Photography as a digital document is making an unprecedented comeback, not leaving far behind the performative power of the self-portrait and its shift to the “selfie”. At this time, the return to the traditional photo studio is a clear indication of photographer Ketaki Sheth’s desire to explore the limits of physical space, painted settings and their relationship with portrait painters.

It all started in Manori, North Mumbai, when Sheth entered Jagdish Photo Studio in 2014 out of curiosity. A good portion of the show includes people from Manori photographed inside the studio, most of whom are now his friends. Sheth then traveled from 2015 to 2018 across India, visiting over 65 studios, most of which were about to close.

His exhibition, ‘Photo Studio‘, first premiered at PHOTOINK gallery in New Delhi in 2018 and, with some additions, has now traveled to Mumbai at Chemould Prescott-Road.

The striking difference between Sheth’s first exhibition in New Delhi and that in Mumbai is the installation of a veritable photo studio in the gallery space with original and painted backdrops from his project, including an old 100 years of a studio. in Secondabad. Sheth invites viewers to enter the studio and make their own portraits, assisted by a light technician called Prashant from the National Photo Studio in Mumbai.

The photo studio has served Indian families well for decades. From religious occasions, birthdays, family portraits, wedding portraits and even photo ID, it has been a place of negotiation with oneself, and often even with the size of the photo itself. As Christopher Pinney writes in the essay for Sheth’s book “Photo Studio”, “They say that if they offer a rural client a quarter or half-length portrait, the client will irascibly agree to pay only a quarter or half fresh! What the rural consumer wants, the joke asserts, is a full body pose, an integrity that is also marked by clarity and symmetry: they demand to be “framed so expert”.

Sheth subverts the idea of ​​this expert framing by becoming a viewer (of people making portraits of themselves) and an artist in the same space. In his own work on the walls, however, the compositions are watertight. The first image you see is two studio lights aimed at a cutout of Mahatma Gandhi, sitting on the floor of Prince Studio, Bhavnagar, Gujarat. This is one of many photographs where the subject is not a human being. There are mannequins, religious idols, a camera itself, and other props often used in studios to accompany the portrait artist. The decors are also eclectic. “There is a sci-fi backdrop from Victory Studio in Secunderabad, where I photographed the owner of the studio, in 2016. The painter was a young artist who later moved to Dubai,” says Sheth.

Besides the delightfully colored and painted backdrops that are in themselves an imaginary universe of an idea of ​​India that exists in tiny studios in cities whose untold stories are often confined to their physical geographies, the exhibition de Sheth also presents the power equation between the photographer and the portrait painter. Often she is the stranger who does not have to be present when customers enter. For example, in Cuttack’s Studio 786, a bride walked in with her husband on her wedding day to be officially photographed. Sheth was denied permission to do his portrait, unlike the studio photographer. She decided to photograph the act of the image being done in the studio. The result is hilarious: you see the studio photographer with her legs apart from her back, and just below is a glimpse of the bride’s outfit. “A hint of her is what I showed,” Sheth said.

Sheth’s work is a nod to the greatness of painted backdrops, but also saddened by their irrelevance in a world that’s moved to endless background filters on cellphone camera apps. . The intimacy, even fleeting, that a studio photographer shares with his subject(s) is very different from a selfie on the phone. Sheth’s work is an invitation to examine this intimacy of fictional space and time in the studio within the gallery, but also to ask broader questions about a declining practice within the medium in India. “In many places photo studio owners have had to consider closing their roadside stores due to road widening projects and younger generations being more educated and unwilling to run the family business,” says Sheth. In that sense, it’s the end of that idea of ​​adventure, identity and also escapism that portrait painters craved in small-town Indian photo studios – ironic for a picture-crazed generation that can’t s imagine outside the screen.

(Photo Studio, presented by PHOTOINK, in collaboration with Chemould Prescott Road, from September 17 to October 20, 2022)

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