The magic of camera

May 2, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar recalls the myriad photography studios Lahore once boasted

Gogi Pehlwan. — Image: Supplied

Being so enchantingly picturesque, Lahore has always been a centre of image-making. In fact, inside the Walled City there was a locale named after it — Mohallah Naqaashaan. Many foreign painters who visited the place made numerous images of the city and its inhabitants. Some intaglio or etching prints, called penny prints, were meant to be hand-dyed by the collectors. One such print of Chauburji, which exists in the archives, shows the Ravi flowing next to it.

With the simultaneous advent of photography and the railways, the saying that “distant lands have charming views” became a reality. Photographers captured the various historical places around the world. Lahore, too, was thronged by enthusiastic camera wielders. They were also able to go up to Rangoon to photograph the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar along with his wife which, on the occasion of the centenary of the uprising, appeared in the magazine, Lail-o-Nihar, edited by Sibte Hassan.

Photographers soon assumed the role of artists. In fact, they were a sort of painters because the negatives on glass plates and, later, on paper and the prints were retouched and manipulated to enhance the effect. Only the affluent could afford to get their portraits captured on camera, the enlarged prints of which were put in fancy frames and mounted in their drawing rooms.

Documentation of lavish marriage ceremonies of the rich became a craze and a rich source of information of the period. Shahid Zaidi has a treasure trove of negatives on glass plates and proof prints. In the beginning, some Europeans set up their photographic studios in the Donald Town or The Mall and in cantonment areas of RA Bazaar. Lahore being the centre of the largest numbers of educational institutions in the country, needed regular photographers for group photos on various occasions including convocations and also for identity cards. These were mainly black and white and sometimes sepia. Though, colour photography had emerged, the colours weren’t quite permanent.

The camera used for group photographs was a big wooden box mounted on a wooden tripod. The students in their long black gowns that were rented from Anarkali shops would pose in rows; the taller ones at the back and the shorter ones would stand in front rows. The professors had the privilege of being seated in chairs. In case of too many participants, some boys would sit on the floor.

The photographer would be the master of the ceremonies. He would adjust the ties and postures of everyone and order them to get ready, which meant that nobody should move or even blink eyes. He would take off the lid on the lens from one side and, moving it in a circle, put it back from the other side, thus ensuring a smooth exposure.

The subjects or models were not allowed to go away, because all their names had to be noted down in sequence. Arif, of Allied Studios, would later get the developed photographic prints mounted on a thick cardboard with the name of Government College, along with the logo of the Ravi, and date of the occasion printed on the top and the names of all participants duly printed in the right order. No wonder today’s generation marvels at the young faces of their grand and great grandfathers.

Even those who never got enrolled liked to get themselves photographed. For their convenience minute-camera was used. One connoisseur was a retired saindo who used to pull a motorcar with his big moustache in a circus. His name was Gogi Pehlwan. He had photographic paraphernalia of his own that included a darkroom, a developing unit and a camera. It was a box mounted on a tripod with a camera on the one side and a black curtain on the other side. He would ply his craft outside Pir Makki, next to the Data Darbar.

He allowed his clients to choose a coat of their liking and comb their hair and even put on some pungent perfume, and then made them sit on a fancy chair in the backdrop of a curtain that typically depicted some scene from Paris with swans paddling in the Sienna. He would remove the lid from the camera and gradually put it back. Now the client had to wait for the magic picture to emerge from the dark, curtained chamber. Inserting both his hands, he would give bath to the negative exposed on a paper and, after fixing it, take out of the dark room.

After letting it dry, he would make some corrections with a red ink that flowed from a thin sable or squirrel hair brush, and would proceed to take out a print in positive again in the dark chamber.

Several prints could be ordered pronto. The picture was ready which the visitors to the city would proudly show to their village folk back home who would, in turn, become eager to visit the city full of swans and fountains.

After the 1965 war, one such photographer plying his trade outside Mayo Hospital, had got the upper portion of a jet fighter plane contrived in wood. He would pass it over the head of the person being photographed and even give him leather goggles like those worn by the pilots in dog-fights. Under the print, he would hand-write “Great people to fly with.” The source of inspiration was air combats of Cecil Chaudhary and MM Alam.

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The still camera and, later, the movie camera emerged as powerful tools to record events and history, good or grisly. It took some time for photography to be recognised as an art that it is.

The earlier press photographers went to great lengths to record images on rudimentary cameras and slow film. The late FE Choudhary once said to me: “It was a real hard task to expose an image. Now, even a monkey can click a photo.” My reply: “True, a monkey can do it, but it would clearly appear to have been taken by a monkey and not a homo sapien.” I meant that it is the man behind the camera who matters.

Photo journalism is an entirely different field that merits another column.

Lahore has seen many famous photography studios — for instance, Stanley on Nisbet Road, the Egyptian near Mayo Hospital, Central Studio in the YMCA building, Kamera Craft in the Commercial Building, and the Green Art Studio next to the Coffee House, to name a few. Zaidis, opposite the Chief Courts, Bhatti in Dinga Singh Building, and S Rollo next to it.

On McLeod Road, right across the Lahore Hotel, there were Adam, Friends and Akkas studios. A fourth one had a minute camera. They were all run by professional and courteous people. They had rooms where coats and ties and combs were placed against a big mirror. The young would set their hair a la Dilip Kumar, with a curled lock hanging down, also called the “Crew-cut.”

Outside one of the studios stood a life-size image of a smiling girl in bikini, pasted over a thick cardboard. An innocent teenager at the time, I was more intrigued by the fourth photographic studio with that black curtain.

To be continued

(This dispatch is dedicated to Gogi Pehlwan)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

The magic of camera