AN unassuming Dilish Parekh sat in one corner of the vintage camera exhibition at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) as curious children huddled around him asking about cameras. Parekh, in his self-effacing style, gave them a vivid description of the role that each of the large number of cameras he had collected had played during momentous periods in history. “A Gujarati photographer shot the first session of Parliament in which Nehru announced Indian Independence in 1947 with this one,” he explained, pointing towards a Kodak panoramic camera. “Henri Cartier-Bresson used these old ones,” he told the children as he showed them his Leica still cameras.
In another corner, Parekh’s son Jay introduced visitors to Parekh’s collection, which range from a daguerreotype camera of the 1890s to a Royal Mail Postage Stamp camera of 1907 to miniature cameras, often called spy cameras, of the 1940s. The exhibition curator, D.N.V.S. Seetharamaiah, Senior Photography Officer, IGNCA, enthusiastically explained the functioning of a camera to children. “Photo means light and graph means writing. You are using light to create an image of whatever you want,” he said.
The exhibition was novel in that it drew attention away from photographs to the tool that produces them: the camera. That Parekh’s collection was showcased on World Photo Day, August 19, that too alongside 27 original photographs of the renowned French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, made it even more special.
Parekh, a Mumbai-based jeweller who is also a photojournalist, has spent half his time over the last many years collecting cameras. And he is no ordinary collector. With 4,425 cameras he has acquired, he holds the Guinness World Record. He entered the record books in 2003 with 2,634 cameras. In 2007, he broke his own record.
The search for cameras has taken him to the alleys of crowded chor bazaar s, dilapidated military garages, erstwhile royal courts, old studios, and houses of old collectors. “I inherited my father’s hobby. My father collected around 600 cameras. As a child, cameras caught my fancy and the journey has not ended,” said Parekh.
His search for vintage cameras led him to many discoveries. “During this expedition, I found out that the biggest collectors of cameras in India were Parsis. I don’t know how they became interested in cameras. But when they found out that I was a person who preserved cameras, many came forward to gift their cameras to me,” Parekh told Frontline . “I once received a call from the Maharani of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh. She called me to say that she had an old model of Leica and would be happy if I took it,” he said.
His fame as a collector did not leave New Delhi untouched either. Parekh came to New Delhi with 40 rare cameras but he is going back with 44: four families in the city gifted him their cameras. “Everyone in the chor bazaar s of Mumbai knows me,” he said. “People do not realise the value of such cameras. I have found most of my cameras in dumpyards, unused and unvalued. It takes a lot of effort to preserve them and involves high cost,” added Parekh.
Yet, Parekh’s story is not one of an individual. At the exhibition, his cameras provided a window into the long history of the camera and photography. The Rolleiflexes, the Leicas, the Kodaks, all specialising in one particular method of photography, presented one with a narrative through which even today’s complex digital photography could be understood.
The daguerreotype camera, which was royally showcased, is for all practical purposes the world’s first recognised camera. Invented by Joseph Nicèphore Nièpce and Louis Daguerre in 1837, it was patented by the French government on August 19, 1839. The date is now being celebrated as World Photo Day. The Royal Mail Postage Stamp camera of 1907, a very rare one which Parekh acquired 15 years ago from a flea market, could click 15 stamp-sized photographs at a time. Parekh exhibited an Aeromatic string camera; it has a twin lens and was fixed underneath battle planes. “It was used in the Second World War. The camera was tied to the base of the aircraft with a string. This string would be pulled by the operator whenever the plane bombed an enemy area to get a photograph of the damage done,” said Parekh, who purchased it from the Deolali Cantonment in Maharashtra. Parekh’s exhibits included a 1960s Rolleiflex camera and the extremely rare Leica 250, which was made in 1934. “This one is a rare antique piece. Only 1,000 of them were produced, and there are only seven pieces remaining in the world,” said Jay.
Another section of the exhibition took one to the fascinating world of miniature cameras of the 1940s. A lens plugged into a watch or a cigarette lighter or a pen gave one a glimpse into a world where spying had become a potent tool to exert political supremacy. The first flash cameras, invented in the 1950s, were also exhibited. Bulbs were used as flashes and could be used for only a single click. Parekh proudly showed the Bessa II, produced in Germany by Voigtlander in 1962. “This one was used by the royal family of Japan,” Parekh said.
Despite being old-fashioned now, vintage cameras are technological marvels. Enthusiasts of still photography feel these cameras compelled the photographer to come close to the subject, unlike contemporary zoom lenses, which give one the choice of being distant from it. Parekh’s exhibits reminded the viewer of this ethical aspect of photography, something that is fast becoming extinct in a largely voyeuristic world.
The IGNCA came in for a lot of appreciation as the exhibition was hugely popular. “My idea was to introduce the collectors to the viewers. They have given a lot of time and effort to preserving these cameras. Yet, they have not received the credit they deserve,” said Seetharamaiah. Indeed, Parekh and his cameras are a world in themselves, a world that not only opens up various horizons but also inspires one to explore them.