Shots in the Dark

The wondrous world of photographic fiction

Page 33 of ‘Continuous Cities’.
01 February, 2012

DAYANITA SINGH’S LATEST BOOK of photographs begins with a set of five striking images. Resembling the initial scenes in a movie before the opening credits start rolling, the first few pages of House of Love, before the table of contents, are devoted to photos of brightly lit anonymous cities shining like jewels set against the night sky. Following the very first image, a photo of a sculpture, the four city shots, with their glowing streets and buildings bathed in electric light, are like testaments to man’s ability to create sophisticated spaces for living.

The book consists of 10 such sets of photos, almost all without captions, but this opening series is different from the ones that follow in a couple of ways. For one, all five photos have a similar look and feel to them and, as a result, their impact is more forceful. Moreover, unlike the other sets, they have not been grouped under a heading, so we have no textual reference whatsoever to influence us when we view them. There is a unity to these images that helps us appreciate and savour them with ease. But in the photos that follow, Singh has decided to make things more challenging.

Singh is one of India’s preeminent photographers and her preeminence can be discerned by the fact that she is now counted among the country’s top contemporary artists. She moved away from photojournalism long ago, and began photographing things she was interested in—girls who lived secluded lives in an ashram along the Ganga, the life of her eunuch friend recorded over many years, and portraits of upper middle-class Indian families inside their very nice houses.

Giving up the security and familiarity of black-and-white photography, Singh switched to colour photography for her past two projects. The first, Blue Book, contains photos on a somewhat improbable subject—inside and outside views of factories. And Dream Villa contains nighttime shots of houses, people, trees, buses and boats, all lit by artificial light. Many photos in Dream Villa seem a little pointless at first, until you apprehend the subtle interplay of darkness and manmade light on the surrounding surfaces. Singh appears to be saying that it is no longer fun if you were able to easily ‘grasp’ a photo.

This spirit of challenging the viewer seems to have carried over to House of Love. The ‘House of Love’ refers to the Taj Mahal, one of the most photographed objects on the planet. It makes an appearance in the book from time to time as a blurred and shadowy symbol—not an immortal icon of love, but an old and familiar presence that has been skillfully used to convey a somewhat mournful view of the world around us.

Singh has said in the past that she originally wanted to be a writer, and that she considers writers such as Italo Calvino, Michael Ondaatje and Vikram Seth as her major influences rather than any photographers. Reflecting her literary inclinations, the accompanying press release describes House of Love as “novelistic”; her website calls it “a work of photographic fiction that takes the form of nine short stories”. The book contains more than 100 colour as well as black–and-white photos of people, places and objects, mostly shot at night, which have been grouped into nine separate ‘short stories’ with titles such as ‘Continuous Cities’, ‘Fear on the footpath’ and ‘Departure lounge’. The number of photos in each story ranges from five to 19.

Words and pictures are often used together very effectively to tell a story. But a set of photos with no supporting text can never tell us a story in the conventional sense. Singh’s pictures function like suggestions or hints, or like fragments lifted from imaginary stories.

Page 23 of ‘Continuous Cities’.

Take the photos in ‘Continuous Cities’. The 16 colour images in this set are all shot at nighttime. Many photos here work as diptychs or sets of twos, in which the formula for putting the two photos together is quite straightforward—there is usually an obvious common element.

Two photos of sculptures appearing side-by-side, for instance, are both examples of contemporary art (a huge cluster ball of pots and pans stuck together, and a standing grid of small metal models of the Taj Mahal); a view of a garden appears next to a view of some European-looking city, both of which have been shot through glass panes; two facing photos of buildings, although with very different architectures, are clearly both churches; and another two images come across as unrelated except for one object they share—a policeman’s cap.

That these sets of facing photos usually have the same hue indicates that they are meant to be viewed in pairs. But it is not at all clear why these images have been grouped together under the title ‘Continuous Cities’. Some photos in the section have obviously been shot in First World cities, but there are many more—like the sculptures and churches described above—that have no direct connection to cities in any way.

The last picture of the section is so unexpected and unlike the shots just before it that it almost startles you. Two men in a room, one sitting and one lying awkwardly, are gazing intently at each other. Looking over this slice of theatre is a framed copy of the famous painting by the artist Vermeer of a girl with large beautiful eyes. This one photo seems to contain a richer expanse of narrative than the whole set combined—you can’t help but wonder if the men are gay; if they are about to get into an argument or lock themselves in a passionate embrace.

Page 145 of ‘Being of darkness’.

Next to the story title is printed a poetic epigram by the writer Aveek Sen: “In the night of the mind, my many cities become one.” Maybe all these different photos, taken in different geographical locations, can become one continuous blur in the increasingly homogenous urban worlds we live in, and ‘continuous cities’ is another way of saying ‘global village’.

It appears that each story is anchored by some photos that can be linked directly to the story title—as for the rest, Singh’s imagination soars and she invites the reader to undertake his or her own flight of fancy. In this freewheeling setup, it is left to the viewer to make the connection or just appreciate the lack of any obvious connection.

The sitting person in the Vermeer photo, a man in his late-30s with a refined look about him, also makes an appearance in the next story, titled ‘The Ambulance’. This set has photos of trees decorated with tubelights and walls of old houses strung with fairy lights (or shaadi lights, as they’re known in India). Our Everyman, in his jhola and sandals, is wandering against this backdrop in two frames, looking reflective in the first and a little confused in the second. Again, the first and last photos in the set are the only ones that seem connected to the title—a nurse in a uniform stands next to a large easy chair in the first and an ambulance is parked next to a building covered with fairy lights in the final.

