Reading a book with no words. Is there a quantifiable way in which we can distinguish what it means to look at an image or to read an image? Perhaps it is a discussion about depth, how deeply do you read an image? How closely do you look at it? Indian photographer Dayanita Singh’s latest foray into experimenting with storytelling started by asking, "If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words are in a book of 149 images?" With 14 books under her belt, including Portrait of a House (2021), a book on the architecture of BV Doshi’s, the 2022 Hasselblad Award laureate explores a new genre, the photo novel. The photo novel titled Let’s See traces Dayanita Singh’s early years of experimenting with a camera; it is a return to a time when she did not consider herself a photographer. The depth and value of these images extend beyond the expansion of Singh’s repertoire, it is a remembrance.
In a conversation with STIR, hours before the launch of her photo novel Let’s See, Singh explains, "The idea of this photo novel may be very interesting to think about. It is an experiment; it is probably the first time one is trying it. Can we have photographs that tell a story that is a very literal rendition of a novel? But I am saying no, what happens when we have a photo novel? Because there is so much unsayable in photography how does that transform into a novel? Does it?" Having poured through 40 years of her archive, Singh rediscovered numerous photographs, from days in both Mumbai and Delhi, many of which have not been seen. Exploring scans of her contact sheets and being amazed by the gentle nature of her photographs from the 80s and 90s, Singh notes the camera lens had captured bodies and moments that had not yet cultivated cautious posturing. These are the moments she identifies as ‘whispers’. Scenes with hostel roommates, friends in their homes, family, weddings, and funerals elucidate the pages of the novel. "The photographs are quite tentative. Because I am not trying to make a photograph. I just want to remember something about this conversation. It does not have to be a formal portrait,” she mentions.
Singh’s first camera, a Pentax ME Super with a 50mm lens, was gifted to her by the German publisher Ernst Battenberg. So began her tryst with the medium of photography. However, she has always encouraged and emphasised the importance of literature in photography. She explains, "When you photograph something you bring to it everything that is in your head, everything you have experienced. When you are young and don’t have a lot of life experience how will you gather life experience? Through literature, maybe cinema. Travel is great but one can't always afford it, not just the finance but the time. But then you have to let go of it, because what is the point of photographing what can be put into words.” Here lies Singh’s mastery, in the balance between words and visuals as she explains, "photographs go where language does not go, and it is so open to interpretation."
An interpretation does play a part in this novel too. The book is not a chronological journey, illustrating Dayanita Singh’s story, it should not be mistaken for an autobiography. Anecdotal perhaps. It is a novel. It is a story. When asked about how she conceived the sequencing, Singh says, "That is the key. That is the most important thing. There were stages of this. One is, thanks to COVID, having the time to go through each image I have made in my life, which I have never done. Everything has stayed on a contact sheet. I had all this time because of the lockdown, I knew I had to do something, it was perfect. I sat with the contact sheets, and I started to find these images that were very different from the images I made as a photographer.” She continues, "I don’t have access to this eye anymore, so it is someone else’s work. Therefore, it becomes easier to edit. First, I was pulling up these images that had this “let’s see” feeling to them. There is a bit of suspense in the photo, you don’t have a complete picture. That is when the work really starts. It took me almost two years to sequence this book. This book has 149 photos, there could be 149 x 149 combinations, so one had to make a maquette. Look through it again and again. Much like an editor would do with a novel.”
“It is one of my very first photos, from when I was still learning how to handle the camera” – Dayanita Singh Image: Dayanita Singh
Singh is a part of the story, even visible in a few images, caught in the reflection of a mirror. The second image one would encounter in the book is perhaps what I would consider the first line of the novel. An introduction not only to the nature of the moments we are yet to encounter but also the lens of Let's see. Singh comments on the photo saying, “It is one of my very first photos, from when I was still learning how to handle the camera.” The novel includes portraits of her and those who would become important characters in her life, from her mother Nony Singh to Zakir Hussain, and Mona Ahmed whom she depicted in the emotive visual biography titled Myself Mona Ahmed (2001). There is a fundamental difference between a photograph printed as simply a photograph, and a photograph printed across two pages. The gutter (like khaali) is an important aspect of Singh’s work, one she has spoken about before as she reiterates, "It is a very important part of music and literature. In this book, I did not want a ‘khaali’. It had to be relentless, like pulp fiction. And yet at the same time, I hope it is of interest to people who are studying the 80s. It is a record, of a certain time. the ease that we all had with our bodies, it has changed now. The phone has changed it.”
Returning to a question that has perhaps outlived its usage, yet remains unanswered, what makes a photograph art? If we were to draft Singh’s practice on a timeline, would we be able to signal when she became a photographer and then further when her photography become art? Fortunately, Singh has a response stating clearly, “I think in '89 when I went to ICP (International Center of Photography Museum) in New York. I would say 80 to 90 per cent of this book is before that time.” It is interesting to note that at the time Singh travelled to ICP she had already published her book on the classical Indian musician Zakir Hussain. The timeline of Let’s See is also very interesting to look into. Singh’s retrospective at the Gropius Bau in Berlin, Germany, is an amalgamation of her work so far, and perhaps calling it a retrospective is a bit premature as well. On the heels of this exhibition is an entirely new work in the form of Let’s See. While the majority of the images in the novel predate the artworks display in Berlin, its presentation, format and conception as art are entirely new.
Let’s See is published by Steidl Verlag, and was launched at Mumbai-based gallery ARTISANS' on August 27, 2022. While the book itself and an installation version of the contact sheets were displayed at the Gropius Bau, Singh was clear that the idea of the novel comes first. Singh had the idea of launching the book with special dust covers, making them a one-of-a-kind collectable. While in discussion with Radhi Parekh, founder of the ARTISANS’ gallery, Singh contemplates how the books would be displayed. An obvious choice would be to lay them out on a table. Too obvious a choice. Calling back to her own display methods, each of the unique book covers was displayed using Singh's ‘L’ clips. A small utility-based object transformed what was meant to be a simple display. The book launch turned into a vernissage for an exhibition, which is on view till September 4, 2022.