Studio photography: Portrait of a dying art

  • Manoj Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 19, 2015 10:03 IST
Raj Kamal’s studio in Kamla Nagar has lost 95% of its business in the last few years. (Ravi Choudhary/ HT Photo)

Umesh Sabharwal, a portrait photographer, calls himself a ‘memory maker’. His famed Prem Studio in Kamla Nagar boasts a variety of cameras, umbrella lights, multiple motorised backdrops, multicoloured curtains, soft boxes and reflectors.

“I have had the brightest moments of my life in this little dark space. There was a time when finely dressed men, women and children made a beeline to the studio to have their portraits made. But now very few people come here. I miss that one-toone exchange between me and my subject; I loved the life full of negatives and positives,” says Sabharwal reminiscing about the days of black and white analogue photography.

He says the snap-happy culture spawned by smartphones has killed photo studios. “Our studio photography has gone down by 70% in the past few years.

Earlier, people waited for hours to get photographed here, now I wait for them. Most of our business comes from wedding photography,” he says.

In fact, Prem Studio is luckier than Raj Kamal’s studio just across the road. Yashwant Mahajan, its owner, says his business is down by 95%. “In my father’s time people had to seek an appointment for getting their portraits done here. Now hardly anyone ever comes,” says Mahajan. An air of dereliction pervades the studio. Large individual and family portraits adorn its damp and discoloured walls. The reception has a large portrait of Mahajan’s father. “He was an artist and photographer. He was known for using hand-painted colourful backdrops in the studio,” says Mahajan, whose father set up the studio in 1953.

Raj Kamal’s is not an exception. Most well-known photo studios across the city, including Rangoon Studio, Shimla Studio, Delhi Photo Company in Connaught Place have shut down. And the picture is far from perfect for those who have survived the digital onslaught, especially smartphone photography.

Pavan Mehta, the third generation owner-photographer of Mahatta & Co, which is currently celebrating its centenary year, too holds smart phone responsible for killing studio photography. The company established in 1915 once had 70 employees, but now its staff strength is down to 15.

“While the decline of studio photography began about 15 years back with the advent of point and shoot digital cameras, people still used to come for printing their photographs. But smartphones have finished everything,” says Mehta.

Mehta says that smartphones have ushered an era of instant gratification. “You take lots of photos on your camera phone and see immediately how they turn out on the phone’s high definition screen. You do not feel the need to take the prints,” he says.

His shop is a museum of photography. Behind his counter is a glass case filled with over one hundred vintage cameras, including Rolleiflex (1929), Lipca Flexo (1949), Lubitel, (1954). The Mahattas plan to put them all on display during the exhibition the company is organising next month to mark their 100 years. “At times, in sheer desperation I think of renting out the shop,” says Mehta, talking about his dwindling business. In fact, last year he converted almost half of his showroom into a shop selling adventure sports gear.

Gagan Sabharwal of Studio Sabharwal in Gole Market, which was also a hub of studios and colour labs, agrees with Mehta. “Till 10 years back, people used to come to our studio get their portraits done on marriage anniversaries, birthdays, festivals. Now they come only for for passport size photos,” he says, adding, “Though I also own a lab, my daughter-in-law refused my offer to print their honey moon pictures. “Youngsters do not understand that they might lose all their precious memories if their digital storage devices get corrupt.”

Gagan Sabharwal feels that people might be taking lots of pictures, but they do not want to look at them after a few days. “The print is the ultimate expression of photography, not the mobile screen,” he says. Sabharwal’s is one of the few surviving labs and studio in Gole Market. Many others in the area such as Aashirwad, Chitrakar, Mercury, Marwah, have downed shutters. “My son gave up photography to open an electronics showroom,” he says.

Umesh Sabharwal says that manual printing and processing of photographs was an art. It was in a lab full of trays, dish, scissors, sponges, plastic pegs or blades, brushes, timers, chemicals. “It was not easy to master darkroom techniques,” says Sabharwal.

In fact, those days a lot of photographers such as Ram Lal Lekhi, who set up Lekhi Studio in the early 1950s, were artists who could do portraits using oil paints.
“Film actor Pran started as a photographer and he learnt it from my grandfather. But our family decided to close the studio after business went down sharply,” says Rishi Lekhi, grandson of Ram Lal Lekhi.

However, DN Chaudhury 82, a well-known photographer, who has several photographic books to his credit, feels that digitalisation has democratised photography. “With smartphone cameras, everyone has become a skilled photographer and people are experimenting a lot. Now, photographers need to reinvent themselves. I am already working with Google Drives and Instagram,” he laughs.

But Yashwant Mahajan of Raj Kamal’s studio feels that studio photography will stage a comeback. “In the next few years, people will begin to appreciate the value of studio photography. But then it will be beyond the reach of the common man. It will only be for the rich,” he says.

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