Dayanita Singh is an Indian photographer whose primary format is the book. She has published fourteen books. Singh's art reflects and expands on the ways in which people relate to photographic images. Her later works, drawn from her extensive photographic oeuvre, are a series of mobile museums allowing her images to be endlessly edited, sequenced, archived and displayed. Stemming from her interest in the archive, the museums present her photographs as interconnected bodies of work that are full of both poetic and narrative possibilities.
Singh's first foray into photography and bookmaking came through a chance encounter with tabla player Zakir Hussain
, when he invited her to photograph him in rehearsal after she was shoved by an aggressive official while attempting to shoot him in concert. For the six winters following, Singh documented several Hussain tours and, in 1986, finally published the images in her first book, Zakir Hussain
. Referring to him as her first "true guru"
, Singh believes that Hussain taught her the most important of all skills: focus.
"Read, read, read. Forget studying photography – just go and study literature. Then you will bring something to the photography."
-- Dayanita Singh, The Guardian, 2014
Singh's second book, Myself Mona Ahmed
was published in 2001, after more than a decade spent on assignment as a photojournalist. A mix of photobook, biography, autobiography and fiction, this 'visual novel' emerged as a result of her refusal to be the subject of what could have been a routine but problematic photojournalistic project as well as her discomfort with the West's tendency to view India through simplistic, exotic lenses.
In the years following, publishing has been a significant part of Singh's career. She has created multiple "book-objects"
– works that are concurrently books, art objects, exhibitions, and catalogues—often in collaboration with the publisher Gerhard Steidl in Göttingen, Germany. These include Privacy
, the direction-changing Go Away Closer
, the seven-volume Sent a Letter
, Blue Book
, Dream Villa
and Museum of Chance
. Sent a Letter was included in the 2011 Phaidon Press book Defining Contemporary Art: 25 years in 200 Pivotal Artworks. Steidl said in a 2013 interview on Deutsche Welle television, "She is the genius of book making"
. Dream Villa was produced during her Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography given annually by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University; Singh was its second recipient in 2008.
medium has allowed Singh to explore her interest in the poetic and narrative possibility of sequence and re-sequence, allowing her to create photographic patterns while simultaneously disrupting them. Her books rarely include text; instead she lets the photographs speak for themselves. These ideas are furthered through her experimentation with alternate ways of producing and viewing photographs to explore how people relate to photographic images.
Singh has created and displayed a series of mobile museums, giving her the space to constantly sequence, edit, and archive her images. These mobile museums stemmed in large part from Singh's interest in archives and the archival process. Her mobile museums are displayed in large wooden architectural structures that can be rearranged and opened or closed in various ways. Each holds 70 to 140 photographs that Singh rearranges for each show so that only a portion of the photos or parts of each image are visible at any given time, capitalizing on the interconnected and fluid capacity of her work while allowing ample opportunity for evolving narratives and interpretations.
Dayanita Singh’s art uses photography to reflect and expand on the ways in which we relate to photographic images. Her recent work, drawn from her extensive photographic oeuvre, is a series of mobile museums that allow her images to be endlessly edited, sequenced, archived and displayed. Stemming from Singh’s interest in the archive, the museums present her photographs as interconnected bodies of work that are replete with both poetic and narrative possibilities.
Publishing is also a significant part of the artist’s practice: in her books, often made in collaboration with Gerhard Steidl, she experiments with alternate forms of producing and viewing photographs. Here, Singh’s latest is the “book-object,” a work that is concurrently a book, an art object, an exhibition and a catalogue. This work, also developing from the artist’s interest in the poetic and narrative possibility of sequence and re-sequence, allows Singh to both create photographic sequence and also simultaneously disrupt it.