Vallabh Kargathra, photographer

From capturing stunning photographic images to creating flawless finished prints, photography has been Vallabh Kargathra’s life for over 40 years. Over these years in the profession, he has seen many changes in the industry, especially in camera hardware and in photo processing — digital sensor has almost replaced film and dry ink printing is quickly replacing wet chemical process.

Not too long ago, developing and printing in the darkroom using chemicals was an arduous manual task and required some skill. “When I started, I used to make the print and film developers by mixing various raw chemicals following one of the many published formulae. Ready mixed chemicals off-the-shelf were expensive. I enjoyed doing that, it was exciting.” he recalls. Cameras were fully mechanical (no batteries required), where exposure settings and focusing were done manually for each shot. Exposure meters were very important tools. There was also a limit to the number of photos you could capture per roll of film.

With the 21st Century we have entered an exciting new era of digital photography. Modern sophisticated digital cameras allow us to simply point and shoot to obtain a perfectly exposed photographic image. The ‘on board’; computing power of such cameras make the photo shoot far easier but it is still essential for the modern photographer to have good technical skills. Most importantly, photography is an art form. Technology has changed but the art of capturing the photographs has not. The tools used to capture the image are secondary to the image itself. The technology is always subordinate to the art. The ultimate skill, in photographers from all generations, is to artistically capture the perfect photographic image.

Self portrait in a mirror with his first SLR camera. Nairobi.

Early Experiences in Professional Photography

Vallabh was born in Nairobi, Kenya. He loved drawing from an early age and with encouragement from his father, he started taking an interest in photography from the age of ten. Two years later he had setup (with a little help from his father of course) his own darkroom and realised that to produce a good photograph, one needs to be in control of the complete process — from capturing the image to finishing the print.

Having completed his schooling, he formally trained in photography under the expert instruction of German photographer, Tom Kraft. His first job was as the assistant to Massimo Bellini, who was running one of the two Italian portrait photography studios in Nairobi. With skilled guidance from Bellini, he gained professional experience in black & white portrait photography. From mastering the art of retouching negatives to developing and printing in the darkroom — even using Bellini’s own large format Linhof 4×5 camera to create his own photographic portraits. Having completed the day’s work at the Bellini studio, he attended evening classes in art to further his interest in portrait painting.

Vallabh seized every opportunity to learn more about photography and photographers. An article appearing in the American magazine, Modern Photography, at the time, detailed the top ten professional photographic labs around the world. To his surprise he saw a local company, Nairobi Photofinishers, was one of the labs on that elite list.

After serving Bellini for a year and a half he joined Nairobi Photofinishers as a printer. Musa Qureshi who owned and managed the lab was a perfectionist — a second rate print simply did not meet with his approval. Here Vallabh was printing for some of the top international photographers who were working on their projects in Kenya at the time — including Mirella Ricciardi, who later published a book of her photographs, Des Bartlett, Peter Beard, and Norman Myers. From processing individual prints to printing the black and white images for four large scale wildlife photography exhibitions — his work at Nairobi Photofinishers was often immensely demanding but hugely enjoyable. However, after working with Nairobi Photofinishers for two years it was time for him to say goodbye to Kenya and settle in Britain.

In the darkroom at Bellini’s, Nairobi. Photo by Massimo Bellini.

Mahatma Gandhi by Vallabh Kargathra

Vallabh’s portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, charcoal.

Working for a London Studio

In London Vallabh quickly secured a job as a photographer and printer at Europa Photographic, a prestigious West End studio run by Ron Marston. During his seven years service at Europa Photographic, he produced works for clients such as Dunlop, Courtaulds, Beechams and the BBC. On four occasions, he had the honour of being appointed an official Royal photographer, including one event at Buckingham Palace and a Royal banquet in the magnificent Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

During a busy day in the print lab at Europa, Vallabh was astounded when he was handed five old glass negatives. These negatives were none other than those of the legendary German photographer Felix Mann, taken using his Ernamox camera in the 1930s. Mann was one of the pioneers of photojournalism and, whilst the negatives were extremely difficult to print, Vallabh’s knowledge of photographic developing techniques allowed him to produce a good quality image. Unknown by him, Mann had sent the same five glass negatives to four other major labs in London to compare the quality of the prints. Vallabh was both flattered and delighted that this pioneering photographer found his print work to be the highest standard — not least because a month later, Felix Mann returned to Europa Photographic with some 70 glass negatives and asked him to produce prints for a forthcoming exhibition of his photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

“I will always be grateful for the kindness shown to me by Ron Marston on my arrival in London from Kenya — and for the wonderful opportunity he gave me to work by his side at Europa Photographic.” he says. After leaving Europa Photographic, Vallabh became a self-employed photographer and printer. He was deeply touched to learn from Ron’s brother Les some time later, that shortly before Ron died he recalled his years in business to Les and mentioned that Vallabh was perhaps the best person to have worked in the studio since he started the business in 1947. “I will always remember my time at Europa, and in particular my time with Ron, with great happiness and affection.” he added.

Photographing Architecture with Arca Swiss Monolith 4×5 plate camera. London.

Working for Self

As a self-employed photographer and printer, Vallabh was producing a wide variety of work for many different clients. For sixteen years, until her retirement in 1995, he was the exclusive printer to a well known society portrait photographer whose work was regularly published in Country Life and Tatler magazines.

Since 1989 his love of art has extended to computer graphic design, producing works for catalogues, brochures and packaging. In addition, commissions for record label, Audiorec, has given him significant experience and exposure in the media industry, photographing and designing many CD sleeves and artiste promotional copy. In 1992 his business started trading as ‘PhotoGraphics’. Digital photography and graphic design are now major parts of his business. With over 25 years experience  working with Adobe Photoshop, he considers this to be his new ‘darkroom’.

As well as utilising both the artistry and technology of digital imaging for his corporate clients, Vallabh still greatly enjoys creating personal photographic portraits. For the past 15 years, he has developed a passion for wedding photography — capturing beautiful photographic images to help his clients relive their special day.

CD covers: Photography, art and graphic designs created for music producers, Audiorec.