The photograph as a digital document has made a comeback like never before, not leaving far behind the performative power of the self-portrait and its transition to the “selfie.” In these times then, to return to the traditional photo studio is a clear indication of photographer Ketaki Sheth’s desire to explore the confines of the physical space, the painted backdrops and their relationship with the portrait sitters.
It all began in Manori, north of Mumbai, when Sheth walked into Jagdish Photo Studio in 2014 out of curiosity. A fair bit of the show comprises people from Manori photographed inside the studio—most of whom are her friends now. Sheth then travelled from 2015-2018 across India, visiting over 65 studios—most of which were close to winding up business.
Her exhibition, ‘Photo Studio,’ first showed in New Delhi’s PHOTOINK gallery in 2018 and with a few additions has travelled now to Mumbai, at Chemould Prescott-Road.
The striking difference between Sheth’s much written about first showing in New Delhi and the one in Mumbai is the installation of an actual photo studio within the gallery space with original, painted backdrops from her project—including a 100-year-old one from a studio in Secunderabad. Sheth invites viewers to walk into the studio and make their own portraits, assisted by a light technician called Prashant from National Photo Studio in Mumbai.
The photo studio has served Indian families well over decades. From religious occasions, birthdays, family portraits, wedding portraits and even the passport photograph, it has been a location for negotiation with the self, and often even with the size of the photograph itself. As Christopher Pinney writes in the essay in Sheth’s book ‘Photo Studio,’ “They say that if they offer a rural client a quarter-length or half-length portrait, the customer will irascibly agree to pay only a quarter or a half of the fee! What the rural consumer wants, the joke asserts, is full body pose, a wholeness that is also marked by clarity and symmetry: they demand to be ‘expertly framed’.”
Sheth subverts the idea of this expert framing by becoming a viewer (of people making portraits of themselves) and an artist in the same space. In her own work up on the walls though, the compositions are watertight. The first image you see is two studio lights aimed at a cutout of Mahatma Gandhi, posed seated on the floor in Prince Studio, Bhavnagar, Gujarat. This is one of many photographs where the subject is not a human being. There are mannequins, religious idols, a camera itself and other props often used in studios to accompany the actual portrait sitter. The backdrops are eclectic too. “There’s a sci-fi backdrop from Victory Studio in Secunderabad, where I photographed the owner of the studio, in 2016. The painter was a young artist who later left for Dubai,” says Sheth.
Apart from the delightfully colourful, painted backdrops that in themselves are an imagined universe of an idea of India that exists in tiny studios in cities whose untold histories are often confined to their physical geographies, Sheth’s exhibition also presents the power equation between the photographer and the portrait sitter. Often, she’s the outsider who has no business being present when customers walk in. For instance, in Cuttack’s Studio 786, a bride walked in with her husband on her wedding day to be formally photographed. Sheth was denied permission to make her portrait, unlike the studio photographer. She decided to photograph the act of the image being made in the studio. The result is hilarious—you see the studio photographer with his legs wide apart from the back, and right under is a glimpse of the bride’s outfit. “A hint of her is what I showed,” says Sheth.
Sheth’s work is a hat tip to the grandeur of painted backdrops, but also mournful of their irrelevance in a world that has moved on to endless background filters on mobile phone camera applications. The intimacy, even if ephemeral, that a studio photographer shares with their subject/s is very different from a selfie on a phone. Sheth’s work is an invitation to examine that intimacy of the fictionalized space and time in the studio within the gallery, but also to throw open larger questions about a declining practice within the medium in India. “In many places, photo studio owners have had to consider shutting their shops on the road because of road widening projects and younger generations being more educated and not wanting to run the family business,” says Sheth. In that sense, this is the end of that idea of adventure, identity, and also of escape that portrait sitters desired in India’s small town photo studios—ironic for an image-crazy generation that cannot imagine themselves outside of the screen.
(Photo Studio, presented by PHOTOINK, in collaboration with Chemould Prescott Road, is on from September 17 – October 20, 2022)