Indian Culture and Western High Fashion Meet in Ram Shergill’s Lens

Shergill was born in Britain, and is still based there, but comes from an Indian family and maintains a strong connection with the country. “I feel that [India] is my birthplace,” Shergill explains, “as this is where all the generations of my family have come from.”

Shergill was severely visually impaired as a child, an affliction to which he attributes his growth as a photographer. After having his eyesight corrected, he discovered the work of artists such as Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn, whom he credits as important inspirations and whose influence can be seen in works such as The Butterfly Ball and Protection. Avedon’s famous Dovima with Elephants (1955) can be seen recast throughout his oeuvre, notably with a beautiful use of rich, spectral color in Shergill’s Rainbow Nation, Harper’s and Queen and the “Kaleidescopic Elephant” suite. These reinventions of iconic motifs update and transform the work of these earlier photographers, appropriating their work to new effect.

Part of Shergill’s appropriation reorients the imagery of fashion and art photography toward the Indian Subcontinent, a region that has typically been overlooked by much of the art world. Many of his works show models exploring and absorbing the culture and landscape of India’s large, culturally diverse northwestern province, often against the backdrop of ancient, royal buildings.

In Courtesan Palace, Rajasthan, the monotone sandstone of the palace is juxtaposed with the effulgent and colorful clothing worn by the model: a patterned coat with a draping blue-green and maroon dress. Some of Shergill’s photos are especially poetic, such as Water Lily and Floating in Couture. The expansive dresses worn by the models, and the ghostly way that they float in space, gives the images a Romantic allusiveness.

In its mixture of east and west, old and new, Shergill’s work opens up new possibilities for fashion photography—and indeed, he’s made his mark on the industry, contributing regularly to such powerhouses as VogueHarper’s Bazaar, and W. His unique perception of bodies, clothing, and space is as deeply tied to his personal and cultural history as it is fully present and cosmopolitan.