A VACANT BLUE STOOL is stationed on a white-tiled floor marked by a yellow-and-black geometric pattern in front of a red-and-blue curtained backdrop. There is the suggestion of an absent sitter. The framing is generous enough for us to see more than the photograph that would have been taken from a similar angle by a different pair of eyes, one more accustomed to casting a studio glance. This exquisite simplicity is the hallmark of this definitive image taken by Ketaki Sheth in a studio in Manori, a coastal village 50 km from Mumbai. She was possibly surprised by the directness of its unassuming visual language. It set her off into many directions that would eventually converge into Photo Studio, her latest series, currently on display at Photoink, Delhi.
For those familiar with Sheth’s astonishing, acclaimed body of documentary photography, from the self-explanatory Bombay Mix: Street Photographs (2007); to Twinspotting (1995-1998), her eerie recording of Patel Twins in the UK; to A Certain Grace, The Sidi: Indians of African Descent (2013), this image of the blue stool she chanced upon at Jagdish Photo Studio, Manori, contains additional significance. For, unlike her previous exhibitions and books, it is shot in colour, using a digital camera. It marks both a point of entry and a moment of departure for the Mumbai-based artist, inviting us into the déjà vu universe of the photo studio through her embrace of the mediums potentially responsible for the accelerated demise of this vernacular space.
‘I first acquired my Leica M9 in 2012. It lay unused for over a year as I struggled with a commitment to digital photography,’ Sheth writes in the elegantly designed photo book accompanying the ongoing exhibition. ‘I continued to shoot with black-and-white film using a Leica M6 that had been my reliable companion for 25 years. Film and processing were becoming scarce. All around me seemed to be embracing technology. Except me.’
Sheth began to invest in digital and colour photography while on a shoot with Prabhakar Jog, an acclaimed 80-year-old potter and idol-maker. They travelled together over 600 km from Mumbai to his village in Ratnagiri to shoot the idols he’d made. “I returned home on a digital high with a memory card stuffed with images,” Sheth recounts. “But the pleasure was short-lived. I discovered to my horror that many of the images were reticulated by a flawed sensor of the new camera.” This disaster motivated Sheth to hastily retreat to the safety of film. However, by then she’d already gotten hooked to the immediacy of the digital medium and found herself longing for the magic of seeing images instantly, not fiddling with film rolls or worrying about shooting in low-light situations. To her, it seemed inevitable that she should return to using the M9 that she’d had refurbished with a new sensor. The series with Jog was not meant to be. She returned to the streets in search of a new subject. “Seeing that blue stool was a calling. I stepped in,” Sheth says over email. “After that it was another six months of photographing Manori residents as my sitters, and I was still not thinking about a book, or a show. I really just wanted good pictures. I was new to both colour and digital. I was sucked in. It was after six months that I felt I must spread my wings and enter this world in other places in India.” In the following three years, from 2015 to 2018, Sheth found over 65 studios across eight Indian states, many standing as a vestige of a once popular tradition of representation. ‘I saw a changing India: a seven-year-old, so sure of the camera she almost breathed into it; a beautiful girl, denied a college education because her parents expected her to marry, wanted pictures of herself, not selfies; the proud man with his steel canister, unfazed that his days as a milkman are numbered; an ordinary man with his extraordinary wife who felt the need to step out of the picture for her; a girl in pink with a post, a bit hesitant at first, opened to the camera as if she was once a painter’s muse; an ailing studio owner who directed the shot of himself, choosing the seat, angle and backdrop with confident ease,’ Sheth writes in the publication.
“I was new to both colour and digital. I felt I must spread my wings and enter this world in other places in India” – Ketaki Sheth photographer
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Relying solely on her intuition, and knowing fully well that this new fixation of hers was one that had already been well established as a legitimate genre within photography, Sheth decided not to invest her imagination with knowledge of what others before her had done. ‘At the time I was shooting I had no preconceived notions, I had no previous references,’ she said in her email. ‘I was myself not sure what was going to come out of this. I did what I do best. I relate to people quite well I think. I have an eye for detail, and the wonderful world of digital allowed me to look at the image instantly. Thirty years of photography has trained me to see visual connections. I almost always knew when I got a good picture.’
The exhibition at Photoink, deftly curated by Devika Daulet-Singh, offers viewers a delicious sample of what the photo book contains. Daulet-Singh has a cluster of photographs populating one wall of the gallery, while the remaining walls are relatively bare, the two adjacent facing walls have just one image each. On the other side of the gallery, mounted on one wall is one of the rented painted backdrops that features in the series. The book is a meticulously pared down selection of over 200 images, connoting the pathos, nostalgia and humour Sheth feels was intrinsic to her acquaintance with the photo studios as well as an extension of her own personality. There’s a luxurious quality to Sheth’s interpretation of the vernacular aesthetic that marks these pan-Indian studios; a visual delighting in the small details that mark either the unintentionally eloquent placement of objects or the bizarre-ness of the painted backdrops that feature either landscapes or architectural structures, like the Bahai temple. It is Sheth’s gracious and indulgent way of looking that inflects the colour field of each photograph. The series evolves into a moving meditation on site specificity as well as her sitters’ relationship to the backdrop, which is not always figural. There are many instances where the subject is in fact an object that has been invested with narrative energy. Sometimes Sheth considers the backdrop itself a suitable subject; one worthy of attention without the compulsion of sitters; as if suggesting to us its own identity as witness and aspirational signifier. This is where her ethnographic instincts are most visible.
Sheth perhaps achieved the aura of exquisite simplicity by simplifying her modus operandi, reducing it to ‘one camera, one lens, and really no accessories’, relying mainly on lighting that was available within the photo studios she was documenting. ‘To be in a contained, intense space with darkness and light— with a subject or a prop or a visual detail that haunts you is the best possible material for a photographer,’ she wrote in her email. ‘At the time of shooting there is no thinking, it really is something from within. I never dreamed I would find a Bahai backdrop in the interiors of Orissa, or find two completely different red drapes waiting for my eye to catch the consonance in Cuttack or find a sky with clouds that looked like birds flying back at night in a commercial street in Mumbai, or to create a tree with an ancient rusty tripod in a village in Kerala. These are all things that happened at the moment and were never planned or researched,’ she adds. It is this innocence of someone inherently brilliant who has just discovered a new strategy to play the same game that makes Photo Studio such a relatable and immediate series. She enlists her sitters to collaborate with her spirit of play through her infectious excitement. It is only natural that this osmotic encounter finds itself rendered within the end experience of viewing. Photo Studio isn’t just about a veteran photographer discovering colour as a medium and playing with the digital format. It is also about a woman with astute powers of observation and intuition shedding her longstanding fixation with film and, consequently showing the world an original, audacious way of seeing and encountering the already seen and already dreamt, the déjà vu and the déjà rêvé.