Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sent a Letter by Dayanita Singh

Is it possible for a photographer's nationality to show in the characteristics of the photographs they make? Is there something inherently Swiss about Robert Frank? Nacho Lopez was deeply connected to Mexico and often tagged as a "Mexican photographer" in a way that many others are not, but what is it about his work beyond the subject matter that makes his work "Mexican"? Looking for the last two publications by Dayanitya Singh raised this question as -- as much as I can identify such things -- her photographs seem to display hints of the photographer’s origins. Her new set of books Sent a Letter has just been published by Steidl.

Sent a Letter is a slip-cased set of seven very small and intimate accordion folded books. Each was made as a gift for a friend and serve as a souvenir of a time spent with that person or of a time when that person was on the mind of the photographer. Singh creates two copies of each book -- one that is sent to the friend while the other remains with her in what she calls her "kitchen museum". Each book holds on average 15 to 20 photographs and like her last small book Go Away Closer there is no text in which to guide the viewer. Instead we are left on our own to discover and translate what these small photographic sentences add up to.

Dayanitya Singh is an interesting photographer in which to discuss this topic of characteristics of nationhood as she was schooled in the West at the International Center of Photography and has returned to India to make her photographs and this divide between East and West seems ever present in her work. She is also from a somewhat privileged background in a country where most of the population lives in poverty. In her work she generally avoids falling into the traps of the Western imagination in regards to clich├ęs of poverty as her work is about the character of India and the divide between East and West but it is also these things seen through the eyes of a native person rediscovering her homeland. This is the important yet ultimately confusing clue to my original inquiry.

Each of these books has its spine labeled with a different city in India. Allahabad opens with an image of two men in what appears to be a museum dedicated to Jawaharlal Nehru. The book progresses through different rooms that may have been his sitting room bedroom and library. One spread of two photographs shows visitors in trapped behind the glass partitions as they peer at Nehru's bed and belongings -- perhaps serving as a metaphor for those left untouched by his legacy.

The book entitled Calcutta is in some ways the most accessible for us as outsiders to these personal journeys as it features the book guru Gerhard Steidl himself on a visit through the city. Of course after a few pages in which we wade into the flow of the streets as you might expect, we are treated to many photographs of books being made by skilled Indian hands. Gerhard then briefly sits for a portrait in a photographer's studio, poses next to a wise goat wrapped in canvas, visits the Howrah Bridge (with another man whose stature from behind might recall Gunther Grass) and returns at nightfall to an elegant hotel.

The book Padmanabhapuram for me is one of the most interesting in that its tone is the most melancholic of all. It opens with human figures in a museum entrapped in glass cases -- by the fourth photograph the figure has turned into a skeleton. This is followed by a few photographs of seascapes made at dusk with heavy cloud filled skies and then of photographs of rooms in which the flooring shines like blackened water.

Danyanita includes a seventh book to set with a slightly darker colored cover which is a series of skillfully made photographs made by her mother Nony Singh. This book works slightly unlike the others in that it could be perceived as not only a letter sent but it could have been a letter received. The photograph show early family photographs that soon progress into a series of portraits of a daughter in the process of growing up. That daughter seems to be Dayanita herself but what is remarkable is that it also reveals Dayanita's source of artistic influence in that her mother's photographs contain a similar DNA as her daughters would later.

As books, it is refreshing that these stray far from the usual form. This is something that Dayanita started with Go Away Closer by presenting 31 photographs in a small inexpensive paperback book with absolutely no text. This set follows that precedent with the added enjoyment is that they could either be view page by page or by unfolding the accordion out revealing the entire poem at once.

The set also takes into consideration the tactile nature of books as each has a handmade feel due to their construction and the materials used. The rich printing adds to the preciousness of these objects.

The first thing one notice as they remove one of these books from the slipcase is that they want to expand. This is obviously due to the physical characteristics of folded paper that has not yet been forced to relax but for me it is also a metaphor of how these photographs work. They resist an easy translation and reveal themselves on a personal level over time. As the words printed on the cover of the slipcase allude (Sent a letter to my friend, on the way he dropped it. Someone picked it up and put it in his pocket) Dayanita has allowed us to open her mail but what we discover inside may have seemed meant for us all along.

Note: Dayanita Singh will be doing a book signing for Sent A Letter at the International Center of Photography on Friday, April 18th from 6-7:30pm. The ICP Bookstore is at 1133 Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) at 43rd Street.

Buy Go Away Closer at Steidlville

Buy Sent a Letter at Steidlville