Through the Lens of Masterji

black and white photograph of a man wearing suit with a young girl holding a balloon standing behind him

Charting the South Asian community in Coventry and the West Midlands

Compton Verney (opens in new window)

Maganbhai Patel - more widely known as Masterji - was a photographer with a career spanning seven decades. His photographs and portraits taken between the 1950s and the 2000s, charting the South Asian community in Coventry and the West Midlands.

His photography came to wider attention in 2016 when, at the age of 94, he received his first solo exhibition in his adoptive home city Coventry, as part of the city’s bid to become UK City of Culture.

Now, the largest ever exhibition of his work has just opened at Compton Verney - a Georgian mansion and museum in Warwickshire - in a comprehensive survey of his career. The images provide an important socio-historic record of people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh settling in to a new country and establishing themselves over successive generations.

black adn white photograph of a man and woman, she wears dark clothing and glasses, the man wears a light coloured jumper and sunglasses
colour photograph of a man sitting in a chair, he wears a turban and holds a mug

Masterji was already a well-known figure in Coventry, not least as its first Indian photographer. Patel was born in South Gujarat and moved to England in the early 1950s.

His route into photography began in 1951, when he took a job at Coventry’s General Electric factory and joined the firm’s photographic society. He saved up to buy a Kodak Box Brownie camera and, as word of his obvious skills behind the lens spread, he soon found himself in demand for weddings and other social events.

In 1969, he opened the appropriately named Master’s Art Studio, with his portrait photographs continuing to create brilliantly evocative records of people moving to the West Midlands from South Asia and making it their home.

black and white photograph of a man standing in a snowy landscape, he holds some snow in his hands

Early works – predominantly black and white portraits of young men – document the pioneers who came to post-war Coventry to find work and helped to rebuild the city, while the later photographs document a community becoming less transitory and more established in the city, with increasing numbers of family portraits commissioned to mark significant occasions such as weddings. The works also capture changes in fashion across the decades, at the same time illustrating the development of photography as a medium from the heyday of film to the dawn of digital.

black and white photograph of two men standing in the snow in an urban landscape, they wear hats and coats with one man holding a briefcase

The studio’s success was also thanks to the work of Masterji’s wife Ramaben Patel, who was instrumental in developing many of the photographs and interacting with customers. A photographer herself, Ramaben took many intimate family photographs and also taught her children to take photos.

black and white photograph of a woman, who wears a sari, she is standing in the yard of a brick house

Another aspect of his work was to take portraits that would be sent back home. In some cases, there is a sense of artistry or future ambition, as Masterji and his subjects collaborated to create their own images of success. Gordonbhai Bhakta cuts a playful dash, as he reclines on a small table, smiling and with an air of a movie star larking about during a studio shoot.

black and white photograph of a man, he wears a suit and is lying on his side, beside a vase of flowers

Masterji enjoyed a uniquely close relationship with his sitters – his experiences mirrored theirs and there was no sense of formality in his studio. As a photographer he was known for his charm and his ability to put his sitters at ease. The bond he shared with his sitters, combined with his sensitivity, resulted in portraits which are characterful and revealing.

black and white photograph portrait of a young child, with a rollieflex camera hanging from a shoulder
colour photograph portrait of a young girl who wears red sunglasses and an orange dres
colour photograph portrait of a young woman who wears a white blouse, she poses against a yellow and brown background

In 2017 Masterji launched his first book and received an Honorary Doctor of Arts (DArts) from Coventry University, in recognition for his outstanding contribution to photography and the heritage of the city. Masterji’s story is as relevant in the present moment as ever, as questions of identity and migration continue to dominate discourses nationally and internationally.