Photo fiction

Different strokes

Dayanita Singh believes that thought is the key for photography and pictures should do something more than just give information,writes Giridhar Khasnis.

Medium : For Dayanita, photography is a tool to explore the world.

Dayanita Singh’s photo-essay on Zakir Hussain was published more than 25 years ago. And there is an interesting tale behind its making.

Singh, an 18-year-old student of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, in the late 1980s, wanted to photograph Hussain for a class assignment, but was prevented from doing so by the organisers. Her pride badly hurt, she waited for the concert to end before crying out, “Mr Hussain, I am a young student today, but someday I will be an important photographer, and then we will see.”

An amused Zakir invited Singh to join his entourage and travel with him. “For six winters I travelled with Zakir and all the musicians he played with. I often lived in his house with his parents, Ammaji and Abbaji, who became more than family to me.”

Singh considers Hussain to be one of the major influences in her life. “I discovered photography through him. He was really my mentor, my true guru. What I learnt from him was that single minded focus, that obsession with what one did, without ever getting diverted... I saw how Zakir lived with his art all the time; even though he was engaged with a conversation he was still trying to work out some note or a raga he would be playing in the evening. He was never separated from his music.”

Today, Dayanita Singh (born 1961) is one of the most distinguished names in contemporary Indian photography. An alumnus of NID, Ahmedabad (Visual Communication / 1980-1986) and International Center of Photography, New York (Photojournalism and Documentary Photography / 1987 – 88), she has had journalistic assignments with international publications like The Times of London and The New York Times.

Recipient of the Prince Claus Award (2008) and the 2008 Gardner Photography Fellowship (given by Peabody Museum at Harvard), Singh’s predominantly black and white photographs have featured in prestigious events including Manifesta 7, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art (Italy / 2008), Indian Highway (a travelling group exhibition / 2008 -2009), and the 54th Venice Biennale (2011). Her retrospective exhibition last year at MAPFRE Foundation, Madrid, subsequently travelled to Amsterdam and Bogota.

Besides the book on Zakir Hussain (1986), Singh has published several others like Myself Mona Ahmed ( 2001), Privacy (2003), Chairs (2005) and Go Away Closer ( 2007) which have received critical acclaim.

She has worked on several series of photographs like ‘I am as I am’ (1999); ‘Ladies of Calcutta’ (1997–1999); ‘Bombay’ (2002), ‘Go Away Closer’ (2007); ‘Blue Book’ (2009) and ‘Dream Villa’ (2010), which have shown her unique mastery over the photographic art.

Ways of seeing

While she has produced significant reports on social issues, it is her repertoire of portraits of wealthy urbanites, details of colonial and modern interior décor, and pictures of empty spaces which have won Singh widespread commendation.

“Her photography is about the unseen,” says award-winning writer Amitav Ghosh. “It is about the interior. It is about stillness. About privacy. About emotion. About empty spaces very often. And I think this is what speaks about her poetry...”

On her part, Singh believes that photography is not about what one sees but how one sees. “I think the thought is the key for photography... what you have in your head, and what you bring to a situation... How sharp your awareness of your medium is — its histories and practices — is also very crucial.”

Photography, for her, is just a tool, and more importantly, a vocabulary or medium to explore the world. Her own references and inspirations come from different sources like literature, cinema and music. She believes that only if works have a lingering quality to them can they become art. “There should be a kind of timelessness, a kind of intensity to the works that touch you... Not all documentation can become art.”

Singh also says that by itself it is not very hard to make images in the digital age. “There is no shortage of images being collected — everyone who has a mobile is a photographer. My question is what do you do with those images? Can you even write a sentence with those images? Could you think of a poem, perhaps? A biography? A reportage? Fiction? Could you do something with that work to push not just the medium of photography, but also how we understand photography?” she asked the audience while delivering her talk at the Delhi Photo Festival last year.

An important facet of Dayanita’s art is her everlasting love for book making. “Making the book is my work. And the photograph is just a way of making my book. The exhibition is actually a catalogue of my work, of the images in my book.” 

House of love

In Singh’s solo exhibit, ‘House of Love’, which concluded recently at Nature Morte, Delhi, the artist explored a new genre, which she called ‘Photo Fiction’. In the show, she presented nine ‘stories’ written not in words, but through photographs. The ‘stories’ contained a set of pictures — ranging in groups of six to 17 pictures. The images were shot in India and outside, and none of the locations were identified. “The ‘where’ and the ‘when’ gets into the way of people experiencing the image. One should give the picture a chance to do something more than giving information... One should try and read a photograph, and not just see it.”

The suites of images were more like clues or suggestions; and it was left to the viewer to form the story and make whatever s/he wanted to make of it. “I tried to treat each story differently, so some images bleed into one another, one story even has captions, others have no captions but some quotes,” explained Singh.

Excerpts from the “House of Love” have been exhibited at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Frieze Art Fair in London (with the Frith Street Gallery) in the past year.

“Looking at Singh’s pictures is like gazing through small windows,” observed arts writer and 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Feeney in Boston Globe Review (March 13, 2011). “Those windows open up on worlds — on stories — we can see easily enough but have to struggle to explain... These pictures are like stills for a silent movie for which you write the title cards. The more you look at them, the more you see. No, that’s not quite right, actually. The more you look at them, the more you imagine.”

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