How did you come to be associated with Studio Suhag? I first came to know Suresh in 1982 when I started my PhD research on industrial workers in Nagda. The present exhibition and book go back five years when Suresh told me that his godown had been flooded and he was about to throw away his archive of 50,000 negatives dating from the late 1970s. We managed to retrieve 1,500 of the larger negatives. We could see Suresh’s trademark inventiveness in his use of props and dramatic lighting.
The negatives provided a window onto a lost world of small-town fantasies and aspirations, and also onto the artisanal processes of pre-digital photography. What was particularly interesting was that the negatives, because of customers’ preference for full-body images, and their square format, often recorded the whole space of the studio, including studio lights etc. All this would be cropped out in the final print. This allows the images to be “re-coded” as “modernist” documents, interesting not only for the content they register in their “depth” but also for all the evidence of their making lain across the “surface”. Studio photographers saw themselves as skilled technicians more than artists. What about Punjabi?Suresh is certainly driven by a strong aesthetic sense but he doesn’t see himself as an “artist” in the Romantic sense. But he is unquestionably a “maker of worlds” which is the definition of the artist that the philosopher Nelson Goodman once used. Suresh is fascinated, delighted, puzzled by the exhibition and book. He assumes that these will mostly appeal to foreigners.
Studio photography is now almost dead in cities. Does it survive in small town India?In small towns, it’s thriving. Customers still look to studio photographers as theatrical impresarios, capable of staging visual perfection. Acquiring a spouse and documenting the ritual of marriage are too important to be left to cellphones or cheap digital cameras. People still look to the expertise and apparatus (which nowadays includes Photoshop) of studios.
Digital and mobile cameras have had a huge impact on photography. How would you describe this change? Some cellphone photography is undoubtedly displacing some work from the studios, but it’s also generating new photographic production some of which will in due course get printed in the studio. The new technology is also able to find new subjects for visualisation. In Camera Indica, you had theorised that portrait photography was as much about people playing out a fantasy as it was about capturing a likeness. Is Studio Suhag a development of this?Yes, it is in that it tries to reconcile those two things which my earlier work drew a distinction between. What the Studio Suhag images theorise in a visual form is that the fantasy is the likeness. That’s the magic of photography: it delivers what is placed in front of the camera and you can only dispute it with non-photographic evidence. It’s a technology that enables you to become who you want to be, especially when it’s under the supervision of a skilled person like Suresh.