Dayanita Singh, so says her website, “is an artist. Her medium is photography and the book is her primary form”. During the Jaipur Literature Festival she was in conversation with musician T.M. Krishna (interviewed in the issue), with whom she is in regular contact. Singh’s work is deeply reflexive, meditating on the nature of the photographic image itself, an idea she explored with us over the phone a few weeks after the festival. She has published nine books with Steidl.
Portrait: Dayanita Singh
Tank Could you say a little about the importance of books in your work?
Dayanita Singh I’m really a maker of books. So when I started photography in 1980, it was really to make books. The idea that a photograph would exist independently of a book, or be turned into an exhibition, was not an idea that was conceivable to me. Photography equalled making books. Books meant offset printing, distribution, dissemination. So my foundation started with the book. If you asked me today, I would say that I am an offset artist. And it took me 30 years to find a way to really be able to demonstrate how central the book is to my work. Have you seen the Museum of Chance book that I did with Steidl?
Tank Of course, and there’s your massive wooden frame.
DS Currently, I’m showing in Delhi something called the “Museum Bhavan”, which is nine mobile museums. The format of this work comes from the hardback book – you have the spine, the front cover and the back cover – right? When I made the Museum of Chance for one of my museums, I asked Gerhard Steidl if all the images inside the book could also become cover images, front and back. And he said absolutely not, because you need an identity, the cover is your identity, but at the same time, he trusted that I was up to something. I don’t know why he trusted me, because I wasn’t even sure myself at the time!
Now, if you said to me that you wanted to do an exhibition of my work in London, I would send you lots of Museum of Chance books, and you could hang each book from a structure that is attached to a wall. I have finally succeeded in what many people said I couldn’t do – you know it’s all very well to love books, but in a museum or gallery, what can we do with a book? We can’t display it; we can’t make an exhibition out of it. But now I have an exhibition opening next week and this is exactly what I am showing: 88 Museum of Chance books.
Tank To go back to how you got into photography through books, what or who was your inspiration?
DS Fortunately, I wasn’t looking at anybody because India was very much a closed economy. The only books one saw were books that came from the USSR. But what I was looking at was my mother who was an obsessive photo-album maker. Everything had to be photographed and each photograph had to be captioned then put into the larger narrative of the album, or inserted into every horizontal surface in the house. Every table would have a glass on it with photos underneath. I would be the photographed object, but she wasn’t photographing her child; she was photographing to establish that she was there.
When I got into photography – when I thought that maybe it was a way to be free of whatever society expected – I didn’t know any better. For me it wasn’t even a question of anything else; I just made photographs to make books. I made a book of [musician] Zakir Hussain, and that was it, there was no anticipation. It was just a book! And nobody bought the book – that was 1986. Then I met [the photography-book publisher and curator] Walter Keller in 1992. And he looked at the work and said that he had no doubt that I was talented but that I shouldn’t use all my energy on making books or exhibitions. And, for some reason, I believed him. Then I got a grant of $10,000 from [the photographer and filmmaker] Robert Frank, whose book I had stolen at the International Centre of Photography when I had been a student there! There was nothing that I wanted more than his book The Lines of My Hand. But I could not afford $40 for it, so I had to do it, I had to steal the book. I have not stolen since then and I hadn’t stolen before, but that was very important for me to have. Then as though God had spied on me, about ten years later I got a grant from Robert Frank. I didn’t make a book until 2001, from 1986 to 2001 I somehow believed Walter Keller. In 1997, Aperture had wanted me to do a monograph and he even got me to say no to Aperture! I believed him. But then with the grant, I thought great, Robert Frank has given me money, what more do I need now? I just kept working. So I have this incredible archive of material, of images. There is a series of books that will come out of that archive, even if I stop photographing.
Tank You were talking about your mother creating albums? How do you see your work in relation to that?
DS Maybe the structure is similar. When you take a lot of photographs, it’s not about the moment. If anything it’s about the hours, about the endless moment. But once you have the impulse to make images – which is only about ten percent of what I do – then it’s about allowing those images to dictate what form they will take by editing and weeding out. I think the years when I didn’t make any books or make those sort of decisions really helped me understand what the image could do.
In that way I’ve been very close to T.M. Krishna. In many senses I feel close to him; first you master your medium and only then can you really take it on. I’m fairly well known for my print exhibitions and now my museums, but now I want to make book objects, which are neither just books nor just prints. I want to show my work in offset. Maybe I need to buy a little offset machine and make books just for myself because the book is central to what I do.
