The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 18, 2000

A painter with a camera
Ervell E. Menezes speaks to Adrian Steven, one of the most popular fashion photographers of India.

FOR a man to switch jobs (turning a hobby into a job) and do so well in it, is ample proof of both his versatility as well his dedication and application to his work. A number of anecdotes prove his talent, but if you were to meet the man, heís terribly self-effacing. He is fashion photographer Adrian Steven whose pioneering work in that field and whose ad campaigns are still talked about by todayís generation for whom he is a father figure.

Aishwarya Rai, Sangeeta Bijalani, Mehr Jessia, Lisa Ray, most of the pretty women in India, know him well and they should ó they are grist for his camera lens. "There are younger boars in the business today," he says, indicating heís in the slow lane. At 62, this Scotsman who has been living in India for the last 40 years (he has a Parsi wife) should be taking things comparatively easy but then he has the satisfaction of grooming young talent. Chien-Wein Lee, Fahrokh Chothia and co. have all picked up the art from him and are ever indebted to this soft-spoken, white-haired shy but (when he warms up to the subject) erudite man.

Steven strayed into photography and stayed on in the Raj domain (he was an executive in James Finlay and was connected with the mills) because he chose to make his hobby his profession. And here he quotes famed photographer Phillipe Halsman: "First I did it for fun, then I did it with friends. Finally I did it for money."


Adrian StevenHe is very thankful to friends like the late Jehangir Gazdar, Vilas Bhende, Mitter Bedi and others, who helped him to enter the profession. Ad men like Gerson and Sylvie da Cunha, Bal Mundkur gave him the breaks.

"Iím a great admirer of still life but it does not set me afire. People do, especially women and children. Personally, he would like to be called a "beauty photographer" but he seems to have been stuck with the tag of "fashion photographer."

Speak to him about models and he says "you have to wind them up, put them down and let them go," and quotes the photographer from Vogue Alexander Liberman who told his cover photographer Richard Avedon "I want accidents to happen, if there is not enough you must improvise." But like the models, one also has to wind up Steven, who is very reluctant to talk about himself and is in stark contrast to todayís sell-yourself-first professionals.

"You must catch those semi-candid or improvised-candid shots. You have to catch the Ďfrozen secondí or Ďmomentí or Ďinstantí whatever you call it," Steven goes on wound up as it were. Then he quotes Eisensteinís "first I put in everything that I want, then I remove everything that I donít need." But he admits that is easier in films as there is no "frozen moment" here but a continuous process. Photography in India, he believes has come a long way, but "we still tend to be derivative."

There would be more originality if briefs were better. Most briefs consist of a photographer being shown reference pictures. There is rarely any attempt to verbalise the concept. Perhaps this is because art directors are visual people, not verbal, but I believe it is much more valauable to conjure up an image in the mindís eye than to simply present a reference makes your imagination work," goes on Steven now in full flow and zeroing in on the art director-photographer axis.

The love-hate relationship with the ad world comes across from time to time. Like when he says "if you spend a lifetime trying to sell something, you are sure to get one-sided you start to believe in that hype...they revel in hyperbole and though Iíve spent a lot of time with them, I donít subscribe to that."

"Photography is painting with light but when you get someone else to do the lighting it is the very antithesis of photography," says Steven animatedly, that is as animatedly as the cool and composed professional can ever get. "Today few are interested in the craft it is easier with new gadgets). I think the craft is more important and the other things will pop up, but sadly photography is often being reduced to F-stops and shutter speeds," he says denoting the arrogance that comes of ignorance.

About his nationality Steven says "Oh, Iím a bogus Scotsman. I was born in Argentina and raised in West Africa. The only time I was in the homeland was between 1941 and 1945." But when he finished school in 1954 photography "was not a profession well-brought up kids would enter. It only gained respectability after Lord Snowdon married Princess Margaret. So, the young Scotsman had to come to India work with Finlays and eventually switch jobs to find his metier.

Excerpts from the interview:


What do you have to say about the increasing number of fashion shows? Is it because of the advent of designer clothes?

The fashion shows are more like cabaret shows. Thereís something too transitory about todayís fashion photography which goes up and down depending on the navel line. But yes, the increase in fashion photography is because of designer clothes. Though thereís a lot of good photography in it, thereís also a lot of bad photography.

What about these new campaigns where one has to go to Switzerland and all that?

I hate those massive campaigns.

Whatís the average life of a model?

Iíd say about five years. But there are exceptions. Thereís Anna Bradmeyer whoís being going on now for decades, almost. Then thereís Madhu Sapre.

What about the grey areas where photographers and models get involved with each other, one may call them "temporary entanglements" or "dangerous liaisons"? Comment

Of course, it is a risk I wonít run at my age, but it definitely is an occupational hazard and should be avoided. These Ďaffairsí are sure to Ďcatch moods you might not otherwise have gotí but it is dangerous and something I am opposed to. It is not necessary to have affairs with models in order to take good photographs. That photographers often end up marrying models is quite another thing. It is not unexpected as they get involved with each other (as in other profession too), having to spend so much time together.

Name some of the models it was good to work with? and of course the campaigns. That will give us an overview of your best work?

Let me think. Audrey Kasmiro feeding the pigeons at the Gateway of India. That and some of the Bombay Dyeing campaigns are the longest-standing pictures in the city. For Bombay Dyeing I worked with models Ardedhu Bose and Karan Kapoor. Though we won a prize for a single picture, advertising-wise I would criticise it. The prize should be for the theme it is the theme or haiku taken from the Japanese form of verse...finely distilled thought. Before committing hara-kiri the Japanese wrote their haiku. Basho, a Japanese poet known for his nature poems, was well known for his short and distilled verse

Then Cherry Blossom was a good account. I remember the line:

"Something special is coming your way,

Did you Cherry Blossom your shoes today?"

The models were Nandini Sen, Marianne de Souza and Veena Prakash. Then came the Digjam suiting campaign with Shekhar Kapoor. It was suitings for the connoisseur with locales like an antique shop or an art gallery. I donít like modelling in which men assume heroic roles. Another misconception is that suits donít have to crease. The trouble with this belief is that the models at times appear so stiff (to avoid the creases) that they look like spastics.

I remember a Blue Ribbon Gin ad in which a very young Pooja Bedi was the model in a blue swimsuit. There was North Star denims with Anu Kuttur, Lubna Adamji and Mehr Jessia and the South Indian actress Gautami shooting for saris. They wanted nothing in the background so for most of the time I was lying on the beach shooting her flying pallav against the sky background. It was a memorable shoot. One of my best