Arts

Dayanita Singh’s Hands-On Photography

Every winter in the early 1980s, a sturdy bus departed Kolkata, India, for a concert tour of provincial towns. On board were some of North India’s finest classical musicians, world-recognized artists like the vocalist Girija Devi, the flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia, or the tabla player Zakir Hussain.

They traveled at close quarters. The musicians napped on mattresses in the back of the bus, improvised roadside cricket matches and gathered for post-concert music sessions in hotel rooms or spartan dormitory halls.

A photograph from “Musician’s Bus,” a handmade accordion fold book made for the exhibition “Dancing With My Camera” including photos that Singh made in the early 1980s, while accompanying Indian classical musicians on concert tours. Credit…Dayanita Singh

With them was an outlier: Dayanita Singh, then a design student in her early 20s, with a camera. Six years in a row, from 1981 to 1986, she rode with the musicians, witnessed their debates and small talk, watched them ready in green rooms — and she photographed.

Singh would become one of the world’s most distinguished photographers, winning the 2022 Hasselblad Award, whose past laureates include Wolfgang Tillmans, Cindy Sherman and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She photographs families across generations; shopkeepers, society ladies and students, often in groups, mid-conversation; file rooms full of dusty folders; and subtropical modernist buildings.

But those musician tours, Singh, 61, said recently via video from her home in Delhi, instilled the core values of her work. “I learned life,” she said. She absorbed the respectful conviviality among the musicians, their generosity toward audiences, their ethos of daily practice. “All that became my training,” she said.

“Museum of Dance (Mother Loves to Dance)” on display at the Villa Stuck, in Munich. Singh presents some of her photographs in hinged teak structures that can be moved around and reconfigured.Credit…Jann Averwerser
The same work on display at the Gropius Bau, in Berlin, where the exhibition “Dancing With My Camera” was on show before it transferred to Munich.Credit…Dayanita Singh; via Frith Street Gallery; GropiusBau; Luca Girardini

Singh’s largest-ever exhibition, “Dancing With My Camera,” is currently on view at the Villa Stuck museum, in Munich, through March 19. It presents her signature aesthetic — instinctively composed black-and-white images that always feel close yet never prying — and the themes and characters that recur in her oeuvre, like her friend Mona Ahmed, a hijra, or third-gender person, who lived in a Delhi cemetery. But it also reaches back to images from the bus, and from other formative experiences, that she is showing for the first time.

The exhibition showcases Singh’s inventive production and display techniques, too: hinged teak structures, displaying multiple photographs, that can be moved around and reconfigured; towers of cubes with images on all sides; boxes of swappable image cards; and hybrid “book objects” that work equally well on the wall or in the museum store. She has honed these methods for nearly two decades, exhibiting her work in flexible, accessible forms.

“Let’s See,” a photo book published last year, collects over 100 of the artist’s early images.Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

She has honed these methods for nearly two decades, exhibiting her work in flexible, accessible forms. The inclusion of Singh’s early photographs fills out an understanding of her career, showing how her style emerged and how recurring characters like Ahmed first appeared — and offering a personal immersion into a certain India before the globalization of the 1990s.

For Singh, digging through her early work was no idle pursuit — it was an encounter with her younger self, she said, from a time when she did not yet consider herself a photographer and, in the male-dominated Indian photo scene of the time, received little validation.

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“I was a good photographer when I made those pictures!” Singh said. “But I didn’t know it, and nobody else saw it that way.”

It took the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020 for her to scan and enlarge her old contact sheets and imagine edits. “Let’s See,” published last year, collects over 100 of these early images that also appear in the exhibition. With no margins or text, the pictures flicker by: musicians, young people in dorms, elders in faded interiors, policemen on patrol, a man getting a shave in the street, weddings, a cremation.

Later, Singh would make some famous individual images that have entered the canon as stand-alone classics: some of her portraits of Ahmed, for example; photographs of her mother, Nony Singh, and of herself; a 1999 image of a jumping young woman on the terrace of an ashram in Varanasi; or a girl on a bed, head buried in the pillow in fatigue or boredom, from 2007.

“I was a good photographer when I made those pictures!” Singh said of her early works. “But I didn’t know it, and nobody else saw it that way.”Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

But that’s not how she wants you to look. “I’m not even interested in the single good picture,” Singh said. “It’s really about the sequence that can be endlessly rearranged.”

