D.R. Wijewardene, Lionel Wendt and Chitrafoto | Sunday Observer

D.R. Wijewardene, Lionel Wendt and Chitrafoto

23 February, 2020
PHOTOGRAPHIC REPOSITORY: Medium format Rolleiflex and Hasselblad film cameras on display at the Editorial Photo Department of Lake House
PHOTOGRAPHIC REPOSITORY: Medium format Rolleiflex and Hasselblad film cameras on display at the Editorial Photo Department of Lake House

As we celebrate the 134th birth anniversary of D.R. Wijewardene, founder of ANCL, Lake House, we peep into his world of creative photography during his days at Studio Chitrafoto at Lake House

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ as the saying goes, hundreds of shutter bugs make their commitment to the craft of photography. There were the Black and White days when colour photography was virtually unknown. In Sri Lanka, photography has come a long way from pre-independence to the post-independence era transforming from analogue to highly-sophisticated digital formats in the field of visual journalism and creative studio art forms.

When I stepped in to the Sunday Observer Editorial office at Lake House for the first time as a graphic artist in 1991, I was impressed by the marvel of the native Sinhala architectural features of the Lake House edifice by the banks of the Beira Lake in the heart of Colombo, which D.R. Wijewardene, a magnate of Sri Lankan newspaper industry, established in 1929 to print newspapers. On my first day, the Editor of the Sunday Observer took me to the features desk, adjoining the news desk on the upper floor, a spacious room occupied by around 11 journalists.

Entering the room, my attention focused on a large, 3’x4’ framed black and white photograph of Maureen Hingert, one of the former beauty queens of Ceylon, crowned in 1955, in a sitting posture which adorned the broad plain wall of the room. On the right-hand corner of the mount there was a tag bearing the name, Studio Chitrafoto. Later, I learnt that this portrait was a work of Studio Chitrafoto of Lake House. Even though the framed photo is not hanging there at present, the beauty of the black and white portrait has influenced and inspired me even after three decades.

In fact, at the beginning of his newspaper empire D.R. Wijewardene had a vision on print journalism as well as creative photography. He employed not only a hand-picked team of erudite editors and journalists who shared his noble vision and mission but also talented photographers to work with him. The great Renaissance man Lionel Wendt was one of them.

By 1935, Lionel Wendt was one of the best photographers in Ceylon. At that time, he owned the world’s best branded cameras and mastered and excelled in novel experiments in black and white photography which made him an internationally renowned photographer.

Recognizing the creative talent that Lionel Wendt possessed, Wijewardene invited Wendt to establish a commercial photographic studio at Lake House in 1938.

The new studio was named Chitrafoto, and had occupied the left wing of the building, the first entrance as one walked in from Fort. This led to the studio through a small door. Looking at the building, even today, we can sense that there had been a massive exhibition area in front of the building to display the studio’s photographs. Today, the left wing of the Lake House building where Chitrafoto was located, is occupied by the Lake House branchof the Bank of Ceylon.

Studio Chitrafoto was popular among the Colombo elite who often frequented it to take wedding portraits and children’s photographs, synonymous with highest quality and creativity at the time. Wendt spent most of his time in studio photography there.

Studio Chitrafoto under Wendt became a sought after photographic studio for newly married couples who were waiting their turn at the reception while harried photographers turned out large format wedding portraits by the dozen. Equipped with all items such as lighting set ups and cameras, the studio was housed in a two storey area of the left wing of the Lake House building. The upper floor consisted of an exhibition area, a reception area and the studio.

The iconic photograph Wendt took of D.R. Wijewardene sitting at his desk in his office with mastheads of major English, Sinhala and Tamil newspapers in the background was one of the best portraits at the time. He has included this photograph in his attractive pictorial book Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon published by him in 1949. Today, this iconic photograph adorns the walls of the Chairman’s office, all editors’ offices and other departments in the Lake House building.

During Wendt’s time, all photographers who made a name for themselves in colonial Ceylon were Westerners. Many of them owned studios such as Plate and Vinns.

During the brief period he worked at Chitrafoto from 1938 to 1940, Wendt photographed dancers, bare bodied men and women and historic sites in the country. He made photography a medium of art, and spent the greater part of his life on photography, from 1932 to 1944 until his death.

In addition to studio photography, the photographers of Chitrafoto had documented the rich archaeological heritage found throughout the island, particularly at ancient capital sites. Editors of the Lake House annual publications such as, the Ceylon Observer Annual, the Ceylon Daily News Vesak Number and the Observer Pictorial used those photographs in each issue.

The big names in photography in the past worked at Chitrafoto where the black and white medium reigned supreme. Great photographers, P. B Weerawardene and L. E. Samararatne were among them. After the closure of Chitrafoto, they had a stint at the Lake House newspapers as photojournalists.

They used high-end cameras of that era of classical black and white pictorial photography, Rolleiflex (made in Germany) and Hasselblad (made in Sweden) film cameras which are still displayed at the editorial photo department of Lake House – a repository of film photography. We have to be grateful to one time Picture Editor of Lake House, Gamini Ramanayake who arranged the display of all the old photographic equipment at the editorial photo department which are part of the timeless and priceless legacy of Lake House photographic history.

The Editorial Photo Department of Lake House comprises talented and experienced photojournalists, securing the tradition of a bygone era and keeping their commitment to visual journalism on this digital platform.

“Today, digital technology has taken over creativity. There is no need for a creative photographer. Cameras and software replace him. In those days, a photographer could take only one or two frames of the event.

His setting should be 100 percent accurate. He can’t see the picture until he processes and prints the film roll. It is hard work, the photographer needs to know accurate camera settings,” says a photographer.

Inspired by D.R. Wijewardene, with Lionel Wendt’s collaboration, Studio Chitrafoto which was a household name among the Colombo elite photo enthusiasts and talented photographers faced closure in the mid-fifties

Pix: Ruwan De Silva