Photography is just the starting point

Photography is just the starting point, by no means an end in itself. The raw material to make something with.

Only 10% of my work is the making of photographs, its after the images build up that the real work starts, first the ruthless the editing, weeding out, then a very loose sequencing and simultaneously allowing  the form to emerge from within that edit, and if thats not all then honing that form.Building, breaking, starting again.

Very slow and solitary work, making photographs is the easiest part.

Photography is just the starting point

Naoya Hatakeyama- Who is that Someone, the addressee?

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?

Naoya Hatakeyama

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.


Naoya Hatakeyama- Who is that Someone, the addressee?

On Anxieties and Growing pains

imagesI met Mary Ellen mark, when I barged into her workshop for Friends of Photography in Varanasi. I think it was 1986. She made me her teaching assistant so i could attend the workshop which I could not afford. One of the most important advice she gave me, was to be very careful whom I showed my work too.She said to choose the 2-3 people carefully and then one had to listen to them entirely. Their praise and their criticism. Especially at the very early stage, when one is nurturing a new idea, finding a form for that new thought, the more people you show it to, the more confused you will be.

Also it is very likely that you start to follow the imagery that gets the most ‘likes’ when that is a sure way to know that you are doing something mainstream and I would dare to say even mediocre. It means you are not pushing the limits.

Ofcourse in the begining we look to other photographers, we are inspired by them, and gradually there comes a time when you still appreciate them but you find your own voice, your own way.No one can find that way for you.

That is the point I would wish for you, nudge you too and that means not asking me to look at your work. I would never be fully appreciative of your work, as I am never of my own work. I always see what more there is to do. It is a long process, full of disappointments and anxieties. You have to live those, no one can bring you out of them, except your work. They are the ‘growing pains’. And you have to live them.

I rarely showed my work to photographers, they were not my ‘mentors’. But I did know my Photo history really well and was conscious of the ‘movements’ that preceded.


In 1992 I met Walter Keller, who went on to be the most significant voice in my head. He told me ” I have no doubt you will be a great photographer one day, you have all that it takes, but dont get involved in making books and exhibitions, they will drain your energy. Especially do not run for Photography awards. Just photograph as much as you can while you are young and enthusiastic. The rest can all wait.” Somehow I listened to him and today I have an archive of 30 years, much of it still untapped. I made the Mona book with him 10 years later in 2002.

I do not know if I have the skills to make you understand these two advices, but they have and still continue to guide me. And believe me, if you are pushing limits( how soever minute in the larger picture), there is always anxiety. Infact when it is not there, then its something to worry about, because then that dreaded word, complacency is setting in. The death of an artist, in my book.

On Anxieties and Growing pains


© Simon White-Museum of Chance Hayward Shot C
Starting with Sent a Letter  I began to explore the idea of the book as an exhibition. This led me in 2013 to the Museum bhavan. I think I had always known the book was my form, the tactile book that you held in your hands The Zakir book had no exhibition, no prints on the wall, but it took me 30 years to find a form that allowed me to free my images from the wall, from the matt and the frame and making both the display and the sequencing endlessly changing.This came in the form of the mobile museums.
Perhaps the most crucial process is not the photography but the editing. I think I work backwards, I collect images over months and years and then at a certain time, I stop and start to look at the material, and weed out, till the bare structure remains.Then I find the form, rather the form reveals itself in this editing process.
Museum Bhavan will occupy KNMA in Dec 2015. The manifesto of the Museum is below-

Museum Bhavan is a collection of museums made by Dayanita Singh. Permanently installed at Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, the museums will, however, travel to other venues. This is their inaugural tour, and once they return  home, they will be open to the public on the first and second full moon of each year. At other times, they may be viewed by appointment only, or through a large window that lets people look into the Bhavan without entering it.

The Bhavan will have an archivist-in-residence programme, and organize seminars on nano-museums every two years. It will have its own travelling museum shop and book-cart. Each museum will also have its own trustees and ambassadors. There will be an ongoing catalogue, compiled by the Museum Editor, from found and commissioned texts. Museum Bhavan has a publications programme with Steidl, which started with Museum of Chance in 2014.

