Days before his first solo Indian exhibit opens in the city, Ram Shergill says success requires darkness and dazzle in equal parts.
Drama, drama..." he snaps his fingers, strutting around as designer Sandeep Khosla chuckles in the background in a YouTube video of the making of India Fantastique, a two-volume book that celebrated the 25-yearlong career of Khosla and partner Abu Jani. "God save the Queen," an unperturbed Ram Shergill hollers, inspiring a bronzed Indian Prince dressed in underwear and a Zardozi stole, shielding his empress with a golden parasol.
The British-Asian photographer witnessed the magic that theatre could infuse into photography early on. Those who know him confirm that not only is it his middle name, 'Drama' is also the magazine he publishes in association with photographer Fabrice Jacobs. It's hardly surprising then that the pictures he is set to exhibit this week at Kaleidoscope, a forthcoming exhibition organised by Tasveer in partnership with Vacheron Constantin, should include whimsical images including a rainbow-painted elephant.
"The key to a memorable image, I feel, requires creating a rapport with the subject," says Shergill, who, interestingly was a student of psychology. He is not referring in particular to the prince-in-underwear, but tools of humour and music, he thinks, are indispensible to a photographer, because, "It's not always possible to spend much time with the talent prior to a shoot, and it's crucial that the subject is at ease."
Yet, 20 years ago - we imagine he'd love the Bollywood drama that line resonates with - when Shergill was toying with his first lens, and "fashion photography was championed by the likes of Corrine Day who favoured a hardedged, almost grunge aesthetic," it was a connection with his dark side that won him his first admirers. "I had just wrapped up a shoot with Selina Blow (British fashion designer) when she introduced me to Alexander McQueen - she called him Alexander the Great — and he said he was unimpressed with my work." The late iconic fashion designer then showed Shergill samples of images that stirred him, including two decapitated heads pressed together, and a naked figure wrestling a dog. They were from American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin's portfolio, and proved successful at haunting the young photographer for a while afterwards.
It may have been for this reason that, while working on a Jack the Ripper project for a University publication, Shergill photographed a leading London model in a deathly mask, dressed in dark apparel with feathered wings bursting out of her spine. "Adrian Clark, editor of London Mode, who was with trade magazine, Fashion Weekly back then, asked me if he could use the image on their cover. Quickly, the picture generated a lot of interest," he says. So, when Shergill next met McQueen, "at a fashion show I had snuck into as I didn't have a ticket", the rising star of British fashion walked up to Shergill to say he could work with him anytime. Since then, he has collaborated with famed Parisian couturiers Vreeland and Schiaparelli and photographed A-listers around the world including Naomi Campbell, who he reportedly taught how to bhangra, Amitabh Bachchan, Dame Judi Dench and even the late Amy Winehouse, working with whom, he says, was particularly memorable because "it was during one of my shoots at an American diner that she embraced th iconic 1950's look she grew synonymous with."
But, through it all, his work continued to evolve. "With every shoot, I learn a little more about how to get into the mind of my subject. I know it's a great shot when I begin to feel that the character in the photograph has started to reflect either an aspect of my own personality or the persona of someone I aspire to be," says the son of a mathematics teacher, who has astigmatism to thank for his first experiences with what he describes as, "a visual orgy," a renewed appreciation of all the colours he could see with complete clarity when the optical defect was rectified with a pair of spectacles. Offering us a peek into how he works, Shergill tells us about the time he snapped portraits of actor Cillian Murphy. "I watched films he had starred in, including Inception and In time and freeze-framed certain scenes over and over again to study his character." Typically, each shoot is also preceded by trips to art galleries, research, location recces and the creation of mood boards.
Currently excited about the London Zoo project which allows him to use his skill to save the Asiatic Lion, Shergill hopes to work with another Leo. "Leonardo Di Caprio," he gushes, "he has so many expressions."