Clearly, Singh is actively insisting that the viewer not be able to draw any conclusions about the photos in a given set. There are a few in each set that are connected either by the same theme (marriage) or the same hue (red colour filter) or the same subject (factory shots or tree shots), but then sprinkled alongside, like dissonant notes of music, are random unconnected photos. This has a disorienting effect from which it is hard to recover. One is forced to ignore the stories and take another look at what House of Love has to offer.

Fairy lights are one of the recurring images in the book. Draped along walls of old houses and lining tree branches in the colour photos, or strung next to the Durga Puja pandals in the black-and-white photos, these lights add an unsettling feel to the nighttime photos. As it is, the dominant tones in these shots—sombre greens, meditative blues, and ghoulish reds—lend them, regardless of their immediate subject, a dreamlike but ultimately gloomy air. In such settings the fairy lights seem to offer an ironic counterpoint, one which eventually only adds to the gloom. Blurred and anaemic, these are no stars lighting up the night sky—they are only pointing to the surrounding darkness.

Like the fairy lights and the mysterious man, there are some running themes and motifs that, appearing at irregular intervals, link the photos into strands that stretch across the book. Most prominent is the Taj Mahal, which appears in a variety of forms. Then there are the black-and-white photos of the Durga Puja pandals, photos of other artworks (all of them sculptures by leading contemporary Indian artists) and photos of dioramas.

Dioramas are miniature sets with tiny human figures – like in a doll’s house–displayed inside a glass case and usually depicting a historically significant scene. A relic from an older time, some can still be spotted in the musty halls of old museums. The ones Singh has photographed show people getting shot (by a gun), thus contributing to the sinister strain that runs through quite a few of the photos, especially those awash in a red hue. (House of Love concludes with a set of essays and observations on photography by Aveek Sen, some of which directly touch upon the photos featured in the book. One such essay reveals that these dioramas actually depict famous scenes of Indian freedom fighters trying to assassinate Britons.)

Page 18-19 of ‘Continuous Cities’.

Some of the most satisfying photos in House of Love feature sculptures by other artists as their subjects. Right from the first shot of a big bunch of thin and long metal blades gleaming golden in reflected light, which, set against a black background, look almost like a frozen burst of fireworks encased in darkness. This and other such photos are nothing less than portraits of sculptures. Singh, in effect, is creating new art by photographing existing works of art and adding new meaning to them.

It is interesting to look at all the manmade objects Singh has photographed—from sculptures, to dioramas, to pandals, to actual buildings and factories. These five categories form a progression of sorts—starting with sculptures, which represent pure art, and ending with factories, which represent objects of pure utility with little place for ornamentation. In between, we have dioramas, which are artistically made but essentially educational; then pandals, which are basically tents to hold people or temporary shrines but are very ornately and often cleverly designed; and finally houses and apartments that are living spaces, but built with a certain amount of care as to how they look.

This steady progression from pure art to pure utility can serve as an illustration of the ties between art and life. In House of Love the Taj Mahal makes an appearance as all of these—as a metal sculpture (by the artist Sudarshan Shetty), as scale model (the kind found in souvenir shops), as a pandal, and finally as a photo of the actual building (a print of a daguerreotype, the earliest form of commercially successful photography). For a moment, the black–and-white shots of the pandals—modelled to resemble famous and mundane buildings, as well as factories—blur the distinction between the real and the replica. In doing this, they remind us that art, or the instinct to seek out beauty, and life, or the instinct to survive, are inseparable.

The intimate link between life and art also brings to mind one character that looms large in the book—the city of Kolkata. The absence of a physical address where the photos were shot is crucial to their composition, but still, Sen’s essays and a couple of captions along with some visual cues indicate that many photos were in fact taken in Kolkata. The Kolkata we glimpse here, with its dilapidated houses, their slatted windows and stained walls oozing ‘character’, with its famously creative pandals shot in pristine black-and-white, and with the interiors of buildings that hark back to a vanishing past, fits with our established ideas of the city. But the view from Singh’s camera, devoid of crowds and the hustle bustle, while adding a strain of melancholy, also cuts out the noise, enabling us to glimpse the city’s essence.

Coinciding with the launch of the book, House of Love opened as a show at Gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi. Not all the photos could be accommodated on the gallery’s walls and therefore visitors were only able to see about half the photos that are in the book—in effect, four and a half stories. Nonetheless, the gallery visitor wasn’t really worse off than the book viewer—these photos sufficed.

The sense of short story or a novel gets even more diluted at the show. The frames in ‘Continuous Cities’ were arranged as a loose grid on a wall and it doesn’t feel inappropriate to compare it to a box of chocolates—mint, rum and some other flavours assorted in no particular order.

On her website Singh calls herself a bookmaker first and then a photographer; the books of her photos are presented as individual works of craftsmanship. This order of priority is apt in the case of House of Love—with few exceptions the individual photos or the diptychs do not make an impact unless you stay with them for a while, something that is easier to do with the book than at the show.

The photos in House of Love are not meant for a quick look—they demand extended involvement from the viewer. The elements in the book that finally do cohere offer the kind of satisfaction we expect from someone of Singh’s stature as a photographer. And what does not work nevertheless shows that she is not afraid to plunge into the unknown.