In the Studio: Dayanita Singh’s New Conceptions of Photography

Dayanita Singh considers how photographic images inhabit our imagination and affect both memory and life in the present. Born in New Delhi in 1961, she initially planned to become a graphic designer, and enrolled at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, where a class assignment for which she photographed Hindustani classical musicians resulted in her first book project and a lifelong appreciation for the camera and its ability to convey the intimacy of relationships.

Over the last three decades, Singh has developed a distinctive practice in which the photographic image is key, and often presented in unique forms: in structures made from teak, for instance, or in the pockets of a custom-designed jacket. In doing so, Singh—who received the 2022 Hasselblad Award—has pushed conceptions of how photography can be understood, collected, and displayed.

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Books have remained at the heart of Singh’s fluid philosophy and open-ended practice. To date, she has published more than a dozen, each propelled by the humanistic drive that first prompted her to pick up a camera. Myself Mona Ahmed (2001) details her friendship with a transgender woman, socially outcast for adopting a daughter, whom Singh met while on a news assignment in Delhi in 1989. The seven volumes that make up Sent a Letter (2008) commemorate other friendships and travels. For File Room (2013), the artist trained her eye on Indian bureaucracy, photographing the reams of paper clogging state and municipal archives. The room-filling Museum Bhavan (2017) features nine sets of prints (which Singh calls “museums”), each exploring a different topic (among them, files, young girls, and furniture) held in folding-screen grids. The work levels the distinction between book and exhibition by allowing viewers to construct their own idiosyncratic experience of the pictures. The same principle guides Pothi Khana (2018), an installation (accompanied by a book) that presents photographs of various archives, displayed in boxy towers, along with stools on which viewers can sit and view the images.

Let’s See, due out this summer from Singh’s longtime publisher, Steidl, gathers previously unseen images from Singh’s archive and coincides with her retrospective exhibition “Dancing with my Camera,” on view at Berlin’s Gropius Bau through the first week of August. Before the exhibition opened, the artist spoke over Zoom about her practice of book building, formal and thematic potentialities of photography, and finding freedom in her work.

TAUSIF NOOR You move fluidly across categories to expand the definition of photography. What was it like to put together a retrospective exhibition of your work?

DAYANITA SINGH I use the term “book-building” to describe how I work with images, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a book will result at the end of the process. I came to photography through the book—even for this exhibition at the Gropius Bau, I thought of each room as a book. That’s just the way I think about work. I often have a long table behind me, and as little prints are made, I leave them on the table. For days, sometimes weeks, I keep looking at them, and trying to listen to the images, to hear what form they want to be activated in. It’s about understanding that the image is just the starting point—you can’t get attached to the images, however beautiful, however difficult they were to make. Photography is just a medium, and I excavate forms out of it. In some ways, I am the medium: things pass through me and become something else.

If there’s one thing I’ve mastered, it’s the art of making chance happen. Before our call, I was looking at some images I made in Porto, and I saw mirrors in them. I always work in hindsight. I remembered photographing some mirrors in the Morvi Palace here in India twenty years ago, so I pulled them out. This is my process: things keep building up, layer upon layer. I put it all together, and then I put it aside. Then I start all over again. I listen carefully for clues in conversations: you might say something, and I could have a completely new edit that I make after this conversation. For chance to happen, one must be always open, always alert.

Museum Bhavan, 2017, 241 images in nine softcover accordion books.

I separate myself from the great makers of “artist’s books” because I make what my publisher, Gerhard Steidl, and I like to call “mass-produced artist’s books,” which I then transform into book objects or something else. When you’re working in offset printing, it would be foolish to make anything less than an edition of 300, because the printer spits out 250 to 300 pages at a time at a minimum. I call myself an “offset artist” not only because I love the quality of offset but because I love the scale of dissemination that is implicit in offset.

For instance, my book Museum Bhavan comes in a box, and it has each of my nine bound “museums” inside it. You get to decide which museum you want to show to your friends today. It was printed as a mass-produced edition of 3,000, but each box is unique. Inside is the same material, but no two people can have the same cover. When I meet a librarian of a museum, I love to see their face when I tell them that it is a mass-produced book but also a unique box. Suddenly it becomes a question of where the object goes: in the collection of the museum, or in its library? Is it no longer a book? It should always be a book—and it should also become something else.

NOOR The language you use to describe your work often comes from other media, such as classical music. For instance, you’ve talked about the play between set notes and improvisation. …

SINGH In Indian classical music, you have set notes, and within that group, you improvise. You build what you want, but you must keep the rhythm and keep to those notes. For me, limitations are wonderful—constraints free me. I’m trying to create a place between publishing and the art gallery that takes the best of both worlds but offers something more. It was very important for me to go far away from photography, to go deeper into photography. My questions all come from photography, but the answers come from architecture, music, sculpture, and long relationships I’ve had with people in these fields. The advantage of getting to my age is finding that you have such a cohesive archive. I kept going to the same places and the same people, year after year, decade after decade.

File Room Bookcase, 2014, teak structure with leather case and copies of the hardcover book File Room.

NOOR Your piece File Room, for which you photographed Indian archives, speaks to the hidden potential in what we think of as static records. An exhibition catalogue or artist’s book is often seen as a similar record—the final word—but you’ve flipped the script, so that the book becomes just the starting point for new work. Has this been the case for you recently?

