For a photo project in college, Ram Shergill was to feature hats. A sharp twenty-something-year-old without inhibitions, he picked up the phone and called celebrity designer and milliner Philip Treacy to help him out. It was out of the question, Treacy said, hanging up on him — he didn’t hand out his hats to photography students. A minute later Shergill called him again. When Treacy picke dup, the young photographer said, “Do you not remember when someone gave you your first chance?”
The next day, Shergill was grudgingly admitted into Treacy’s studio in London — a “fantasy land with tall mushroom hats with feathers and butterflies, much like Alice’s Wonderland”. He got permission to pick one hat only and take it around the street, no further. “My first model stood at the entrance of an old church wearing a Philip Treacy hat. That was my first studio and it was perfect,” says Shergill, years later sitting at Saffronart Gallery in Prabhadevi for his first city showcase.
The photography exhibition, titled “Kaleidoscope”, in association with Tasveer Gallery and Vacheron Constantin, is one in the series of five shows of Indian photography this year. “Here I have contrasted beautiful terrains with high fashion,” he says. The work is a mix of black-and-white portraits and colourful landscapes with models, taken in Karnataka, Rajasthan and Maharastra.
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Photography was a happy accident for Shergill. Terribly bored by the mathematic classes his mathematician father made him take, he would skip them to hang out at the library and read photography books by Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange — not knowing who they are but being touched by their work. One such day, a professor from the Photography and Art Class saw him loitering and said: “You hang around here all the time, might as well join us.” Within weeks, Shergill had mastered lines, form and textures, and graduated the two-year class in six months.
Shergill dived head-first into the world of high fashion after university. He has worked with magazines such as Vogue, GQ and Esquire and in 2008 launched one of his own, Drama. Shergill has worked with stars such as Diane Kruger, Laura Haddock, Naomi Campbell and Jamie Dornan. At Treacy’s studio he also met fashion guru Isabella Blow. “I remember her with a tall hat and smudged lipstick smoking a cigarette. She introduced me to Lee — this street boy in a T-shirt and dangerously low jeans, who at the time took one look at my work and pronounced it rubbish,” recounts Shergill, “but it was also he, Alexander McQueen, who brought out the best work in me.”
Shergill calls his work performance art, “We are all performers. We get ready in the morning and are all really part of a show, aren’t we? So I give my subjects a role to play.
It loosens inhibitions and adds a beautiful layer of theatrics.” While photographing Judi Dench, Shergill put her through a number of scenarios. One second he would say, “You’ve just won an Oscar. Wave to your fans” and the next “You’ve killed your husband, you’re full of rage, but calm and cool outside” and watch her change personality in an instant.
Born to Indian parents, Shergill was acutely aware of his heritage while growing up. His father moved from a village in Punjab to London in the ’60s. Sundays was Hindi movie day. He remembers watching Sholay and being blown away by its magnificence, even at the age of seven. There is a pause after the mention of Amitabh Bachchan. “As a child, I’d watched all the classics: Awara, Mother India and all of Mr Bachchan’s films. When I did get to meet him, I was in pure awe. I did the first look of the film Paa, and shot a picture of Amitji on Abhishek’s shoulder. What a great shot that was,” he says.
Shergill’s fondness for Bollywood continues. He recently worked on the publicity photo for Tevar starring Sonakshi Sinha and Arjun Kapoor. “You know what I’m really excited about?” he asks, “I want to show my collection of Bollywood. I have candid portraits of stars such as Dharmendra, Anil Kapoor, Mr Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, John Abraham and Deepika Padukone,” he says.