For Dayanita Singh, photography is inseparable from its presentation, and she has spent years experimenting with unusual photo book formats to display her work.
Dayanita Singh, an Indian photographer who has for years experimented with new book formats for displaying her work, has created a new form of presentation which will be featured at Callicoon Fine Arts gallery in New York. She spoke with Lens co-editor James Estrin about editing and designing books. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
When did you start photographing?
I started in 1980 in order to make a book. To me, photography equaled making a book. The idea that there could be exhibitions or museums might want your work didn’t exist at that time for me. So I made a book in ’86 of Zakir Hussain, the tabla player.
This is before India opened up, so we used to have just a few photo books from the U.S.S.R. to look at.
I think what was more an influence was that my mother was such an obsessive album maker. So you made photos to make albums, to make a sequence and to arrange photographs; you didn’t just randomly make photos for the heck of it.
My mother loved to photograph. Everything in my childhood had to be documented by her.
Did your mother put them into photo albums?
She bought very beautiful, large, handmade ones. And she also covered every vertical surface with glass and put photos under it. You lived with photos, you lived through these albums. Photos were not something that got put on the wall behind glass.
What did you study in school?
Typography. I wanted to make type.
Then how did you become a photographer?
Completely by accident. Someone pushed me over while I was taking photos at a concert and I got really annoyed, and so afterward I said to them, “I’m a young student today, so you can push me around — someday I’ll be an important photographer,” and then I burst into tears. I was just 18 years old.
That night is the night I decided that if I become a photographer I can escape all the social expectations of marriage and children.
I didn’t know any women in photography at that time. So I just made up my own rules.
It was really a way to be free of social norms more than any love for the medium.
Tell me about your exhibit in New York.
I am taking over the Callicoon art gallery starting on Oct. 18 and turning it into a pop-up bookshop, for book objects and things like that.
What’s a book object?
My most recent book object — the Pothi Box — is a wooden structure that has within it 30 images of paper archives, a film archive and a printing press. You take the image cards out and put another one in front and you can keep changing the images. I call it an unbound book.
At the Callicoon gallery I will show 30 of these boxes, and in doing so I will show the entire set of 30 images. I publish the boxes with my own imprint called Spontaneous Books in an edition of 360. The Pothi Box is a miniature version of what I’m showing at Carnegie International, which is six big pillars with 100 prints.
I’ve always wanted to find this space between publishing and the art gallery. What I love the most about photography is dissemination, and publishing gives me that. But I also love how the art gallery can make you look at things in a very special way. They can make things — not unique, but more special. Photography I feel got a little stuck with prints on the wall in editions. So it’s like the print is there and the book is here, but for me the book has always been the work. So I wanted to find something in between that had the dissemination of the book and the art object of the gallery.
What is your fascination with books?
I feel the book is the one form where I can be the complete author of my work. And I love the book for the sequence, which no other form really gives me. It’s this beautiful art object that you can have beside your bed, you can travel with it. Exhibitions, as we know, come and go but the book just sort of — you don’t know where you might chance upon it. And photo books are great, but often they just get put on the shelf. And I’ve been struggling for the last few books on how to make it a work that can be on the wall.
Your books are not like other people’s books. You’re always striving to find the perfect expression of the work.
It has to be more than the sum of the photos. So the book becoming the exhibition was really important. I always want to push it even more, even further.
Tell me about your first book.
Nobody bought it. Because in those days people thought it was absurd to make a book about one person. Straight after that I went to study at I.C.P. (the International Center of Photography) in New York. To be able to afford it I asked my mother to use the money that would have gone to my dowry if I got married, because in those days you needed a dowry.
She said that yes, education is more valuable than dowry, but then this is it.
And I said, That’s fine.
After I.C.P. I went right back to India because I thought I could change the world — as I.C.P. had taught us — with our photojournalism. And within two or three years I realized that was the biggest myth, and that there were situations where I felt I had no business photographing, and it would be more important to become an activist than to be photographing the children of the prostitutes.
I thought, “I can’t be a photojournalist, so what am I going to do?”
And that’s when I decided to make family portraits with the only idea that if at the end of my life 300 families have my portraits hanging in their house then it’s better than any museum exhibition.
What happened? Why haven’t you just finished your 300th portrait?
I met Walter Keller (a publisher and curator) very early in the ’90s. He told me don’t get involved in books and exhibitions, that will drain all your energy. Just keep photographing. And I listened to him.
I remember in ’97 Michael Hoffman wanted to make a monograph of my work from the little bit of photojournalism to the family portraits. Walter Keller said, “Don’t do it, you’re not ready, that’ll be the end of your career.” And so I said no to Aperture — to the great Michael Hoffman. He was furious. But I believed Walter when he said just keep making the work. Books and exhibitions can come later.
