Dayanita Singh — The Adventures of a Photographer
When we’re organizing the photographs we’ve taken, we leave this one, discard that one, and so on, and at the same time it’s like we’re imagining in our minds someone’s surprised face, or someone’s slight smile just as they come to speak to us. But who is that person? Who is that someone?
If it’s a photo someone has asked you to take, then that “who”—that “someone”—is clear enough. But I’m talking about those photos you’ve just taken on your own, unasked. Photographs motivated by passions hardly understood, growing in number until you suddenly discover that a vast quantity were taken without even realizing it. Since nobody’s asked you to take them, you try telling yourself, “Well, I took them for myself….” But somehow you know that wasn’t your real intention, was it…?
We’re not taking photographs for ourselves, no. To really bring life to a photo absolutely requires an external “someone,” and we are well aware that that someone exists for us in some particular relational geometry, be it “respect” or “friendship” or “love.”
Let’s try counting those “someones”: one person, two people, three…. Examine that list and you’ll see it contains people you’ve never met, who are no longer in this world, some who cannot even be called people, and so on, and while even you are a little surprised at this, you also notice that their actual number seems just about right. All the rest of the many people and worlds out there, well, they just hold no interest.
Dayanita Singh says that each photograph is but a single alphabet. It’s true that even a single alphabet conveys a certain something, but the things being conveyed are too enigmatic. If your intention is to have that “someone” return a smile, then you can’t just print alphabets, no, you have to arrange them into spelling and writing. In this way Singh discovered the form called “book” as a way of stitching together photographs. This format differs from so-called “photo volumes” because it doesn’t have the same catalog-like characteristics. Rather, for Singh, “books” are like collections of stories and histories, existing since antiquity, knit together from alphabets, in the way of any classic text.
With each turn of the page, the disappearing and appearing photographs. Books have a certain similarity to creation as “music” which includes the firm grasp of past and new revelation that is a feature of sound. Light continues, memory has shading while heading toward forgetting, and time brings manifestations of new seeing. Dayanita Singh considers the moment to moment flow, adds bits of color to the monotonous places, entices us to leap, and reports the beginnings and ends of personal experiences. Using what? Using photographs as alphabets. And if we close the book, we end up with a mysterious feeling like we’ve gone off far away and then returned, the views always before our eyes somehow a little changed.
If making books was Dayanita Singh’s real work in the first place, then her exhibitions would be like “catalogs” for books. On the pages of a book only one or two photographs can be in view at a time. On the other hand, having multiple photographs lined up on a wall so they all come into the sphere of view at once is an effect like that of “catalog” in the strictest sense of the word.
The exhibition is a catalog. This paradox turns the visitor’s view upside-down. But because Dayanita Singh’s skill brings this overturned view in for a gentle landing, most viewers don’t even notice it. “What I’m seeing now is not all there is.” This kind of moderate feeling suddenly welling up into appearance seems completely natural to viewers, as if they had always felt that way.
There is a wall, illuminated from a single strong spotlight high up on the ceiling, upon which hang four columns of three photographs. The footlights in the gallery are lowered, so that the light reflected from the four-by-three frame looks entirely like a negative image, lying against the wall surface. The photographic images within each of the rectangular frames cannot be seen, of course, so they look entirely like empty frames of light, lined up there upon the darkened floor.
Asked, “Did you photograph this floor?” Singh replies, “Of course.” Within the abstract scene, image and physical world, symbol and logic, such likely irreconcilable worlds overlap into one point, existing simultaneously. Moreover, those differing two are to the utmost not blended each other. Emergence of contradiction. What did we call that kind of surprise? While being within it, that word which we don’t use so frequently…. Yes, the word is “life”—Isn’t that what we usually call it? You yourself, to communicate your true feelings to your lover, that time “Go Away Closer,” braving logical contradictions that even you find surprising, weren’t there?
Walking through Koishikawa Kōrakuen Garden in Bunkyo-ku one fine autumn day, Dayanita Singh asked me, “Who would be the Japanese equivalent of [author] Italo Calvino?” “Hmm… Kobo Abe…?” I answered, not having thought all that hard about it, there in the garden. The changing perspectives created by the garden’s rich landscape kept us walking and walking, until suddenly the sun had sunk low. In a corner of a bit of ground near the exit we came upon a gazebo of sorts, and in that exposed space, the flowers blooming in this garden, the look of the autumn leaves, the kingfishers living in the pond, all these photographs were fluttering in the breeze without even the decoration of frames. I’d grown a little sleepy, and while Dayanita had gone off to wash her hands I laid back on the gazebo bench, and before I knew it she had returned and I jumped back awake at her voice asking me, “Next time I do an exhibition in Tokyo, shall I do it here?”
I saw that all of the many scenes she had seen until now were contained deep within her laughing eyes. Happily, a portion of these (and the quantity and quality of that portion are important) are with her as photographs. Lacing up that happiness and returning it to reality, wait quietly for “someone” to come. Just a few “someones.”
There in Tokyo, where the heat of information consumption is a vortex, where dense mental spaces are everywhere, I think I touched something fondly remembered, something important. Feet on the ground, magnanimous, something at least as old as an Indian myth.
The true freedom of an artistic work only comes into reality through the attitude of thinking about “those few someones.” Attaining this paradox should have been the beginning of both creating and receiving art. Moreover, this should have been completely simple, understandable by anyone.
As for me, regarding Dayanita Singh’s work, this is all I can write at this point. What the reader wants to know surely includes things like the reasons behind her global success, concrete explanations of the various works, the position of her work in history, and its relationship to literature. But before such analyses, I have simply been moved to be witness to the happiness of her photographic world.