed shoulders. The early Tamil commercial studio photographers created their own visual language to represent south India selves and families. Their idioms combined the uses of props, accessories, backdrops, over-painting, collage, montage. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, constraints imposed by high costs and difficulties in importing recent photographic equipment resulted in the 'prolonged' use by small family-run studios of older photographic processes and equipment.
  • The advent of mechanised processing and printing, of colour photography (both in the 1980s) followed by the digital revolution (mid 1990s) radically transformed photographic practices and production. A very large number of studios closed down (and their archives often –but not always– lost) as they could not financially manage to acquire the expensive equipment necessary. The studios that did manage to survive these successive technological revolutions discarded manual processing and printing of black and white portraiture which had been the trade and skill for over a century.
  • The S.T.A.R.S. project aims to constitute the first physical and digital archive of commercial studio portraiture which will provide researchers with unique visual material and metadata of Tamil society at moments of crucial social and cultural changes. Besides the study of photographic processes and mediums throughout history, of the evolutions of representation of women and men, a wide range of issues are investigated such as the consequences of the introduction of photo portraits in the homes, the ways in which these have affected vernacular notions of individuality and dual dimension of personhood (akam/interior and puram/exterior), their impact on representations of marriage from alliance to conjugality, the uses of family portraits as hybrid photo-objects subject to daily domestic ritual venerated alongside chromolithographs of divinities in Tamil households, the transformation of regional and sectarian dress codes etc.

Materials and methods

Through the exploitation of an unprecedented corpus composed of the archives of a hundred photography studios, this project proposes a history of the popular practices and uses of photography in South India. While, over the last few decades, social sciences have increasingly relied on photography as a source, much of the work on India has focused on the photos produced by and for colonial and indigenous elites. To date, studies have not been carried out analyzing the relationship entertained by the majority of the population with the appearance of this new technique, which gave them access to an emblematic prerogative of modernity: to have their picture taken. The STARS project aims to fill this empirical gap.

  • The research will be carried out in three directions:
    (i) to contribute to the world history of photography, by studying, through the Indian case, the diffusion and adaptation of photographic process in a colonial context. Particular attention will be paid to the development, in a caste society, of the profession of commercial photographer;
    (ii) to open a new field of research by proposing a history of the practices and popular uses of photography in South India;
    (iii) to make an innovative contribution to the field of conservation science, seeking to develop solutions for the stabilization and conservation of photographs in a tropical climate which is particularly deleterious for this type of object.
  • The STARS team, which brings together social scientists and conservation and restoration professionals working in Europe and India, responds to our desire to question this new photographic corpus in a comprehensive manner, without dissociating its materiality from the conditions of its production and its uses.

Main (expected) outputs

Digital archive projects

  • (2017-2019) Major project “ Representing Self and Family. Tamil Studio Portraiture”, funded by EAP (British Library/Arcadia), London. Hosted at the IFP.
  • (2015-2016) Pilot project “ Representing Self and Family. Tamil Studio Portraiture”, funded by EAP (British Library/Arcadia), London. Hosted at the IFP.


Sample of press reviews:

«Ruined and torn:TN tries to recapture charm of studio photography», in The Federal, 31/12/2021 [PDF]

«Sepia Sutra», in The Pioneer, 14/11/ 2015

«Portraits of the past», in The Hindu, 13/03/2015

«Studio photography as a mirror of mores», in The Hindu, 26/02/2015

«Exhibition of old photos» (article in Tamil), in Dinakaran, 26/02/2015

«Photo exhibition on Tamil families» (article in Tamil), in The Hindu, 24/02/2015

« Retelling history from family portraitures», in The Hindu, 24/02/2015


Seminars, Conferences, workshops

  • (2018) Producing and Consuming Photography in South Asia (1840-1980). Conference panel at he EHESS during the 25th conference of European Association on South Asian Studies  (EASAS). 24-27 July 2018
  • (2018) Workshop on Conservation and RestorationFondation des Sciences du Patrimoine, INP, IFP, CEIAS. June 2018

  • (2018) De Heering The evolution of visual conventions in Tamil photo portraiture; How should one be seen, over the years? at Producing and Consuming Photography in South Asia (1840-1980). 25th conference of European Association on South Asian Studies (EASAS). 24-27 July 2018
  • (2016) Headley, E. Z.  « Les portraits sont bons à penser. Éléments d’une recherche sur la photographie de studio au Tamil Nadu », Actualités de la recherche en Asie du Sud (CEIAS-EHESS, 13 December 2016).
  • (2015) Headley, E. Z.  « Naked Babes and Garlanded Corpses », CEIAS Newsletter, 4(1).
  • (2015) « Vintage Photographic Processes : Cyanotype, Salt Albumen, Egg Albumen», 3 day training workshop by Aditya Arya, IFP, India.
  • (2014) Headley, E. Z. « Representing Self and Family. Preserving Early Tamil Studio Portraiture», International conference Visual Anthropology and Contemporary South Asian History (University of Cambridge, 4-5 April 2015).

External team members

  • Arya Aditya – Photographer, founder of the India Photo Archive Foundation, Delhi.
  • Etter, Anne-Julie, Historian, Université de Cergy-Pontoise, France
  • Madhavan Pillai, founder and director of the Asia Photography Archive, Ooty.
  • Potin Yann, historian, Archives Nationales, Paris.
  • Sainte-Marthe Bertrand, conservator, Archives Nationales, Paris
  • Vande Kasha, Founder PondyArt, Pondichery
  • Vidal Denis, anthropologist, IRD, Paris


The work carried out by the STARS archive team in Tamil Nadu during the EAP 946 digitization campaign was beautifully captured on film by CNRS Image (audiovisual department of the CNRS) in “PHOTO STUDIOS: Vanishing Windows Through Time.”

Directed by Pierre de Parscau, it affords the viewer a glimpse of the practicalities of creating an archive of studio photography,  the tremendous visual heritage these studios have to offer and the questions this research project poses.


Watch the documentary “Photo Studios: Vanishing Windows through Time” in English.

Regarder le documentaire “Une autre histoire de l’Inde écrite par ses photos en Francais.