Images from a 30-year-old photo agency reveal unusual tales of our yesterday
As India’s oldest commercial photo agency, Dinodia, turns 30, it serves as an unofficial archive of who we once were and what came before
Jagdish Agarwal, 68, reckons he’s looked at 2,000 images a day, every day, in the 30 years that he’s run the Dinodia photo library. Well, almost every day. “Let’s forget weekends and holidays and just count 200 days a year,” he says generously, to make calculation easier.
It still adds up to a staggering 12 million pictures. And Agarwal has been picky. Only about 5% of those have been included as stock photos in the Dinodia archive, a growing collection of over 5 lakh images, some of which date back to the 1870s.
You’ve probably seen several hundred of them without ever realising it. Dinodia’s stock has made it to billboards, covers of glossy magazines, award-winning advertisements, travel guides, calendars and possibly that brochure you threw away last week. It’s India’s most exhaustive commercial collection, an unusual, unofficial record of our people and popular obsessions. “There are no highlights,” Agarwal says. “They all highlight the length, breadth and diversity of the country.”
It helps that Agarwal is a photographer himself. He took his first pictures with an Agfa box camera nearly 50 years ago, took lessons in the late ’60s and, by 1969, had signed up for a long-distance course offered — via post — by the New York School of Photography.
“They’d select a subject. I would shoot my frames, develop them and post the pictures to New York,” recalls Agarwal. “They would, by registered post, reply with a critique on composition, cropping, exposure and other details.” It was a slow but valuable education. “Very few photographers here were formally trained at the time; it gave my work a sense of design.”
Agarwal travelled across India on excursions with photo and nature groups, contributing to local publications. But it would be 20 years before he would quit the family textile business to apply that sense of design to others’ pictures too. Photo agencies in the 1980s were mostly small enterprises, comprising personal collections or unused stock from other assignments.
Vispy Doctor, a long-time advertising executive who runs a branding consultancy, says Dinodia almost started in Doctor’s Tardeo home. “We were both photographers and good friends and I’d suggested he start a photo agency, offering my living room as office space,” Doctor says. “In retrospect, I’m glad he didn’t.” Agarwal, he says, looks as photos as much for the aesthetic value as their commercial viability. “I’d only have stood in his way.”
Agarwal set up shop in bustling Kalbadevi, giving up photography so contributing photographers wouldn’t accuse him of promoting his own work, and stacking slides in a desk that opened to reveal a lightbox underneath. Business boomed. “There’d be 20 to 30 people and a fridge full of cold drinks in the reception and it would run out every third day,” he recalls. Advertising clients would visit from Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, London and New York, select a few dozen images and fly out by the evening.
Dinodia’s timing was perfect. Five years in, economic liberalisation had ushered in new businesses, new money and a newly consumerist urban India, and Agarwal’s photographers captured every preoccupation — from pugs and pomeranians to bubblegum-pink strawberry ice-cream. Colour photos documented a film industry on the brink of Westernising as satellite TV beamed in images from around the world, changing the visual language of India.
Agarwal recalls how ad agencies would design campaigns right in his office, with the art director, copywriter, client and servicing executive all huddled together over his slides. “The director would select one and ask the writer to come up with a slogan,” he says.
Dinodia pictures have sold for up to Rs 8 lakh each; some, like one featuring a turbaned man on a laptop in Rajasthan, have sold 40 times over, to the delight of the photographer.
Varanasi born filmmaker and artist Ravi Shekhar moved to Mumbai in 1989 and submitted some 30,000 images to Dinodia between 1991 and 2011. The agency helped photographers like him, he says. “Selling photos is impossible when you spend your time shooting,” Shekhar explains. “And artists are bad businessmen – but Jagdish was pure business, a tough teacher. We’d shoot on slides, and he’d look at them all, dispassionately throwing away the ones he didn’t like – we eventually started to keep a waste paper basket near him at selection time.” The Dinodia association wasn’t lucrative, Shekhar admits. But it allowed enough stability to give him creative freedom.
Today, Dinodia caters to clients out of a swankier Nariman Point, the library is digitised and the pictures are searchable online. But Agarwal’s curation process is the same: images should stand out for their subject matter, technical brilliance, a balance of timeliness and timelessness and their ability to tell several stories at once to attract multiple buyers. “They should be simple, and look good in the thumbnail size, exactly how a customer will first see them,” Shekhar says.
But the game has changed. “The fun has gone out of it,” Agarwal says. “People surf the site and order what the need.” As technology replaces aggregation for curation, it’s also made for trigger-happy shooting. “In the days of film, we’d load a roll in the morning and knew we’d get only 36 pictures. It forced one to think before one clicked,” he says.
In addition, private collections are now going online and museums, libraries and institutions like NASA are opening up their image libraries for free. Journalist and rural-affairs campaigner P Sainath, who set up the People’s Archive of Rural India to document occupations, crafts and life in villages, says archives are necessary in a fast-changing world. “A library like Dinodia’s is extremely useful for the media,” he adds.
Agarwal sees it too, but ever the businessman, he knows that a stock photo has no value if it doesn’t sell. Shekhar recalls that Agarwal’s father once told his son he wouldn’t make good money in the photo business. “He took it as a challenge and sold enough of other people’s pcitures to match a businessman’s lifestyle,” Shekhar says. “He has the most focused approach to the business of photography.”