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Issue 235

A Journey Through the Lens of Dayanita Singh

Ahead of a survey opening at MUDAM Luxembourg in May, the artist speaks about her pioneering practice bridging photography and experimental book forms

BY Vanessa Peterson AND Dayanita Singh in Interviews | 05 MAY 23

Vanessa Peterson Let’s start at the very beginning of your career in 1980s India. Your first book, Zakir Hussain:  A Photo Essay [1986] – a volume published by Himalayan Books produced while you were a student at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad – featured photographs of and interviews with the noted classical tabla player Zakir Hussain and his fellow instrumentalists as they toured the country over the course of six summers. What made you choose Hussain as your subject and how did you conceive of the photographs at that early stage?

Dayanita Singh I didn’t choose photography: I chose to be free. I realized that photography could liberate me from all the social expectations that there were of an 18-year-old woman. I started by photographing Zakir – the other musicians, too, but mainly Zakir – because he became my mentor. He was quite strict with me. He’d say: ‘If you’ve chosen photography, you have to know your medium like the back of your hand before you challenge it.’ At the time, I didn’t know anything about being a photographer or an artist. But, by allowing me full access to his life, Zakir really showed me what it means to be an artist and to be committed to that choice.

Dayanita Singh, Zakir Hussain Maquette (detail), 2019. Courtesy: the artist, Steidl, Göttingen and Frith Street Gallery

VP The book has a polyphonic quality to it because, alongside your words, captions and your transcriptions, are captions written by Hussain himself. Did that collaboration – which involved travelling for a sustained period of time with a certain group of people – have a significant impact on you at that early stage in your career?

DS It’s taken many years for me to realize how important that annual bus journey with the musicians was: we would spend three weeks travelling from one side of India to the other, them performing and me taking photographs. We lived in all kinds of places and spent time with some of the country’s greatest musicians. I learnt so much about life on that bus.

I had no idea what the book should be like, as I hadn’t come across many photography books, so I had to improvise. It seemed only natural to me that, if I were going to be photographing Zakir, he should have a say in everything. It was our project. He wanted me to do it well and he supported me in that. I had wanted him to handwrite all the captions, but he didn’t get around to doing them all. Zakir wasn’t as well known then – he wasn’t like Ravi Shankar, the famous Indian sitar player – and the idea that you would make a book about one person was strange. Other than the copies bought by Zakir’s fans, the rest of the books just got pulped.

Dayanita Singh, Zakir Hussain Maquette, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Frith Street Gallery; photograph: Luca Girardini

VP After you graduated, you moved to New York to study at the International Center of Photography [ICP]. Was that when you decided to commit to photography as a full-time career?

DS I went to ICP because I knew that I couldn’t really become a photographer in India: I knew no women at that time in photography, and the men were far from encouraging. I went to ICP at great expense to my mother. I said to her: ‘I won’t get married but, if I ever do, then I won’t take a dowry, just let me go to ICP.’

It took me a long time to unlearn what I learned there. When I look at my contact sheets now, which I did during the COVID-19 pandemic, I can see that I was a very fine photographer until I studied photography and was taught what a ‘good’ photograph should look like. I hid my book about Zakir from my friends in New York: no one knew that I had already published a book because I was so embarrassed by it. My pictures didn’t look like the so-called great American photography: they weren’t wide angle; they weren’t any of the things I was told made great pictures. Nobody in India encouraged me or reassured me that I was doing alright. When I returned to India, I tried to be a photojournalist for about two or three years, but it didn’t work out – I could not deal with the ethical dilemmas inherent in the medium. Going to ICP made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. Of course, in my heart, I see myself as a photographer, but I wouldn’t call myself a photographer because I don’t like how boxed-in photography has become. I came to photography to find freedom. I want that freedom for photography too.

Dayanita Singh, Chairs, 2005. Courtesy: © Dayanita Singh and Frith Street Gallery

VP You were so inspired by the photographer Robert Frank that you stole a copy of his book, The Lines of My Hand [1972], when you were a student at ICP. That book is a deeply intimate and tender autobiographical exploration of Frank’s family and loved ones. It also contains the contact sheets from his travels across America – which led to his landmark photo series The Americans [1959] – as well as personal captions and written reflections on the context and creation of those images.

DS Frank had such a disregard for the rules of photography – writing on his negatives and prints – that he freed photography for me. I don’t think I’ve ever been shaken by a book like I was by The Lines of My Hand. It wasn’t just a photo book to me: it was so much more. I had to have it because what I was being taught about the great American photographers was not enough, but it cost US$40, which was a lot in those days. So, I was paying them a lot of fees. When I eventually met Frank 15 years later, I told him the story. He then stole another copy of The Lines of My Hand, made a drawing of Manhattan on it and gave it to me.

In 1997, I got a call from Frank’s lawyers. I was terrified at first because I assumed it must have something to do with the book I’d stolen! I thought: ‘I’ve only stolen one thing in my life and that very person gets his lawyers to call me!’ In fact, Frank had won the Hasselblad Award for photographic achievement in 1996 and, having heard that photojournalism wasn’t working out for me and no magazines or publishers wanted to pay for my work, he’d decided to give me US$10,000 as a grant to continue making my series of family portraits. That money supported me for three years and ultimately led to the publication of my book Privacy [2004]. I wanted to be honest with Frank’s lawyers, so I said: ‘Listen, it’s wonderful that he wants to give me this money, but I can’t give him anything in return because I’m photographing people.’ And the message that came back was: ‘This money is for you to do what you like with. Throw it in the sea if that’s what you want.’ Frank never asked me to give him credit. He could’ve asked for my entire archive, and I would have given it to him because that money at that time was life-changing for me. Many years later, in 2022, I received the Hasselblad Award myself and, to keep Frank’s generosity going, I continue to support young artists through anonymous grants.

