Shahid Ali Zaidi was the last of the Zaidis, an iconic name in portrait photography in Lahore and beyond
he man behind the camera is at least as important as the man in front of it. And if the man behind the camera was Shahid Ali Zaidi, miracles would happen.
The proud scion of Zaidis, an iconic name in portrait photography in Lahore and beyond, Shahid passed away recently. He was from the third generation of the Zaidis who had set up shop on the famous Masson Narsingdas Building on The Mall, circa 1930.
As the story goes, the brothers’ duo of Syed Wazir Ali Zaidi and Syed Nazir Ali Zaidi studied portrait painting at the Mayo School of Arts (now NCA). In 1904, Nazir moved to Allahabad where he set up a painting and photography studio. Over 25 years later, his son, Muhammmad Ali Zaidi, having learnt photography from his father, opened the historic Zaidis on the Mall. At that time, very few businesses on the historical boulevard were owned by Muslims.
It is said that Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah also visited the studio to get his portrait made. The Quaid liked the portrait very much. After his demise, the then Punjab governor demanded the negative of the portrait. It soon turned into a courtroom battle. In the end, the case was decided in favour of Ali Zaidi.
In ‘54, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting declared it the ‘standard’ portrait for use in the country as well as abroad. It remains the Quaid’s official portrait to this day.
Shahid joined the family business in 1962. Even as a student at Cathedral High School, he had a penchant for photography. On weekdays, he would head straight from school to his father’s studio. He would walk all the way to the place. Once, while he was at school, he had the rare chance to photograph Queen Elizabeth II who was visiting the country.
He kept up with the
changing world of
apparatuses. In his
lifetime, Zaidis went from using large format
cameras, roll films and dark rooms to digital
photography supported by a computer lab.
Photography is both a skill and a talent. The various exhibitions of his photographs, held in his lifetime, proved that Shahid had always followed the basic elements of photography including the line, the shape, the size, the form, colours and depth. The exhibits always presented something original — which wasn’t entirely unseen but unexpected. A lover of beauty, his forte was to glamourise the ordinary.
He is credited with making innovations in portrait photography, and transitioning from black and white to colour. He kept up with the changing world of photography and incorporated latest techniques and apparatuses. In his lifetime, Zaidis went from using large format cameras, roll films and dark rooms to digital photography supported by a computer lab.
He often said that the key to a great portrait was the creation of a mood within which the person in front of the camera should be able to project their success.
He had a yearning for nature that took him places and he tried his hand at landscape photography.
Not many people know that Shahid studied film in London. Later, he worked briefly in the US as a director of photography for a production company. He was often invited to deliver lectures on photography by different institutes. He was very generous in imparting knowledge gained from his experience, to the younger generation. In fact, he acted as a bridge between the past and the future.
Over time, Zaidis became synonymous with class (read aristocracy) and quality. There wasn’t a notable person in the country who hadn’t been photographed at the Zaidis. The portraits that still grace the gallery at Shahid’s Gulberg studio in Lahore speak volumes of that fact.
Noted photographer Zafar Ahmad, who had the opportunity to work with Shahid from their school days, remembers him as an “exceptionally decent man; very soft spoken and down to earth. He remained active till the age of 79.”
His longtime friend Shafaat Bhatti (of Bhatti’s) says, “His demise is a huge loss for the entire fraternity. He was a brilliant artist and a great teacher who carried on the legacy of his forefathers.”
Today, Zaidis boasts about half a million negatives, which is a rare archive of its kind in the entire subcontinent. The negatives are now being digitized so that they can reach a wider audience.
In the end, one can’t help but recall Shahid’s glorious words about photography which he considered “the purpose of my life. I’d never even consider giving it up. When you are dead, you are gone; there is no rewind button you can press.”
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org