Show Lab: “Shipr” Portable Photography Studio

Three years after its creation Moscow’s only traveling photo lab still has no rivals.

Shipr”, Moscow’s first mobile atelier for instant photography was inaugurated three years ago. Bird In Flight talked to its founders Anastasia Sukhomlinova and Geogry Keikhman about their concept, their clients and why their only rival is not a photographer but a soap bubble show.

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Nastya and Gosha met at a lecture on American studies while they were both history students at the Russian State University for the humanities. Five years later they were both writing graduation papers on the same theme, black America. Nastya’s documentary source were photographs taken in Harlem in the 1920-30s by James Van Der Zee. “All the photographs, taken in Harlem at that time, the whole Harlem Renaissance are by him. And thus we very much took to him,” Nastya recalls.

Gosha was fond of art photography but after the birth of their child family photography became predominant. It was family photography in its basics — done mostly for their family history archive. It was back then, in the early 2000s, that Gosha started earning his living through wedding photography. “It was really terrible,” he recollects. “Sheer trash. Horrid acid aesthetics.” After a while Gosha realised that he wanted to take a break. But he didn’t want to come back bare-handed, he would bring to the contemporary wedding culture something really worthwhile.

“I am not very competitive,” Gosha admits, “so I decided to find a ground where I would be the only player.”

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It took a year and a half to do technology research. Originally Nastya and Gosha were thinking of a fun photo studio. They purchased a Polaroid made in 1967, an elegant folding camera. It looked very impressive, and the images were very beautiful. In the USA old Polaroid models are still very popular with zealous portrait photographers, but in Russia old cameras are more commonly used as knickknacks. “It is a very specific technology. In this country very few people know how it works, still fewer know how to use it,” Gosha remarks. Nastya and Gosha were basically the pioneers of this genre.

They think comparison to ambrotypes a bit irrelevant. Ambrotypes have more pictorial art than photography. “What we do is pure photography. Rather raw and basic,” Nastya says. “Sometimes people call and say they have seen a mobile studio similar to ours. And then it turns out it was us!”

In the past such photo labs were used by war photographers in field conditions. Gosha found it at a flea market, bought for an equivalent of a vodka bottle and has never seen anything like that on sale.

It was the idea of Gosha’s wife to call their atelier “Shipr”. Some people associate it with the famous eau de cologne, others with the same eau de cologne but as an ingredient of Venedikt Erofeev’s “Teardrop of a Komsomolka” cocktail (“komsomolka” virtually means a young girl member of the Communist Union of Young People, which was an equivalent of the Communist party for young people: translator’s note). We always try to stick to the idea of the brand name, in an ironic way of course. We try to avoid pretentiousness and aspire to the village-proletarian style. When we are working in the city, for example, we have all kinds of props, e.g., padded jackets instead of crinoline dresses. The idea of a shopkeeper in a vest, or of a vagabond or a milkmaid from a cow shed is what we love most and what allows us to lower the degree of general pompousness our society is so obsessed with. Hence the brand name, “Shipr.”

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The most valuable thing in “Shipr” is a developing lab of the 1940s. It is a suitcase used as a moveable dark room. In the past such labs were used by war photographers in field conditions. Gosha found it at a flea market three years ago, bought for a vodka bottle’s worth of money and has never seen anything of that kind on sale. Now “Shipr” produces its own suitcase labs for sale. The demand is high. There are two to eleven people working for the moveable photo atelier depending on the season.

The first event with Shipr’s participation took place at “Flacon” design factory, and then by word of mouth commissions followed. Those who saw Nastya and Gosha at work at a wedding, a birthday party or a a team building event, would eagerly hire them for their own festivities.

“We don’t just work at parties,” Gosha points out. “We have done fashion shoots, portraits, did the cover for a music album recently, we shot for a second-hand boutique, and at the Luxury Village opening party. I don’t know how to work, so I have to amuse myself at other people’s cost.”

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As they were just starting their business, neither Nastya nor Gosha realised where they would get. They were going to do photography but found themselves in event business. “We are not competing with photographers. At big festivals they don’t put us together with other photographers but in the soap bubble show department,” Gosha explains. “When we work at weddings it often comes about that we don’t even get to photograph the bride and groom. We are an attraction for the guests. We have long ago put up with it and feel comfortable where we are and with what we do.”

As they revived a long-forgotten technology, Nastya and Gosha have in fact rediscovered a new genre of photo show. They have no rivals because photographers can’t compete with them. Their clients are people thrilled by the process of a photograph’s birth, in real time, before their own eyes.

When we work at weddings it often comes about that we don’t even photograph the bride and groom. We are an attraction for the guests. We have long ago put up with it and feel comfortable where we are and with what we do.

Not so long ago a similar photo studio opened in Sochi by a franchise where people can come and have their portrait taken. “We don’t feel like opening a stationary atelier,” Gosha dissuades. “The rent is crazy, and generally speaking, we really want be one of a kind. We are in a semi-nomadic state, drifting from one place (a cafe or something similar) to another where we spend three or four days and move on. And it feels so great, we don’t fancy the idea of staying for a longer time in one place.”

“We want to go go America,” Nastya says dreamily. “We would like it to be an international brand, not a freelance undertaking but a company that would have all the credentials of a company, but with a human face. And we also want a caravan for the summer. We need a nice old caravan that would be a show-stopper and in a good technical condition.”

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