Photography in the Margins: The Material History of an Indian Studio

Public Lecture by Christopher Pinney (Tbilisi, September 2017)

Tbilisi1

Studio Suhag presents a slice of 1970s and 80s history from central India. The images, by Suresh Punjabi, are testimony to an era of hands-on studio photography when physical materials combined with the photographer’s ingenuity to stage and record astonishing and poignant human dramas. They present a space in which the camera captured not only “real” subjects, but also personae made over to meet the camera’s eye. Here are labourers and bohemians, villagers and townspeople, the devout and the cosmopolitan. All are depicted with the aid of a relatively fixed repertoire of backdrops, lights, and accessories.

Tbilisi, Georgia

Photo credit: Rob Pinney

The images displayed here are printed from negatives salvaged after a recent flood destroyed the major part of Studio Suhag’s vast archive of small-town life. Customers’ preference for full body images, together with medium-format film’s square proportions result in the capture of much extraneous “noise” on the edges of the negatives.

Tbilisi, Georgia

Photo credit: Rob Pinney

This “noise” was rendered invisible in the final cropped prints, which focused on the central subject. By returning to the original whole negative, we foreground the materiality of Suresh Punjabi’s picture-making practice, revealing the improvisational creativity of his artisan apparatus and method. He offers us not only a set of haunting documents of a neglected “Indian vernacular”, but also an important conceptual commentary on the way in which photographic contingency inescapably mixes artifice with the real.