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In the age of the selfie, the life of the photo studio

Photographer Ketaki Sheth’s work on photo studios transports us to the era when generations of Indians would assemble under the studio lights to get that perfect family portrait

art and culture Updated: Sep 29, 2018 11:22 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Ketaki Sheth,photo studios in India,Photoink
Couples pose for pictures in Babas Studio, Trivandrum, Kerala (2016)(Ketaki Sheth/PHOTOINK)

For over 50 years, Pankaj Indulal Thakkar’s Prince Photo Studio has been producing a certain loveliness in the coastal city of Bhavnagar, Gujarat. That is, if you are lovely, he’ll show it, if you are not, he won’t fake it. “My photographs are precise and true to form, our studio shows people as they are. And they are up on every wall or inside the family albums of my city,” says Thakkar.

The professional pride, however, is tinged with sadness. Thakkar has come to terms with the fact that he may be the last generation in his family to run this establishment. A photo studio in the age of selfies is fated to be a business where the act of looking and the act of clicking is geared towards a single outcome – how to get a photograph out for the customer with the click of a button and the speed of a file download on a computer.

The 70-plus owner has supervised shoots of the former royal family of Bhavnagar; college-goers posing with their professors in their final year for the year-book; cops in peaked caps and gun belt after a parade. Customers now walk in throwing words like angle, frame, pixel at Thakkar’s assistant photographers.

Thakkar’s is not a unique experience. Most photo studios that opened to cater to customers in a pre-digital India are on borrowed time. Veteran photographer Ketaki Sheth, known for her portraits, found more than 60 studios like Thakkar’s in nine states of India (Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Kerala, Telangana, West Bengal, Odisha) but in diverse states of well-being. (Sheth’s work on the photo studios of India is being exhibited at Delhi’s Photoink gallery till October 13.)

Those run by owners with imagination and enterprise are adapting to survive by opening a digital arm to the old studio, “but many are on the brink of collapse”, she says.

Sheth entered a photo studio as a birthday gift to herself on her 60th birthday with her family. This was not the first time she had entered one. From 2015-2018, she travelled across India shooting the quaint setting of the studios, their fixtures and their traditional backdrops across which swans jetted across a too-blue sky and fountains and mountains were assembled with the formality of miniature court paintings. Sheth saw in these tapestries the motif to bind her project at a time when she was searching for a subject to shoot in colour with her new camera, the Leica m9, after having used the Leica m6, for 25 years with black-and-white film.

A couple at Jagdish Photo Studio, Manori, Maharashtra (2015). Today, there are few takers for studios. ( Ketaki Sheth/PHOTOINK )

Before these backdrops, generations of Indians would assemble – in small towns such as Manori where Sheth began this project they still do – under the studio lights to face the camera to museumise their memories. Few want to do so anymore. Studios with these sort of backdrops are now dead spaces or, at best, murals of a bygone era. “In my pictures I have tried to infuse the mood of a past gone by with a contemporary eye. My photographs are a residual memory of a moment once cherished, but now fast eroding in the age of the smartphone,” says the photographer.

Studio owners, therefore, retire these backdrops but keep them handy just in case an oddball, with his/her head in the ’70s, should roll into town and demand a studio shoot with a ‘traditional background’ – a curtain pinched at the top of the steel rod while the rest of it unspools onto the ground. The current demand, says Sheth, is for abstract, shaded backdrops – bursts of red and pink against a black background or a seamless blue or brown.

The families that Sheth saw trooping into the studio had also shrunk. “Perhaps it was the breakdown of traditional family that I witnessed as subject upon subject came to ‘pose’ individually, exuding a new kind of photographic confidence.

“Perhaps what I saw was a changing India: a seven-year-old, so sure of the camera she almost breathed into it; the proud milkman with his steel canister unfazed that his days as a milkman are numbered; an ordinary man with an extraordinary love who felt the need to step out of the picture so that I could just shoot his wife; a couple whom I asked if I could make a portrait of them on the studio’s love-seat,” she says.

What Sheth’s photos capture are evidences of pragmatism and entrepreneurship. In Ashtarag Studio, Nuagaon, Odisha, the owner is the photographer and also the painter of backdrops, for instance. Namitha Prem’s Phototec Studio, a third-generation-run studio, one of the few such in Calicut, Kerala, is also doing well. “Customers say they want to be clicked in the pose they have seen a model on Pinterest. Ten years ago, the decision of how and what to shoot was all in the photo studio’s hands. If I don’t cater to them I won’t be in business,” says Prem. Now, she goes with the flow.

Prince Studio, Bhavnagar, Gujarat (2016), where you can get your picture taken with Mahatma Gandhi. The current demand is for abstract, shaded backdrops. ( Ketaki Sheth/PHOTOINK )

What Prem and Sheth also confirm is that despite the selfie, or perhaps because of it, the concept of what is public and what is private have merged. “Though some did refuse, Indians, by and large, I found were not averse to showing their face to the camera and be photographed by a stranger,” says Sheth. That privacy, too, can be a public spectacle has only grown in India. Which may not be bad news, after all, for the photo studio, the natural home for happy-family shoots. For what use is a family photo unless it begets some social media ‘loves’…. I guess.

Meet the artist
Ketaki Sheth has worked in black-and-white photography for over 30 years. She was mentored by the legendary Raghubir Singh, the pioneer of colour photography in India and arguably one of its greatest street photographers.
Sheth has published four books, including Photo Studio, her first in colour. She used the Leica m6 for 25 years. With film and processing becoming scarce, her entry into digital and colour was with her new camera, the Leica m9. Photo Studio is her first project with this camera. "With a bit of research on the new technology, I followed my instinct using light, form, timing and luck as my key ingredients," says Sheth. "In Manori, a fishing village 50 km from Mumbai, where I have a home, an idea took hold. Sometime in 2014, I discovered the nondescript Jagdish Photo Studio wedged in between a hardware store and a grain depot. I poked into its empty cramped space and saw a blue plastic stool against a sheer red curtain. It was a calling. I had to step in."
Sheth’s work has been exhibited both overseas and in India


First Published: Sep 28, 2018 22:22 IST