SINGH Sent a Letter was the first time I realized a book itself can be an exhibition. I don’t need to do anything: you can just buy the box and create a show for your friends anywhere, in your home or on park benches. In my new work, Book of Books [2022], I have DIY instructions for how to turn my books into exhibitions. One set of instructions details how to make yourself into the museum: buy a long jacket and cut pockets of a certain size, so that you can wear nine museums. You can walk into a room with them and invite everyone to a Dayanita Singh opening then and there. Pull out one of the books and hold it up: just like that, you’ve become the museum. Museum of Chance [2015] had eighty-eight different covers; all the images inside became cover images as well, which meant that if you had the full set, that would be my exhibition. You wouldn’t need prints of the photographs; you could clip the book onto the wall. Imagine how much that reduces the costs of exhibition, shipping, and insurance.

NOOR Your practice comes, in part, from your frustrations with how institutions show photography. You trust that a reader, viewer, or collector can appreciate the work and also make it their own. Where does the impulse to make your objects interactive and personal come from?

SINGH I don’t want to be a book on a bookshelf. I don’t want to be a print on your wall. I want my book on your desk, so that you will bump into it, rearrange it, physically engage with it. That tactile quality is very important to me. I’ve made wooden boxes with loose image cards in them—you can change the card every so often and see a new image every day over a month if you want. If you own two different boxes, you curate between them—and so on. Slowly, my archive builds in your home.

It is a privilege to be in the collection of major museums, but it is an equal, if not greater, privilege to have my artworks alive in your house. When I see a little box of mine in someone’s home, I feel that I’ve managed to activate the work, not let it get fossilized behind a frame and glass. I first realized this in 2000, when I had an exhibition in Saligao, in Goa, where I invited the people whom I’d photographed to literally peel the images from the wall and take them home, so that the exhibition lives on in different homes in the village where I live.

Photography allows for these kinds of personal connections, but the art world and the market get in the way. There are too many restrictions from photo festivals and galleries, as if photographers were not defined enough. I hope that people in the younger generation at least will start to think of different forms—not form for form’s sake, and not making books just to make books. It’s always good to ask why: Why is it a book? Why is it an exhibition? Why is it in a frame?

The entrance to Singh’s studio.

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NOOR There’s a tremendous sense of freedom in your practice: freedom in what form the works take, freedom in how you display and disseminate them—but also a freedom that exceeds the visual. The art historian Kajri Jain has related your work to the multisensory experience of the Indian bazaar, while I see it as involved with personal memory and attachment.

SINGH I became a photographer to be free. That’s all. I didn’t become a photographer because I loved the medium and wanted to travel the world—I just wanted to be free of social obligations. I guard my freedom very fiercely because freedom is not easy. It makes you the “difficult artist.” I must constantly fight for this space because nobody gave it to me
and I have to protect it.

As far as the sensuous experience that Kajri Jain describes, let me offer another analogy: the sari shop. In that space, it’s not just about what you buy but how you buy. The reason people are so attached to their saris has to do with how they acquired them. At my events, I try to create the mahaul [ambience] of the sari shop or, more broadly, the experience of acquiring something special. How can you ever part with a sari you bought directly from the weaver, from his house? A story gets attached.

At the same time, I am not going to let anyone typecast me as the “Indian artist” because I refer to sari shops or Indian classical music. The moment someone starts to tune the tanpura—before they are even singing, just tuning—the mahaul has been created, and everything else adds to it. Sometimes, photographers are happy just to be making images, but I feel that you must consider the whole mahaul for your work. The book is one mahaul for my work, museums another—and who knows how many other mahauls will emerge.

NOOR Generating a sari-shopping mahaul takes a certain amount of time. Your interventions with the book, the exhibition, and the photograph allow us to slow down, and really think about what it means to look at and experience an image.

SINGH The slowing-down is also because I want you to experience my work with your body. When I make an installation like the Pothi Khana, which I showed at the 2018 Carnegie International, there is no angle from which you can see everything. You have to go around the structure, and if you want to see what’s at the bottom, you have to bend down. That experience will stay with you in a different way than if you had just seen it with your eyes. I used to call my Hasselblad my third breast—I photographed with my body, not just my eyes. That’s why I used to say, “Dancing with my Hasselblad …” I would like viewers to engage in a more physical way with my work, do a dance around it.

View of the installation Pothi Khana, 2018, at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh.

Photography is burdened by its facticity. When people look at my work, they ask where the photographs were taken; when they learn that they are, for instance, archives in India, it stops there. But there’s so much more in it for me, because I’ve photographed archives for so long. We all have our deep inner impulses for why we do things. I believe in surrendering to the process, an approach that comes out of classical music and my travels with musicians who know that you must allow the work to happen. You can’t dictate how the raga is going to come out. You have to surrender to the work, explore, and let it emerge.

NOOR You’ve seen the fields of photography and publishing change over time, and you’ve been an advocate for some of these new ideas. What possibilities do you see now? What excites you about the current state of photography?

SINGH I’m interested in the potential of the photobook to hold different values. When the book can also be the exhibition, it’s great for collectors, institutions, publishers, and photographers, but it’s not great for the market. With Museum Bhavan and Sent a Letter, you can construct multiple exhibitions. As the owner of my works, you become the archivist of my work.

NOOR Democratizing your work seems to come out of a desire to let it live in the world, beyond you. Myself Mona Ahmed, for example, is even more poignant now, since Ahmed’s death in 2017, and many more people are learning about her life. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that she will always live inside of you, and in a way, your books are all forms of living memory.

SINGH It is so important for photography to keep living. If in ten years the idea of the book becoming the exhibition takes hold, that will really be a wonderful shift. One can always find how to make the economics work. Nobody makes money from artist’s books themselves; there’s no point even asking for a royalty. I do make some money from the book objects that I sell, so that’s possible. But ultimately, you must reimagine what the book is and what the exhibition can be. If those were connected, wouldn’t that be amazing?


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