In Ketaki Sheth’s series Photo Studio, studio spaces, often bereft of human presence, tell their own stories. Old lights, drapes, fading backgrounds, props, a Charlie Chaplin-esque image at the entrance—all offer a hat tip to the past glory of studios, be it in Manori, Maharashtra, or Cuttack, Odisha. Today people visit at most for passport photographs or the stray post-wedding portrait.
In Photo Studio, Sheth’s photographs act as portraits of the studios themselves. The series marks, in fact, Sheth’s shift from the analogue to digital medium, and from black and white to colour. “Photo Studio is as much a story about photography in the age of selfies as it is about contemporary life and attachments,” states the note from Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, which is showing the series of 55 images, with an accompanying book, till 20 October, in collaboration with the Delhi-based gallery PHOTOINK.
Even the images that feature visitors to the studio break away from the formal, mannered portraits usually associated with studios. In her images, the studio becomes a character, with objects and people surrendering to her gaze.
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Take, for instance, the image of a couple taken in Babas Studio in Thiruvananthapuram. The two had come in for a passport photograph but agreed when Sheth asked if she could photograph them on a love-seat in the studio. This resulted in an intense image, very different from the impersonal, vacant-gaze passport photograph.
Framing the studio
The series came about between 2015-18, when the photographer, known for series such as Twinspotting, A Certain Grace and Bombay Mix, travelled across India and visited 65 studios, most of which were struggling to stay afloat. “Over the years, Sheth has shown remarkable facility as she shifts seamlessly between two distinct ways of making photographs—the posed portrait and street photography. The book design by Itu Chaudhuri complements Sheth’s aesthetic sensibility without conceding to either humour or pathos in the way the book unfolds,” the note adds.
For Sheth, each series starts with a spontaneous act. “It was rather serendipitous, spotting a tiny studio on the main strip in Manori, a Portuguese fishing village 60km north of Mumbai, where I have a home,” she says. Sheth peeped in and saw a bright blue stool against a red curtain. “I was blown,” she adds. One thing led to another and soon she had a steady stream of sitters—some known and others unknown, who came in to the studio to be photographed, mainly during festivals and other occasions of importance to the Koli community. “But then there were days when people just came in for some ordinary photo for the Aadhaar card, such as the man with the scar. As soon as I saw him, I knew I had to photograph him,” says Sheth.
She began to think of extending her series to other studios, researching online and speaking to friends and colleagues with families in places like Cuttack, Kozhikode, Ajmer and Darjeeling. Soon, she had a list of studios ready.
In an essay titled Expert Framing Or The Persistence Of Aura, Christopher Pinney, a professor of anthropology and visual culture at University College London, writes, “Her astute investigation of mass self-presentation and its techniques offers a way of viewing a neglected aspect of contemporary India which also demands to be treated as one point in a globally distributed substrate of practices that resist the unpredictable alignments of the ‘screen’.” He adds that the crumpled, rather shabby space of the studio, with its lights and stereotypical repertoire of backdrops, was a space of anticipation, and, often, predictability. “It is, we might say, a ‘frame’ that invites its participants to join it on its own auratic terms…. People step into the space of eternal return not only to embrace the past but also to make a new future,” writes Pinney.
When asked about the transition from analogue to digital, Sheth says she had been resistant to change, “maybe even a bit lazy”. She preferred the comfort of the film camera. “But my friend Sooni (Taraporevala), who knows me well, said, ‘Ketu, just pretend that it’s your M6 without film.’ She showed me in 10 minutes flat how easy it was to use. And the mental block was removed,” says Sheth.
A series of shifts
The shift to colour came about simply because the film and resources needed for black and white are becoming more difficult to access, with labs shutting down. She discovered colour as she walked through villages in and around Manori. “I think my eye just caught it rather quickly. It was like learning a new alphabet at 50. I saw a dark cave with a window to a lush garden, two girls in lilac walking to church with two dogs almost mirroring them, a fishing net with a pale pink ribbon, a newborn baby on a maroon velvet sofa in a room with chintz curtains, and more. I knew once I started getting good pictures that colour was for me even if it had come so late,” she explains.
Over the past few decades, Sheth has travelled extensively and photographed a wide range of subjects—some of which now lie with her as canned images. In an earlier interview, Sheth had mentioned photographing women in the defence forces—she never printed these.
Are there projects she has wanted to revisit? “The army and navy series was done a long time ago and has largely remained unfinished. During covid-19, I pulled some out and scanned the images but they just weren’t good enough. It happens, even now,” she says. But she has learnt to move on.
“I want to photograph new work! And I have a day job—I run a small office in memory of my father—which goes for a toss sometimes. I run two homes. And occasionally, I drift away from photography,” she says. “For instance, during covid-19, I wrote two radio plays—one set in Manori, where I wrote much of it.”
Photo Studio is on view at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, till 20 October, 10am-6pm (closed on Sundays and public holidays).