Till a few decades ago, photo studios enjoyed a special place in the lives of most Indians. Be it birthdays, graduations, wedding days or festivals, they would dress up in their Sunday best, and head to these studios to capture the important moments in their lives for posterity.

In the 1990s, these businesses, with their elaborate backdrops, reflectors and cameras, began losing out with the advent of the point-and-shoot cameras. The death knell though came with camera phones in the 2000s. Studio-quality photos were available with the click of a button.

Photo Studio, a new book and exhibition of photographs by Ketaki Sheth, offers a fresh perspective on that diminishing tradition. It is a compendium of 50-odd photographs of, or about, photo studios across India.

Many stories

The first thing visitors see on entering the PhotoINK gallery in Vasant Kunj, Delhi, where the exhibition opened on September 13, is a collage of 35 vibrant photos. There’s a photo of a black coat on a red hanger hanging askew. In another photo, a boy is looking at the hand-painted studio backdrop instead of the camera. Then there’s a series of photos of people between eight and 80 looking directly into the camera. There’s an image of a photograph as well as one of a negative. Another one features the founder of a photo studio, lounging drowsily in a chair, waiting for customers

Together, these signal diversity: both of the cultures of India and of people’s engagement with the photo studio. From two boys lying on the floor to a girl standing ramrod straight and holding a bouquet of flowers, the photographs capture a range of postures and attitudes.

Individually, each is a guided tour into the world of the photo studio. This is perhaps best illustrated by an image that heroes the studio photographer himself. It shows him squatting and adjusting a bride-to-be’s posture on a stool. There is a sense of complete absorption in the task, harking back to a time when photo studios were still spaces where important occasions were formalised for futurity.

Another 15 images are more spread out. On one wall, the picture of a 100-year-old cut-out of Mohandas Gandhi in a studio in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar is flanked by pictures of other inanimate props: an icon of the Hindu god Krishna on a pedestal to the left, and lamplights trained on an empty bench to the right. The effect is somehow both historic and desolate. The props were part of several pictures over time, but have now been relegated to cupboards where they gather dust.

Germ of an idea

The idea for the project first came to Sheth in 2015, when she visited Jagdish Photo Studio in Manori, Maharashtra. In Photo Studio, the book about the show, Sheth writes about her experience: “The studio’s quaint setting, fixtures, old-fashioned diaphanous backgrounds together with the confident formality of the subjects gripped me.”

Over the next three years, Sheth travelled to 69 other studios across eight states: Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Kerala, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Telangana and Haryana. In studio after studio, she encountered similar stories of former glory and present-day decline. Across all of them, she captured the change in fortunes through pictures of studios, props, photographers and customers who sometimes walked in for a portrait, and consented to having their picture taken by her.

Anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney has chronicled the decline of studio photography in India in the age of Instagram in his book Artisan Camera: Studio Photography from Central India. In February, a documentary by French artist Christophe Prébois was screened in Jaipur about a photo studio that had a flourishing business in the 1960s and ’70s. The studio was turned into a dry cleaning store in the early 2000s.

Photo Studio best documents these changing fortunes with a photograph of tungsten lights that Sheth took at Mumbai’s India Photo Studio. The studio once counted Hindi movie stars such Raj Kapoor and Nargis among its customers, and its founder had especially designed the lights for clicking portraits. A caption in the book informs readers that like the studio, the lights are rarely used now.

Every show of Sheth’s is accompanied by a companion book. Her Bombay Mix comprised 20 years’ street photography in Mumbai. Her Twinspotting was a study of the Patel community through 100 pairs of twins across India and the United Kingdom, while A Certain Grace was about the Siddi community that migrated from the African continent to India centuries ago. Similarly, Photo Studio too is paired with the launch of an eponymous book.

The show is also Sheth’s first exhibition of colour photographs in a career spanning 30 years. In 2015, around the time she started visiting the photo studios, Sheth swapped her Leica M6 and black-and-white film for a digital Leica M9 camera – for a second time. She had first used a digital camera in 2014, but a flawed sensor had ruined the pictures. Sheth had been resisting the shift to digital colour photography, but as it became increasingly difficult to access and develop camera roll, she had to relent.

In a TEDx talk in February, where Sheth spoke about, among other things, her work in this show, she described the decline of photo studios, and the shift in her photography practice as “mirroring” each other in a way. Both, she said, were on the “brink of change”.

Ketaki Sheth. Photo credit: Devika Daulet Singh.
Ketaki Sheth. Photo credit: Devika Daulet Singh.

Underlying narratives

There are no captions at the exhibition. For these, one must turn to the book.

Though not essential to understanding and appreciating the show, the captions do open up parallel narratives within the largerstory of photo studios’ decline. For example, one says:

“The

milkman

agreed to

stand

against

smart city

India,

where he

can no

longer ply

his trade.”

The photograph, taken at Moti Art Studio in Ajmer, Rajasthan, captures a local carrying a tin canister of milk. Behind him is a printed background of skyscrapers and a manmade lake. His presence seems incongruous – the old-fashioned clothes and the very nature of his profession sticking out against the modern, streamlined and almost sanitised setting. Sheth’s caption draws attention to the canister and to occupations which, like studio photography, are becoming less lucrative.

The book is an invaluable resource for understanding Sheth’s take on the subject and for discovering new ways to see the show. In an introductory essay, Pinney points to a creative tension in the show – the coexistence of symmetry and asymmetry. “Symmetry underscores the frame, whether in the depiction of a blue stool, a suspended coat with red tie, or a laughing schoolgirl caught perfectly between the two umbrella lights of the studio. But elsewhere, dislocation is the theme,” he writes.

It is just one of the lenses through which to view the pictures. Another more unmediated and personal experience is on offer as well: the gallery has set up a bench and a chair to sit and observe the photographs at leisure.

Photos by Ketaki Sheth, courtesy PhotoINK.

Photo Studio is on at PhotoINK, Vasant Kunj, Delhi, till October 13.