Photography is the raw material with which I can make books and do things. It’s not photography that I love, but for me it’s like the English language. I think T.M. Krishna would agree that just knowing all the ragas, the way they work and the way the notes come together is not enough. Knowing them means you are able to do what everybody else does, but you have to push the limits of your medium. I think both he and I are interested in challenging our mediums and we are willing to take the risk of falling on our faces. I’m also very interested in the dissemination of images and the book allows me to explore that.
Tank How do you see that playing out with regard to intentionality?
DS For someone like Robert Frank, the image is never just the image, so if you look at his pictures now, or in 20 years’ time or 20 years ago, it’s not just about the content. You get a sense from Robert Frank’s pictures of what’s around him, what’s in him – it’s not just about what’s in the photograph. Now if your grandmother is taking pictures of your child, she’s not taking photographs to make a good picture, she wants to photograph her first tooth, or the first curl in her hair. You get to see on Instagram a range of images that you wouldn’t even consider taking as a photographer. And it has to be so. So now who makes a language out of images? A mathematician might make a wonderful set of photographs. It’s everyone’s language. Now the game begins.
Tank It’s really fascinating how similar your and T.M. Krishna’s approaches are across forms. You mentioned the role of archives, which seem to be a huge element of your work.
DS I am dealing with my own archives, but I am obsessed with photographing paper archives. So I already made a book called Fileroom with Steidl; my work on archives was shown in two Venice Biennales; I have made a museum for the archive work. My next book is called Forget Me Not and it’s also set in archives. Even I don’t completely understand my interest in archives, but I think if I did completely understand it, I wouldn’t do it as much as I do. It’s something that’s deeply moving and very, very exciting. I would drop everything if you got me access to an archive somewhere in Suffolk, for instance. But actually, Suffolk may not be that interesting because what I like about the archives in India is the feeling of disorder.
Do you know how I met T.M. Krishna? I had heard his singing a month before I met him and I was obsessed with his voice – I had it on a loop for about three days and three nights. There was this gallerist in Chennai who was asking me to do something there, so I rang her up and finally agreed. I told her I would launch my book there if she could get T.M. Krishna to do the launch. She pointed out that I had already launched the book a year ago and I said, “Yeah, but I want T.M. Krishna to launch it.” Somehow he agreed and when he came to the opening he said, “Two questions: I don’t understand why we call Dayanita Singh’s work black and white when it’s anything but? It’s all about the greys. And why do we say that the files are about bureaucracy? They seem to be a portrait of memory, of how we remember and there’s a mad sort of order to the seeming chaos.” I was so amazed that he had been able to read so deeply into the work. That’s how I met him – I sort of engineered it. Just from his singing I could feel he was in a similar sort of place and that he really wanted to push against the system. But, in a way, there’s no comparison between photography, which is a young medium, and Carnatic music, which is far more complex.
Tank You were saying before that we are only just beginning to understand the form of photography.
DS Yes! Photography is always about taking on changes, but I think the fact that it’s no longer the prerogative of photographers completely changes everything. Now we will see what people do with it.
In ten years, I don’t think you will be able to be a writer without engaging with images in some way. Either I’m being completely crazy, or everyone else is – which means that I am – except that I have Steidl by my side. There are codes and subliminal messages in images, and you can describe a certain feeling you might get from them. That is the type of photography that I am most interested in, but this aspect is obscured by the traditions of photography whereby you have a print hanging on the wall. That is only one part of photography and I’m sure that in a few iPhones’ time, it will have a projector in it. So ten of us could get together and have an exhibition where we project our images at the same intervals. We could sit for days and come up with many different forms. I believe it’s the same with books. I’m surprised that more people haven’t also taken on the book, as an object, as a form. One has to go further, to challenge the book itself.
Tank But it’s not something many writers have engaged in. It’s still a provocation.
DS Yes, otherwise, why do it? I learned from my mentor, Zakir Hussain, that the day you feel you’ve got it is the day you should call it quits. But still, of course all of this is possible because of the few characters one has the privilege of being in conversation with. I started with Zakir Hussain, then Walter Keller and then to be in conversation with Gerhard Steidl... It doesn’t get better than that in my book! §