Ketaki Sheth has been a photographer for four decades and she used only black-and-white film until 2014. Photo Studio (Photoink, 2018) marks the veteran’s extraordinary transition to colour using the digital medium.
The Mumbai-based Sheth’s work is part of major museum and private collections across the world. Among her other well-known publications are Twinspotting: Photographs of Patel Twins in Britain & India (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2000); and Bombay Mix: Street Photographs (Dewi Lewis Publishing and Sepia International, 2007).
Sheth’s solo exhibitions include “On Belonging: Photographs of Indians of African Descent” at the National Portrait Gallery, London (2015); “A Certain Grace: The Sidi, Africans of Indian Descent” at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi (2013); and “Bombay Mix” at Emile Zola Gallery and at Fête du Livre, Aix-en-Provence (2008).
Between 2015 and 2018, Sheth, now 65, travelled across India and visited over 65 photo studios, many of which were in a shabby state of decline. While photo studios in India have been explored and written about extensively, Sheth’s approach to studios has been anything but conventional. She often ignores strict conventions of making formal portraits of people with inscrutable expressions. Instead, she uses ageing studio lights when available, a handheld camera, and a 35mm lens to exhume tales of past glory and draw one’s attention to objects and a cast of characters that surrender gracefully to her gaze.
Photo Studio is as much a story about photography in the age of selfies as it is about contemporary life and attachments. Over the years, Sheth has shown remarkable facility as she shifts seamlessly between the posed portrait and street photography.
The book, designed by Itu Chaudhuri, complements Sheth’s aesthetic sensibility without conceding to either humour or pathos in the way the book unfolds. Christopher Pinney’s essay provides the historical and theatrical context to photo studios in India and Sheth’s fluid interventions in those spaces.
In her essay in the book, Sheth says: “It was in Manori, sometime in 2014, that I discovered the nondescript Jagdish Photo Studio wedged between a hardware store and a grain depot on the main strip. 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. After meeting the manager and fixing a mutually convenient time to work here, I knew I would have no problem finding sitters in a place so intimate and familiar. I soon began making portraits of local residents. As my sitters streamed in, an idea slowly formed. The studio’s quaint setting, fixtures, old-fashioned diaphanous backdrops together with the confident formality of the subjects, gripped me.
“I sought similar situations elsewhere in India. In the three years that followed, from 2015-2018, I found over 65 studios—some adapting to survive but many on the brink of collapse. My photographs are a residual memory of a moment once cherished, but now fast eroding in the age of the smart phone. In my pictures I have tried to infuse a mood of a bygone past with a contemporary eye.”
To accompany the exhibition, Chemould Prescott Road has created a photo studio within its gallery using original backdrops from her project. Visitors are invited to use this studio to make their own pictures aided by a lighting technician.
Ketaki Sheth will also be available to make commissioned portraits by appointment.
For enquiries, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The show is on display until October 20, 2022.
Devika Daulet-Singh is the director of Photoink, New Delhi.