Vintage black & white photographs on the walls; a 1948 vintage DeVere enlarger, a 81-year-old Yebta wooden camera… the studio of Mahatta & Company in Connaught Place looks like a museum of photography.
But then it’s no ordinary photo studio; it dates back to 1915 — the year it was started in Srinagar. The CP studio, started in 1947, once used to attract the rich, the famous and the royals.
The studio had been quick to adopt new technologies: it introduced colour negative-positive printing in India in 1954, and colour processing and printing in 1970.
But these are tough times for city studios, including the Mahattas, which once saw an unending stream of customers for family photos, portraits and matrimonial pictures. Many have closed down. What was once Rangoon Studio is now Pizza Hut while Shimla Studio has become Barista.
“Studio photography has been affected in the last decade because of the digital photography revolution. These days we mostly do passport photos. Now everyone believes that he can take a great picture himself with a digital or even a mobile phone camera. The digital camera may have made it easier to take a technologically sound photo, but there is no art or mystery left in photography,” says the soft-spoken owner Madan Mehta (78), while listening to Engelbert Humperdink’s Alone in The Night in his studio.
Could this be why the studio also stocks Nokia camera mobile phones now?
“Mobile camera phones are the future of photography,” explains his elder son Pavan.
Mehta’s father Amarnath Mehta, a well-known photographer in his time, set up the Srinagar studio. “I was perhaps the first Indian to have been trained as a photographer in England in 1950,” says Mehta.
The Mahattas — they came to be called so called by the British who could not pronounce Mehta properly — have been famous for matrimonial photography.
“We still do some matrimonial photography. But there was a time when people in Delhi said your daughter won’t be married if you don’t get her pictures taken at Mahattas,” says Mehta who has been the official photographer of the Maharaja of Kashmir and the King of Bhutan.
“We still have some old-timers who come to get photographed for their wedding anniversary. Recently, an old couple came to the studio for a picture on their 75th wedding anniversary. They told me my grandfather had photographed them on their first anniversary in Srinagar,” says Pavan.
Mehta’s sons Pavan and Pankaj, both photographers, now plan to use
the studio space for a photography school.
“From next month we will be starting courses in photography. We will use all our infrastructure and expertise to train those wanting to learn photography. It’s part of our diversification process,” says Pavan.
Keeping a promise
The picture is hardly perfect at The Kinsey Brothers — another old photo studio in CP, whose history goes back to 1905, when it was started in Shimla.
The CP branch was set up in 1935 by L.O. Kinsey an Englishman, who was the most famous portrait photographer in the city then. Kinsey’s portrait still adorns the wall of the studio.
“He mostly catered to the royals. He wanted to go back to London in 1945, so he decided to sell the studio. Many companies from across the country wanted to buy it, because Kinsey had a treasure trove of thousands of original negatives of the royal families from across the country. He sold the studio to my father, his friend and a famous photographer of his times on condition that he would not change the line of work and the name of the studio,” says Ashok Dilwali, 65, the studio’s owner, who is one of the finest nature photographers in India, with 21 coffee table books on the Himalayas to his credit.
Dilwali took over the studio from his father in 1971.
“There was a time when people had to seek an appointment to get themselves photographed at our studio. Apart from family pictures, we also used to do a lot of matrimonial photography, which is also on decline now,” he says. But why?
“A lot of mothers whom we photographed at the time of their marriage bring their daughters for matrimonial pictures. But these days daughters are not interested in matrimonial pictures; they do not cooperate with the photographer in the studio,” says Dilwali, adding: “The studio photographer has lost respect in society.”
His son, Rajat, 39, seeing no future in studio photography, has diversified into digitizing books and documents.
Dilwali, too, feels there is no chance of studio photography staging a comeback. “The traditional photo studio is dead. We are running the studio to keep the promise my father made to Kinsey,” he says, as he shows us the studio equipped with cameras, flesh umbrellas, reflectors and coloured canvasses which serve as background. But there is not much action these days.
From studio to gallery
Vijay Shanker, 75, owner of Delhi Photo Company at Janpath, believes it is not just the digital photo revolution which is killing photo studios.
“Family values have changed. The demise of the joint family has led to the demise of the family photograph. Besides studio photography has been commercialised and the studios are no longer the creative places they used to be. Studio photography has lost its innocence,” says Shanker who trained as a photographer in Germany in 1956.
He took over the studio, established in 1937, from his father Bhagwati Prasad in 1964. Prasad was the official photographer of the first President of India.
Last year, Shanker converted much of the studio (though it still does passport photos) into a gallery exclusively for photo exhibitions. The gallery is currently undergoing renovation and will reopen in October.
“Our gallery will have a café and a garden in the backyard for evening get-togethers. It will serve as place for budding photographers to meet and exchange ideas,” says Shanker, who refused a tempting offer from an automobile major which wanted to buy the shop for a car showroom.