Portrait of Ketaki Sheth from the photo studio

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In the Ketaki Sheth series photography studio, workshop spaces, often devoid of human presence, tell their own stories. Old lights, curtains, faded backdrops, props, a Charlie Chaplin-esque image at the entrance – all offer a nod to the studios’ past glory, whether in Manori, Maharashtra, or Cuttack, Odisha. Today, people visit at most for ID photos or the misplaced post-wedding portrait.

In photography studio, Sheth’s photographs act as portraits of the studios themselves. The series indeed marks Sheth’s passage from the analog medium to digital, and from black and white to color. “photography studio is as much a story of photography in the age of selfies as it is of contemporary life and attachments,” says the note from Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, which shows the series of 55 images, accompanied by a book, until 20 October, in collaboration with Delhi-based gallery PHOTOINK.

Even the images that feature studio visitors break away from the formal, mannered portraits usually associated with studios. In his images, the workshop becomes a character, objects and people surrendering to his gaze.

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Take, for example, the image of a couple taken at Babas Studio in Thiruvananthapuram. The two had come for a passport photo but agreed when Sheth asked if she could photograph them on a loveseat in the studio. The result was an intense image, very different from the impersonal, blank-eyed passport photograph.

Supervise the workshop

Moti Art Studio, Ajmer, Rajasthan, 2016, edition of 10

The series was born between 2015 and 2018, when the photographer, known for series such as Twinspotting, A certain grace and Bombay Blend, traveled across India and visited 65 studios, most of which were struggling to stay afloat. “Over the years, Sheth has demonstrated remarkable ease in switching seamlessly between two distinct ways of photographing: posed portraiture and street photography. The book’s design by Itu Chaudhuri complements Sheth’s aesthetic sensibility without giving in to humor or pathos in the way the book unfolds,” the note adds.

For Sheth, each series begins with a spontaneous act. “It was quite a coincidence to spot a small studio on the main street of Manori, a Portuguese fishing village 60km north of Mumbai, where I have a house,” she says. Sheth glanced up and saw a bright blue stool against a red curtain. “I was blown away,” she adds. One thing led to another, she soon had a steady stream of models, some known and some unknown, coming to the studio to be photographed, mostly at festivals and other important occasions for the Koli community. “But there were days when people would come just for a regular photo for the Aadhaar card, like the man with the scar. As soon as I saw him, I knew I had to photograph him,” says Sheth .

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She started thinking about expanding her series to other studios, researching online, and talking 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 the aura, Christopher Pinney, Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College London, writes: “His astute investigation of mass self-presentation and its techniques offers a way to look at a neglected aspect of contemporary India. which also demands to be treated as a point in a globally distributed substrate of practices that resist the unpredictable alignments of the ‘screen’. He adds that the crumpled and rather shabby space of the studio, with its lights and stereotypical repertoire of sets, was a space of anticipation and, often, predictability. “It is, one might say, a ‘setting’ that invites its participants to join it on its own auratic terms…. People enter the space of eternal return not only to embrace the past but also to create a new future,” Pinney writes.

Asked about the transition from analogue to digital, Sheth says she had been resistant to change, “maybe even a little lazy”. She preferred the comfort of the film camera. “But my friend Sooni (Taraporevala), who knows me well, said to me, ‘Ketu, pretend 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.

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A series of changes

The switch to color has happened simply because the film and resources needed for black and white are increasingly hard to come by, with labs closing. She discovered color while walking in the villages of Manori and the surrounding area. “I think my eye just caught it pretty 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 towards the church with two dogs almost reflecting them, a fishing net with a pale pink ribbon, a newborn baby on a velvet sofa brown in a room with chintz curtains, etc. I knew once I started taking good pictures that color was for me, even though it came so late,” she explains.

Babas Studio, Trivandrum, Kerala, 2016, edition of 10

Babas Studio, Trivandrum, Kerala, 2016, edition of 10

Over the past few decades, Sheth has traveled extensively and photographed a wide range of subjects, some of which now lie with her as canned images. In a previous interview, Sheth had mentioned photographing women in the Defense Force – she had never printed them.

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Are there any projects she wanted to revisit? “The Army and Navy series was made a long time ago and remained largely unfinished. During covid-19 I pulled out and scanned the footage, but it just wasn’t good enough. It happens , even now,” she says. But she’s learned to move on.

“I want to photograph new works! And I have a day job – running a small office in memory of my father – which is sometimes difficult. I manage two houses. And sometimes I walk away from photography,” she says. “For example, during covid-19 I wrote two radio plays – one set in Manori, where I wrote a lot of it.”

Photo Studio is on display at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, until October 20, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed on Sundays and public holidays).

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