Dayanita Singh, Privacy, 2003. Courtesy: the artist, Steidl, Göttingen and Frith Street Gallery

VP Another person who has been instrumental to your practice is the book publisher Gerhard Steidl.

DS I met Gerhard in London in 2001, when I had an exhibition at Frith Street Gallery. I was young, dressed in velvet pants, and standing outside the gallery smoking with my friends when this grumpy-looking man came up to me and introduced himself. He told me that he’d printed my latest book, Myself Mona Ahmed [2001], with my previous publisher, Scalo, and that the next time I published a book, I should come to press. If my publisher was too poor to send me there, he added, he’d pay for my ticket. Two years later, when I had an exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Scalo had since gone bankrupt. I told the curator of the show, Brita Schmidt, that we should go to Steidl. Gerhard asked me whether, with Privacy, I wanted to make a catalogue or an artist book, and it was like love at first sight! We later collaborated on Chairs [2005] and Go Away Closer [2006]. From then on, Gerhard became an accomplice in expanding the parameters of what a book might be, playing with possibilities while remaining true to the format. Could a book become an exhibition, for instance? For me, there is no longer any hierarchy between publication, exhibition and print.

Dayanita Singh, Go Away Closer, 2007. Courtesy: © Dayanita Singh and Frith Street Gallery

VP I wanted to touch upon the performative elements of your practice and the ways in which you engage with the work.

DS Book Building [2022] includes guides that tell you how to turn my books into exhibitions. For instance: buy the Museum Bhavan [2017] box, which includes nine of my books; buy yourself a jacket; stitch nine pockets onto it; put the books into your pockets and stand on the street with your arms open and one book in your hand. People will laugh, people will pass by, but somebody will stop and want to see your work. Book Building is full of DIY suggestions like this because that’s what I’m obsessed with.

I have worked most of my life with a Hasselblad, so my photography doesn’t come from eye-level: it comes from my belly, from my body in motion. I have a visceral connection to photography: I can’t bear to see it on the wall framed behind glass. My childhood home had glass-topped tables with photos arranged underneath: when my mother ran out of space in her photo albums, which were constantly being rearranged, she would cover the table tops with photos instead. To me, a photograph is something you touch and you move and it warps and it gets dented: it’s alive.

Dayanita Singh, Museum of Chance, 2013. Courtesy: © Dayanita Singh and Frith Street Gallery

VP In a 2017 interview with Open magazine, you mentioned the ‘utility’ of the offset method that you use to print some of your photographs.

DS It is so much easier to call yourself an artist or a photo-based artist – anything other than a photographer! The term ‘offset artist’ works well for me because, by its very nature, offset printing implies dissemination. Although people often don’t take it into consideration, a large part of photography for me is dissemination: making the image, finding the best form for it and then disseminating it. That’s what sets photographic work apart from other art forms: that there are multiple ways of disseminating it.  I feel that photography – with its reproducibility and its capacity for dissemination – is the only medium that, unlike painting and sculpture, can truly make art more accessible.

Dayanita Singh, Museum of Shedding, 2016. Courtesy: © Dayanita Singh and Frith Street Gallery

VP You’ve often played with alternative forms of display in your publications and DIY exhibitions. In Museum of Shedding [2016], for instance, your photographs sit within a wooden structure replicating a museum or gallery in a form of institutional critique.

DS Museum of Shedding is an architectural installation that I built for my own house, to live inside, including  a bed and a stool. It also includes a desk with a ‘registrar’ sign on it as well as a bench and wooden storage units for the museum’s collection. I wanted to present a physical solution for archival display that was also a critique of the museum or, rather, of what the museum has done to photography. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) has been the most important institution, historically, for photography. So, when MoMA acquired Museum of Chance [2013] – exhibiting it on the sixth floor of the new building, when it launched in 2019 – I was thrilled because that meant that a major museum had acquired my critique of itself. The best compliment came from MoMA director Glenn Lowry, who said Museum of Chance was his favourite work in the collection, when asked on the BBC Radio 3 show The Way I See It. He said it was because he wanted MoMA to be as organic and ever-changing as the Museum of Chance. I was in tears. 

I never got adopted by my colleagues, by the boys who were in photography. That was such a blessing because then I was left to my own devices. I have Zakir Hussain as my mentor and Walter Keller, the publisher of Scalo Books. I have Gerhard Steidl. How many mentors does one need? I’ve also got my mother and I’ve got Mona, from Myself Mona Ahmed. In all photography, as in my own practice, what really counts is the riyaz – the daily routine – of going out to take pictures. It could be just photographs of your neighbourhood or the journey from your home to your office – whatever you choose. Imagine if you did that, year after year, decade after decade. Imagine the stories you could tell. The archive that you would have built.

This article appeared in frieze issue 235 with the headline ‘Interview: Dayanita Singh

Dayanita Singh's Dancing with my Camera will open at MUDAM Luxembourg on 12 May 

Main image: Dayanita Singh, Museum of Chance, 2013. Courtesy: © Dayanita Singh 

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK. 

Dayanita Singh is an artist. Her exhibition, ‘Dancing with My Camera’, will open at MUDAM Luxembourg in May 2023, and will later travel to Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Portugal.