From the soothing marble tile of her Brooklyn shower stall to the complex lighting of an Indian studio set, Manjari Sharma’s Shower Series blossomed from a personal project to a national ad campaign. Sharma’s journey began with a simple question to trusted friends, inviting them to shower while she photographed. The images’ intimate nature and calming aesthetic soon had her hooked, a passion that was shared by others through the Internet. Before she knew it, her signature style and shooting skills were tapped for a high-end ad campaign, and the resulting images now grace billboards in 19 Indian cities.
Web site: www.manjarisharma.com
Project: The Shower Series, a personal project that led to Sharma’s first national advertising campaign.
All images in this article © Manjari Sharma.
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
MS: Including the years I’ve assisted, six years.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
MS: Portraiture and environmental portraiture, although I still harbor a great love for landscapes.
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
MS: The process was to break down barriers and get someone into an intimate space where they can connect with you uninhibitedly. The technique was really to establish a strong and chalked out Key light and to know how much subtle and spotlit fill you really want to employ. In my opinion, oftentimes the problem with imagery is that it looks overlit. I feel that shadows are like minor chords to a tune. A lot of the shower series work embraces the shadows and their play.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
MS: The lens without a doubt! A good piece of glass is essential for sound results.
ASMP: What is unique about your style and approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
MS: Besides my work having its own style, look and aesthetic, I personally love getting to know my subjects and the story they stem from. Those moments of connection that lead to comfort are often what ultimately lead to the best images.
ASMP: Your Shower Series began as a personal fine art project. Did you have any sense at the outset that you would get such a strong reception to this work from both press and potential clients?
MS: No, although I did have some key and close friends who chimed in with a lot of support and who felt that I was onto something of value and intrigue early on. However, the biggest part was that I did not think much about all of those details at the outset. I want to believe that it would be like putting the cart before the horse. The artwork should just come from a place of fascination for the work and the process itself. The rest can’t follow if the work isn’t there yet.
ASMP: Based on your experience with this project so far, how do you frame this body of work in relation to your past projects? Do you feel that this work is more resolved or more deeply felt than your past work?
MS: Absolutely! In some ways, if you think about it, everyone is looking to applaud commitment. Everyone knows what it’s like to flirt but not everyone can settle down with a partner for a while. In some ways finding a photo project that takes your undivided attention is like finding that long term lover, one that has enough charm to hold your heart and mind in one place. A lot of artists, including me at the top of the list, suffer from some form of an attention deficit disorder. The process of arriving at the type of subject matter that hopelessly traps you is organic and not logical. So, in some ways what I’m saying is that, ultimately, how you get to that level of romance sometimes cannot be broken down and may not even need a breakdown — what matters is that you have found what makes you tick. This body of work had me, I was consumed by it.
And ultimately, for me, I have learned that the level of engrossment is directly proportional to the result.
ASMP: In general, what do you look for in a portrait model and how do you go about recruiting your subjects?
MS: It’s again no different than being drawn to someone in a group of people. You allow your intuition to select and get attracted to people. I let that be the process for the project as well. I did not ask anyone and everyone and I did suffer some rejection, and that was ok. After all, I was asking for a lot from someone. It was interesting however to see how comfortable, or not, people did get in that space.
ASMP: In this project, what methods-recruiting through friends, social networking posts, casting calls, public announcements and so on-did you use to find subjects? Which methods have brought you models you’ve enjoyed working with the most?
MS: It was a very personal question, “Would you shower with me?” One-on-one was the only way this could have worked. I kept from making any open calls about it because I did want to be selective about my subjects.
ASMP: Please talk about your interactions with the subjects in the shower. How long do you usually spend shooting? How has your approach to shooting and directing the models evolved over time?
MS: The process is organic. I usually make sure the bathroom is sparkling clean and inviting, it’s almost ritualistic. I want my subjects to feel warm and welcome. I usually end up shooting somewhere between two and three hours, but sometimes we spend a long time outside the shower talking in the living room. In the shower, we sometimes start with a casual discussion — often about life and day-to-day activities — which then leads to deeper discussions about everything imaginable. I have recorded people making statements about relationships that that they would definitely want to protect in public. Sometimes they start to hum a tune and I record that too. I do have a good number of audio files that accompany all of the shower sessions. I have worked on minimizing distractions to this process over time. Interruption is my biggest enemy, whether it’s a card change or needing some equipment. Sometimes having a separate meeting over coffee, just to talk about this also helps.
ASMP: What, if any measures do you take to protect your equipment while shooting models in the shower? Has water or humidity been an issue at all with imaging issues or equipment malfunctions?
MS: I have a UV filter but I take that off sometimes. The biggest problem is lens fog and that’s it.
ASMP: Please describe any work you do to enhance the images in post-production.
MS: I definitely have a palette set up for my post-production work. I do most of my post-production in Adobe Camera Raw, where I work with a custom preset. I apply this to every finalized shower portrait and then tweak images individually.