The museums hold within them old and new images made by Dayanita Singh. These images are endlessly displayed, sequenced, edited and archived in the museums by the artist herself. The design and architecture of the museums, are integral to the images shown and kept in them. Each large, wooden, handmade structure can be placed and opened in different ways. It holds around a hundred framed images, some on view, while others wait for their turn in the reserve collection, also kept inside the structures. All the museums have smaller structures within them, which can be displayed inside the museum or on the wall.

The museums sometimes form small chambers, with their own tables and benches, for reflection and conversation; they can also be joined to one another to form a labyrinth. As Singh keeps adding images to the museums, the museums themselves could give birth to other museums. For example, the Museum of Embraces comes out of the Museum of Chance, and the Museum of Vitrines is contained within the Museum of Furniture.




The AAPIMP award is announced in the memory of the woman who invented creative photography Anna Atkins. I think we can call her the MOTHER OF PHOTOGRAPHY, the men provided the tools, she made poetry out of them. In 1843 Anna Atkins made (self produced and self published) the first ever book with Photography, using the Cyanotype process to make reproductions of ferns. The book was called Photographs of British Algae and she distributed it privately between 1843 and 1853, adding updates of plates as she went along.She made 13 in total, or 13 copies are what remain. She was a botanist who saw what she could do with Photographic drawing instead of just ‘capturing’ what was put infront of her. She ‘used’ the photography process for a more personal expression. She understood immediately the possibility with dissemination that photography brings and the private ways in which it could be distributed. She even made her title and text pages with this process and towards the end of her edition was stitching the books and making wrappers for them. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have here the  ORIGINAL BOOK ARTIST. producer, editor, publisher,distributor,artist.

She saw that photography was a tool and she needed to do something more with it. Is’nt this what we are talking about now? She had already worked it out.Right at the begining of Photography.


The prize will be for 50,000INR.

Please send in your applications to proposal should consist of a statement on how you feel your ‘Masculinity’ has informed your Photographic vision. 500 – 1000 words. This would be the main criterion for the judging. Along with this please send 10 jpegs of images that you feel further illustrate this ‘Male vision’. Please also send a revealing Selfie.Something that tells me something more than what your face looks like.

Last date for submission 15th November.

The award will be presented on 17th Dec, by Nony Singh, in the Museum Bhavan @KNMA New Delhi.

Age no bar, but strictly for Male photographers and of Indian nationality only.


SUCCESS gets in the way

Atleast in being an Artist ,Success and Failure are two completely meaningless words. The sooner one can delete them, the easier things will be, the richer ones exploration will be.They were never part of my vocabulary, even when I was your age. I try to address them now, as I hear some of your concerns.

How can one judge what is Failure and subsequently what is Success. They are both quite superficial and transitory, and todays success is tomorrows failure and vice a versa. They are just trends, they come and go, like fashion.  My whole trajectory has been like this. These words S and F matter if you are running a business and looking for results, but when Enquiry and Exploration are your ‘work’ then how can you measure them in Success or Failure.

I made the ZAKIR HUSSAIN book in 1986, while still a student at NID. It was unsold on the foot path for ten rs. Today it is a ‘rare’ book and unavailable . I never even thought of the world Failure even then. It was not even a question. One does what ones does, because one must, because you have to. Thats all. Today if I can display it on the entrance wall of my exhibition at the Hayward gallery, does that mean it is a success?. It was what informed my entire life, my choice of being a photographer,a soloist,and most importantly to have a mentor in Zakir Hussain. So in that sense, yes it was a tremendous success personally. Immeasurable success.

MYSELF MONA AHMED  2001 also had no ‘box office’ success, and today I am sure some of you are looking for it. It was slotted a photo book, but it could just as well have been in the biography section. Mona writing emails to the publisher as the text for the book was a novel idea (not that I thought that at the time). It was designed to be a photo book that demanded to be read ( on Monas instructions” small enough to read on a plane or train). But it had few takers at the time. Having said all of this, I must admit, this particular book I do see as a huge failure, because the intention was to have people see/ Mona as a very unique person, but  people continued to call her ‘ the eunuch’. I cringe each time some one says that.They still do and invite me to gender conferences.  So this work been a terrible Failure. I did not succeed in my intention ( a whole other subject).  Perhaps these personal measures of success and failure are what matter.

