Through the lense


Through the lense

Joined forces, Amima and Romano, presented a unique event on Culture and Identity at the IVS, Karachi, as documented by Zaidi’s Studios, Lahore. . .

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Joined forces, Amima and Romano, presented a unique event on Culture and Identity at the IVS, Karachi, as documented by Zaidi’s Studios, Lahore. . .

Zaidi’s Studios was created in 1928 in Lahore by Syed Nazir Ali Zaidi, one of two brothers (the other being Syed Wazir Ali Zaidi). The studio still occupies its original premises of No. 23 The Mall, Lahore, in the Masson Narsingdas Building. Intriguingly, these original founders of their first studio in Benaras in 1904, were graduates of the (then) Mayo School of Arts, where they learned the craft of painting portraits.

Image-Music-Text is a series of essays containing Roland Barthes’s reflections on the way that images create meaning and popular appeal. “The Photographic Message” identifies two separate structures in news photographs where one is an image and the other is linguistic. Barthes explains how “the two structures of the message each occupy their own defined spaces.” The language and image communicate in their own unique way. Barthes notes that it is a misconception to assume that the photographs in the media capture reality directly. He contends that almost every image has both a direct or “denotative” meaning as well as a deeper and less easily identifiable “connotative” meaning. 

The above passage provides us with the tools with which we can discuss this exhibition of over a hundred photographic prints, representing a mere fraction of about three-hundred thousand negatives archived over the decades up to the present day. One might look up the synonyms of the word extraordinary, and they would all describe the various aspects of the portraits.

The chosen prints represent the history, culture and identity of the Subcontinent in the best format possible – visuals of groups and individuals, in the studio environment as well as on location – and they range from the very ordinary to the most astonishing subjects; from, literally, Maharajas, to Memsahibs with their foreign husbands (and vice-versa!), from Governor-Generals to Social Activists, from playwrights to sportspersons – all these came to this premiere studio or had the studio team come to location.. Not surprising, then, that their collection encapsulates Barthes’ observations which contribute to the larger discourse that places photographic images in such a tremendously important position, as carriers of more than just its subject’s presence. Parveen Shakir stole Mr. Shahid Zaidi’s heart, and he paid her homage in her color portrait composed of glowing and soft yellow tones. Mr. Imran Khan sat for his portrait, in 1972, and the intrepid Mr. Zaidi had a story to tell about how he captured an image of General Ayub Khan and Jacqueline Kennedy in a cavalcade.

The exhibition is a tour-de-force in many ways. It has clues and indications of the fashions of the times, each portrait is encoded with mores, spoken and unspoken. Yet, the often crystalline quality of the images and the textures therein belie feats of dedication, commitment and technical virtuosity, because these are digital prints – the original negatives, most of them damaged by storage conditions, marked by the ravages of time itself, have been reconstituted painstakingly and meticulously to an absolutely remarkable professional level.

Most poignant and touching, is a portrait of Shahla Khan (formerly Shahla Leghari) as a beautiful young woman. Indeed, this lady bravely attended the exhibition despite her extreme age.

The current exhibition is a homage to the Zaidi family in general, and the Late Shahid Zaidi in particular. Avid outdoorsman, pilot, fisherman, and mountain climber, he was the custodian of the negatives, each a small part of the society and times of the city that was Lahore. He had the foresight to begin digitizing the old format negatives (many on glass slides),by photographing the negatives with a high resolution digital camera. In the words of the exhibitors, “The result of his labors is before you. The digitizing process will take a few more years. We await the unfolding of the full story once this massive task is complete”.

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