Accordingly, she has parted ways with conventional methods of producing — and selling — photography. You cannot buy her work in signed and numbered silver prints. Instead, she collaborates with the German publisher Steidl, using offset printing techniques to produce photograph collections, some stacked in wooden boxes, that the buyer can shuffle and combine — making the work affordable and, in Singh’s view, alive.

The market, Singh said, has turned photography into a luxury good at odds with its vocation. “What art can be disseminated better than photography?” she said. “Yet photography got limited — it got amputated almost — with the dictates of the art world, to give it value.”

She works with Frith Street Gallery, in London, but also sells her boxes and “book objects” directly at events. That way, she cultivates her own collector base of friends and supporters — and independence. “I don’t have to depend on the traditional art market,” she said. “That’s great freedom for me as an artist.”

Singh’s critique is not just economic. Photography, she argues, finds its power in juxtapositions and combinations, in detecting patterns, drawing poetic and emotional connections, and then reshuffling it all to reveal new ways of seeing.

Her photographs do not have titles. Rather, she identifies groupings, often called “museums” — “Little Ladies Museum,” “File Museum,” “Museum of Dance” — into which she places photographs that seem to fit in the moment. An image could drop out of one “museum” and appear in another; whole new “museums” could emerge and disappear. The more images she makes, the more possibilities.

“I’m a tactile person,” Singh said. “You need the physical objects.”Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Even though she works with digital cameras alongside film, she will print out a digital contact sheet to work with her hands and scissors. “I’m a tactile person,” Singh said. “You need the physical objects.”

The exhibition “Dancing With My Camera” was first shown last year at the Gropius Bau, in Berlin, curated by the museum’s former director, Stephanie Rosenthal. In a phone interview, Rosenthal linked Singh’s physical approach, the hands-on experience she wishes for viewers and the content of the photographs.

“Her relation to the camera is a very bodily one,” Rosenthal said. “The photos often show a connection between people: combing hair, dancing, laying together. If you think beyond art-historical categories, her work is very much about us as human beings and the way we relate to each other.”

Singh grew up camera-aware: Her mother, Nony, frequently photographed her, driving her to exasperation. “I’m very conscious how uncomfortable it is to be in front of the camera,” Singh said. But she also recognized the albums and tabletop photo compilations that Nony made as fluid curation. “Someone dies, you put their picture in; you don’t like an uncle, you take his picture out,” Singh said. “You could keep mapping your history.”

In the late 1980s, Singh studied at the International Center of Photography in New York. Returning to India, she briefly worked as a photojournalist, but found that foreign editors craved either an exotic India, or images of wretched poverty. She gave up journalism for family portraits. “I could go back year after year to the same people and have a very close relation with them,” she said.

A photograph from “Museum of Dance (Mother Loves to Dance).” Pictured center is Mona Ahmed, a hijra, or third-gender person, who lived in a Delhi cemetery, and became Singh’s friend.Credit…Dayanita Singh

In 2001, Singh published “Myself Mona Ahmed” — a landmark book and a slowly realized, deeply collaborative portrait. The book’s release event took place in the cemetery where Ahmed lived, and the project consolidated Singh’s reputation. The two stayed close, until Ahmed’s death in 2017.

“Mona showed me how to live outside the box,” Singh said. A lecture series on photography that she is establishing in India with the Hasselblad prize money will be called the Mona Ahmed Lecture.

She plans to keep pushing the field. “Dancing With My Camera” has been reconfigured in Munich, guided by the Villa Stuck’s head of exhibitions, Helena Pereña, including a whole gallery devoted to Singh’s book objects. It will morph again on later stops at MUDAM in Luxembourg and the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal. Sadly, insurance and union rules mean that the displays cannot be reshuffled on the fly by the curators or the security guards, as Singh would prefer. “It would be a live piece, literally‌‌,” she said.

Still, she is feeling vindicated in her heterodox ideas. In 2019, she noted, Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, told a BBC podcast that her “Museum of Chance” installation was his favorite work in the MoMA collection, because of its ability to continually change. “I’ve never quite gotten over that!” Singh said. “It must mean that museums have bought into my critique.”

Singh in her Delhi studio.Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Dayanita Singh: Dancing With My Camera
Through March 19 at the Villa Stuck, in Munich; villastuck.de.

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