Now we are in 2015 with  MUSEUM OF CHANCE  , which is a immense ‘success’ for me, but seems to be only for me. I finally succeeded in putting the book on the wall, in making the exhibition of the book itself, I managed to convince Steidl to print me a book with 88 different covers so the book could also be the exhibition. I think this was a giant step for the book in this digital time. At a time when we wonder about the future of the Physical book. Did anyone else see it like this, not to the best of my knowledge. Yes when its in an edition , people want to ‘collect’ it, but did anyone review the book? NO. Did anyone notice that it was almost a biography collating images from 30 years? NO. Did the book in itself sell like hot cakes? NO. Steidl said he would never again print such a complicated book.( I am sure he will, he just loves a good challenge) But for me it is perhaps the biggest achievement of my career. So where is success and failure here? I will still tour the book object, at my own cost and initiative, I believe its an important idea. If I wont support it then who will?

Support then leads us to the very important question of earning a living, and so I say to all aspiring photographers and artists, get a job. Cooking, cleaning, designing, writing, anything that can help you earn what you need for the month and then use the rest of the time to explore your “Art”. At one time I had thought I would offer my work to a buyer  for exactly the amount I needed to survive for the month.  We need to take ones work away from the commerce of the Art world, (atleast for the first decade or two of ones practice). And thereby away from the superficial ideas of Success and Failure. They will only fossilize your work at a time when its more important to  protect and nurture your core (another whole conversation)

I guess the biggest problem with ‘Success’ in todays times, is that people just want more and more of that successful thing, and before you can blink, you have become a factory of your own work, a caricature of your own exploration, unable to take any risks of new thought, what was the point of that enquiry then, if it could be cornered by success and its traps. For me it has been important to constantly dodge it, and somehow the work shifts so fast that by the time the praise/criticism/thought comes in for BLUE BOOK, I will be 5 projects down the line, immersed in MUSEUM BHAVAN . And it may never come. That is really irrelevant.

But this is me and my trajectory, you have yours to work out, I can only share some of my experience, my process with you.

Best of Chance

SUCCESS gets in the way

Failure is not an option

My dear younger friends, the few that I have spent time with, you are so full of fear, so afraid of failure, you want to be guaranteed of success before you start something new, but what if I say there is no failure. That was not an option ever for me. I just did what I did, because I was obsessed by something, and even if it did not ‘work’ at the time I never deleted it, I knew it would become part of something else.I trusted the process. Its the process that I was interested in, not its end result. I also had no choice. I had to do what I was being led to. My Go Away Closer work is made entirely of what I considered ‘sideys’ at a certain time when I was pursuing more traditional ideas of series in Photography. Imagine if I had deleted all those images as ‘failed’ images.

I cannot change what I do because you liked my Blue images, or my Calcutta portraits, if I am still obsessed with FILES I will keep photographing them, even though they have been made into a book, are part of the next book, have been shown in exhibitions, infact twice at two Venice bienales….clearly the FILES are not an end in themselves, they are leading me to some other place and its ok that I do not know exactly what that is. Maybe I will photograph FILES all my life, that no publisher or audience is interested in them cannot stop me. Its not an option.

Infact if I knew the End result, then what would be the point of pursuing it. I somehow always trust in the process.

Perhaps what has been the determining factor is that there have always been two or three people, who I have trusted implicitly. So the key could be in finding those one or two people. Both their praise and their criticism. The rest is in through one ear and out through the other. Ofcourse its a wonderful bonus when people like your work, but thats not why one does what one does. Its an inner exploration if one can dare to say such a thing.

You ask to show me your work, you ask several others, you see what most have liked and then pursue that. To me that is a way to bring the work to a mediocre level. It means you are not treading new territory. That to me is Failure. If you are not pushing your own and your mediums limits.

Failure , or its fear, would suggest you have an end result in mind. But if you are in the enquiry mode, the exploration mode, then there is no question of failure. You are seeing what the work brings you too. So even if it sounds like pop psychology, I would say trust in the process. And if thats not why you are pursuing the life of an artist, then you have some rethinking to do.

Its not easy being an Artist. Your struggles, your confusions are really your own, no one else can bring you out of them.  And believe me, they never go away. Infact the day one stops doubting oneself, the day one stops learning, would be the day to call it quits.

Its about the enquiry my friends, not success and failure. Those two words are aspirations for some other kind of work, not the life of an Artist.

And this is really my humble opinion, you must form your own.

Good luck Good Chance

Failure is not an option