All that work ended up in the “Privacy” book, which I made in 2002. I didn’t have any money to make the family portraits. And out of the blue I got a grant from Robert Frank for $10,000. Robert Frank had a grant in memory of his daughter, Andrea, who died in a plane crash. And he wanted to give that grant to projects that nobody would fund. I got a call asking how much money would you need to complete your family portraits from Robert Frank’s office. And I thought that he had finally found out that I had stolen his book from the I.C.P. bookshop.
You had stolen his book?
It’s the only thing I’ve stolen in my life. I don’t steal. But when I was a student at I.C.P., I felt that if I didn’t have “Lines of my Hand” by Robert Frank, then I could not become a photographer. I had to possess that book. Not because of the images but the way it was made. It had a gateway cover with a pencil drawing of a hand on it.
So I went in with a big black coat and smuggled the book out.
Since then you’ve made 12 books. You seem to have an obsession with the form.
I would go so far as to say that the book is my work and the exhibition is a catalog of that book. It’s not about individual photographs. It’s about how they work together, and the sequencing and editing to me anyway is 80 percent of photography — making images is just one small part.
Do you design your books?
Yes, of course. This idea of book building is so crucial to photography. The vast terrain between making your images and designing a book, that sitting with the prints and seeing what the work wants to be rather than what you want the work to be. The form then suggests itself. So it’s at a much later stage that I would go to the publisher and thereby the designer.
How long do you sit with the work?
Two years, sometimes longer. There’s lots of works from 30 years ago that I still haven’t done anything with. I think you can get away with doing a bad exhibition, but you can never get away from a bad book. So I try to urge people to really think very carefully about their books and to somehow be the author of the book and not just the supplier of images to a designer.
So you’re a photographer, you’re an editor, you’re a designer, and the editing and designing is no less important than the photography?
The photography is the smallest part of it, 10 to 20 percent, that’s it. The rest of the work is really editing and sequencing. And there’s no shortcut there. Can we talk about making the concept of the book?
I started to introduce the idea that a book be an exhibition with [the book publisher Gerhard] Steidl. We made “Museum of Chance” with 88 different covers, so that you could buy 88 books and have my exhibition, or four or whatever. They all had different covers. Then I said to Gerhard that we have to introduce that each of the boxes is unique with “Museum Bhavan.”
My Pothi Box is a conceptual work. I have these 30 cards in it. If we wanted to do an exhibition in your workplace I would bring 30 of these boxes, we would have a different image in front in each one of them and that becomes the exhibition. We would invite all your colleagues at lunchtime to see if they would like to buy any of the work, maybe all 30 get sold. And then I get the money and I don’t have to carry the books back.
Which is the ultimate goal.
Absolutely, no shipping.
But also what I like is the fact that you can keep changing this box, you know. It’s not a book in a bookshelf, it’s not a print behind glass on the wall. And you can also sit it down on the table.
In “Bhavan Museum” you have these nine museums, and you can just show one of them, or you can show nine. Or you can take bits of “Museum of Machine” and put it next to “Museum of Men” or “Museum of Little Ladies” and make your own museums. Making you part of the work, making you curator of the work, and not just a fixed format that a bound book would give you.
So essentially it’s an interactive book, but analog. What was before the “Museum Bhavan”?
There was “Sent a Letter” in 2007. That’s when I realized that the book can be the exhibition. And then after that there were two color books — “Blue Book” and “Dream Villa.” “Blue Book was the industrial landscapes and that was really a book of postcards, but nobody sent me the postcards. But then by 2011 I made “File Room,” which was photographs of all the archives. And that’s when I asked Gerhard if I could have 10 different colored clothes. And, as always, he said absolutely not, a book has to have an identity — you can’t have it in 10 different colors. Then the next morning he said, O.K., we’ll do it but it’s ridiculous.
It’s fantastic working with Gerhard. I can dare to think at this kind of scale. No other publisher is going to let you cut up your book and make as many covers as you want out of “File Room.” He gets the idea of making the book the exhibition.
But subsequently I started to make these wooden structures, so the book would be on the wall. It still remains a book, it’s true to the book, but it’s on the wall, like you would have a print or a watercolor.
At the Callicoon gallery it will be a shop too — it’s not just books. There’s going to be pillows and scarves that say, “go away closer.” There will be “File Room” book objects. But what I’m most excited about is my jacket with nine pockets that I made for my nine “Museum Bhavan” books. So you might say, “No, Dayanita, you can’t come into the Times office and have an exhibition, that’s not how it works.” But I can just pull out this book, and show it to people, and by the time you say, “No, Dayanita, this is not O.K. to do —”
You’ve done it.
I put that in my pocket and I walk away to somebody else. On the back of the vest it says “My life is a museum.”
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