ASMP: Where did the art director in Delhi, Syed Usman, originally spot your work? Was your Indian heritage, and/or the fact that you were in India at the time, a consideration in your selection for this project?
MS: Actually, Syed was doing a random stock search for people in showers to get inspired for the look he wanted for Grohe. Syed mentioned to me he got led to a combination of blogs where he saw the series repeatedly, and then this led him to my Web site and then to my blog. On my blog, he saw the series slowly evolve and develop over the year. He left me a blog comment suggesting that he had the perfect project for me. At that time, Syed was completely unaware of whether or not I was in India. I would say that the fact that I am Indian made it easier for us to understand each other and communicate, but this was certainly not the only grounds for being hired. Yet, the fact that I was present in India certainly made it a great bonus for everyone all around.
ASMP: Were there other photographers in the running for this assignment or were you the only one considered? Did you have to do any negotiating of rights and fees in order to accept the job? Please talk about this aspect of the project.
MS: I believe there were others in the running but I did have an advantage because the client was quite settled on the fact that they wanted to model their look and feel after The Shower Series. There were definitely heavy negotiations on rights and fees. It was a big task and we were also working through the complications of project and production costs in American dollars versus Rupees.
ASMP: In casting for the advertising campaign, what qualities were you and your client seeking from the models? Did you cast professionals or did you use real people as well?
MS: We cast professionals and had two talent casting sessions before we selected our final ten. This was certainly a challenge! Our criteria was to try and find subjects who looked like everyday people — attractive, but approachable — so a local could relate to the experience of showering. Indian culture is certainly more conservative than in the United States, so getting female models to be entirely comfortable pretending to shower in, say, shorts and a tube top was a little bit of a challenge as well.
ASMP: Please describe the experience of translating this image series into an advertising shoot. Which, if any, aspects of the experience were easier and which aspects were more difficult?
MS: It was a great experience! In all honesty, to be commissioned to create work that looks like what I would shoot on a personal level is the ideal way to be hired. The more challenging aspect was to try and achieve the same level of intimacy that I had with my own shower series subjects, while in the presence of a 30-person crew of production staff and clients. Having done this repeatedly on my own time with a plethora of people for The Shower Series certainly made it a lot easier to shoot for Grohe, but the logistics were different and the stakes were higher. To perform under that pressure is really what the client hires you for.
ASMP: Given that you were now shooting for the needs of a client and not just yourself, what types of equipment, accessories or support staff were most important or indispensable to you during this shoot?
MS: The producer and first camera assistant are key. Ultimately, you might not be able to communicate with every person on set but you have to make sure that your first point of delegation, the people closest to you, are the ones you can be most comfortable with — trust is key. People who understand how you communicate the urgency of any situation and, most important, people who you know will take on a task and make it their own until it’s resolved.
ASMP: Please talk about the production values of the Grohe shoot. What was the biggest difference, in terms of equipment and or support, from shooting these images in your own home?
MS: There was a huge difference! Pre-production for the Grohe shoot took a week; we custom constructed bathrooms, picked tiles, selected windows. The lighting setup was fairly complex; we used Arri HMI lights in combination with Broncolor strobes. The lighting setup in my home relies on mixed lighting, part natural and part modified with either a reflector or a single focused localized strobe light to freeze the water.
ASMP: Please describe the custom shower sets designed for your shoot and what features made shooting easier than in your bathroom.
MS: The biggest convenience was that the set was constructed as an L shape, which made shooting into in very convenient. In my own bathroom set up, I sometimes wish I could push the walls out of the way behind my back!
ASMP: Was your interaction with the models affected by the fact that you were on set with other team members also involved in the process?
MS: Certainly. I tried to make it so I had some individual coaching time to let models know what we were really going after. There were a lot of people on set and that does dilute the one-on-one time, but that’s what an advertising shoot is about, being able to perform under a lot of constraints.
ASMP: What response to this project have you received from Grohe and from other existing/potential clients and contacts? Have you received any new jobs or inquiries yet as a result of this assignment?
MS: The Grohe campaign was very well received, both by the company and peers. I have already shot for another advertising client since, which was certainly a result of the Grohe success.
ASMP: Having raised the bar on production values with your project in this advertising campaign, will you return to your bathroom to continue with the Shower Series? If so, will you make any changes to the way you shoot as a result of your recent experiences?
MS: I have already returned and shot in my bathroom since and there is certainly a charm to the simplicity of the set up that is unparalleled.
My recent experience was inspired by my personal project. The biggest thing that I learned from this was, follow your heart and make work that you truly love.
ASMP: Do you have any plans in store for a new body of work or for images that might spin off the concepts addressed in the Shower Series? What are your future plans and aspirations for your work and career?
MS: I am interested in interpersonal relationships and intimacy and memory. My next couple of projects will continue to echo those themes. Stay tuned on the blog manjarisharma.wordpress.com to see some of the new work — coming soon!