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October 13, 2013 9:16 pm
Dayanita Singh is a slow photographer, and she makes both individual pictures and sequences that are quite impossible to glance at and go. That is a great virtue. These are meditative pictures that demand careful digestion and resist being reduced to short internal captions. Singh (born in 1961) is an Indian photographer who has moved over many years from a journalistic manner to something more literary, and the various shades of her photography are represented in what amounts to her first retrospective at the Hayward Gallery.
Singh has developed a way of working in fluid series which she revisits many times, so that pictures frequently recur in several different contexts. She started working in this way through contact with two exceptional publishers of photographic books, Walter Keller (of Scalo) and Gerhard Steidl, and it is for her elegant books that she is best known. A little boxed set of concertina-folded series called Sent a Letter, a group of diaristic sketchbooks, each of which has its own feel and tone but no clear plot, was published by Steidl in 2008 and marks the turning point.
Before that she had made solid reports. An excellent early one on her six years on the road with classical Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain set the tone. Not the kind of photographer to accept a short assignment on a subject of which she knew nothing, she was, even then in the 1980s, finding a way of telling us of what she knew and cared about. A less successful, more conventional, report was published as the book Privacy (2004), which shows something of the lifestyle of a privileged Indian elite that Singh felt was less known than the rowdy, boisterous, colourful world of the “typical” teeming Indian street scene.
Gradually, Singh’s characteristic manner began to emerge. Using her own previous pictures as an archive, she mines them for themes that might have gelled without her noticing, and represents those pictures as a work in themselves. Until recently, these re-workings became books. But Singh now has made much play of her invention of portable “Museums” of images. These are physical structures, part free-standing screens and part bookshelves that can display a number of prints close-packed and others cased and invisible. They have one particularity: a number of pictures are always glazed under the same sheet of glass, even though framed separately. This does interesting things to one’s reading of them.
Singh plans to re-edit these sequences from time to time, allowing her to change them, or even spin off sub-sections or entirely new categories. The Museums correspond in a larger, more pretentious form to small portable edits Singh has habitually carried around for a number of years for discussion with friends, to show editors and so on. It is easy to predict that the Museums will make their way onto the market sooner rather than later, when they will cease to be fluid and reworkable, but will become static works in their own right. The Hayward show gives the first imprimatur to the new product, and so represents the next step-change in Singh’s remarkable upward trajectory.
Singh likes to emphasise the elliptical qualities in her work. She particularly regards Michael Ondaatje as a mentor for his brave editing and the courage to leave things unsaid. She also cites writers such as Italo Calvino and Geoff Dyer (who has produced a text for the new catalogue), who are prepared to make a new form to suit new material. So when she makes a video of a friend of hers, leaving the camera still while the sitter listens to her favourite song, Singh calls it a “moving still”. This is pretentious and a bit cheeky; it’s actually just a boring video.
But when it works, Singh’s method is quite remarkable. A series such as the Museum of Machines puts together pictures in a way that is both sentimentally rich and photographically witty. It is as strong an edit of pictures as you will see. It holds remnant traces of the pure Modernism of the likes of Albert Renger-Patzsch – only the machines are no longer the gleaming precursors of a new social dawn. They are in India, and they have had to work to earn their keep. Many of them – oddly – are from the food business: vats, urns, huge mixers, even taps. They have that lovely marriage of the patina of the objects themselves perfectly matching and being underlined by the patinated feel of velvety black and white printing.
Another good series is on photography and photographers. Singh has noticed that photographs often have a different role in India to the one we in the west are used to: the portrait of somebody who has passed away remains as a tangible exhalation of themselves, and is still garlanded. Here, again, she dwells lovingly on the machines that make it possible. Another set, appropriately, is on the archive, on those magnificently analogue tottering piles of paper that are the staple of Indian administration. Again, wit and acute observation combine with entirely fitting rendering in the right black and white. These are lovely series of pictures, and although her off-road excursions into colour have not been nearly so successful, the black and white work is enough to make plain the very simplest of evidences, that Singh takes visceral pleasure in the old classicisms of photography, in composition and tone and the weight of the emotions that can be gently gathered into a group of photographs.
Neither of these procedures, of trying to remove photographs from singular meanings to give them allusive and elliptical ones, nor of recycling photographs in new groupings, is by any means new. A number of photographers have worked in ways like Singh before, although not specially in Britain. In France the traditions that include such late-stage humanist photographers as Claude Nori, Bernard Plossu and Hervé Guibert make it ridiculous to claim that Singh’s practice is new. Even Czech photographer Josef Koudelka has moved from reportage through magnificent long series to something much more elliptical in the panoramas. A much less interesting photographer than Singh, the American Michael Ackerman has made his reputation through precisely the same search for non-practical, non-literal reading of groups of photographs. For all of these artists, the problem has always been to keep the eyes of the viewer upon the photographic page for long enough to allow ideas to reach them.
Singh and her hosts at the Hayward have gone too far in a specious special pleading for her practice. Stephanie Rosenthal, chief curator at the Hayward, introduced Singh by denying that she was a photographer. That was nonsense, and damaging. It is precisely because she is such a very intelligent photographer that this show is worth going to see and take a long time over. All good photographers look for meaning beyond the obvious. All good photographers re-edit and repurpose work. It does nobody any favours to say that a great photographer is not really a photographer at all, as though the practice was a lesser one and the word not quite proper. This is a magnificent show, but it is not sculpture or literary thinking or film-making. It is photography, and it belongs just as it is.
Continues until December 15, southbankcentre.co.uk
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