If A Studio is a Room, and A Room is a Studio, Do You Need Four Walls to Make A Studio?

Photographic semantics can often be restrictive and misleading. They can be bound up in tradition and familiarity. Words are used to describe practice without little thought to their appropriateness. For example, the history of photographic studios dates back to the 19th century when photographic studios made use of painters’ lighting techniques to create photographic portraits. In the beginning nothing was better than sunlight with a window acting as the primary light source. Today the studio is defined by different criteria, but should it be?

The first use of ‘flash’ dates back to 1839 when L. Ibbetson used limelight to photograph small objects, placing a piece of lime into a flame fuelled with oxy-hydrogen. Photographic studios began adopting ‘flash’ in 1840 but by 1864 the magnesium wire, had become the new artificial light source. Expensive and dangerous, these were also known as ‘hot lights’ and could have exploded. Despite this obvious danger they were commonly adopted by professional ‘studios’. From this point on the photographic studio was perceived to be the home of commercial photography.

Modern studios are equipped with the latest lighting and a few have good available light, most have white walls, maybe an infinity cove, reflector boards, the latest digital tethered technology, backdrops, and maybe some catering and rental options. High ceilings, big spaces, a place for hair and make-up to take be undertaken, a few clothes rails and a changing room or two are all pre-requisites for the professional studio, but in reality they are just rooms with some photography related stuff in them.

Therefore when people speak to me about ‘studio photography’ I cannot resist a wry smile. I wonder what they are referring to! Are they talking about photography in a space with all of the ‘add-ons’ I have just listed or are they referring to images created in front of a flat coloured backdrop lit with artificial light, and how do they know that light is artificial? Or are they thinking of highly post produced images that feel as if they were created within a studio?

You may say that it doesn’t matter either way and you may be right, but I ask you to indulge me for a moment.

Any working commissioned photographer working within the editorial sector will be well aware of how often they are asked to photograph celebrities within a hotel room in no more than ten minutes. In such situations a controlled solution is a safe bet and the transformation of a generic hotel room decor with a Colorama on portable stands and some portable lighting kits is the safe answer. Does this make a hotel room a studio? Is this studio photography?

The cost of hiring a studio is often beyond the ever decreasing editorial budget and as a result I am often asked to photograph celebrities (or as I like to refer to them, ‘people you may have heard of’) in their own homes. Space can often be tight, reflections a problem, and time limited. The solution is of course to use available light. Maybe with some ‘fill-in’ or a reflector or two to make whatever is available as useful as possible. Does this make the home a studio? Is this studio photography?

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. The only element that a professional studio has that we cannot replicate elsewhere is an infinity curve!

Perhaps we should invent a new genre of work defined by infinity curves, of course I am only joking! The reality is that the term ‘studio photography’ is as inaccurate and generic a description of an area of photographic practice as the term ‘landscape’. You may think that they are both accurate, that one is inside and the other outside but of course that is not true either. In Paris, the Pin-Up studio complex has a white concrete infinity curve on the roof of the building (I know this as I have used it), and who ever said that a landscape cannot exist within a roofed structure?

The truth of course is that there is no such thing as studio photography, because there is no such thing as a studio. A studio can be any space that you choose to photograph in, it doesn’t need specific pieces of equipment, it doesn’t have to have white walls, it doesn’t need to have artificial light or on-site catering! It’s a location in which images are made, but don’t get me started on location photography!

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a podcaster, BBC Radio contributor, filmmaker, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

1 comment

  1. Thank you for a provocative meditation. There’s another perspective, contrary to there being “no such thing as studio photography”, if one considers what is being done in a studio – making an ‘étude’ or ‘ésquisse’ as French artists would call it (at least in the Academy)…i.e. a ‘study’, as opposed to an ‘ébauche’ or a sketch. Whether the subject is human or object, making a study requires a certain attitude, a concentrated approach, a concern for quality of finish that follows in the darkroom, that I may apply, say to making a picture of a scorpion on a gravestone (out-of-doors), as opposed to a shot of a burial in action, the latter being an observation rather than an examination, an essay, an interpretation. I think that is what defines a studio picture and am sure most photographers know the difference.

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