Making images is maybe 10 percent of my work. And the rest of it is really weaving, editing, editing, editing, then the sequencing. After the sequencing, comes the pacing and thinking about the form – on what kind of object do I want to create out of this work, what do I want the object to do. Is it just a book of photos? Of course not. Because I’m now beginning to think this is my work. Making the book is my work. And the photographs are just a way to make the book.
– Dayanita Singh
Born in New Delhi in 1961, Dayanita Singh attended the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad from 1980 to 1986 and studied documentary photography at the International Center of Photography in New York between 1987 and 1988. For the next eight years, she tracked a wide array of social issues in India, including Bombay sex workers, child labor, and poverty, and published numerous articles in European and American magazines. She continued to photograph scenes from Old Delhi for The Times of London over 13 years, which she published in the collection Myself, Mona Ahmed (2001).
At the end of the 1990s, she quit photojournalism once and for all and shifted her thematic focus to India’s wealthy and middle-class. She has been invited to exhibit her work at many international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale (2011 and 2013) and the Biennale of Sydney (2016). Ms. Singh participated in the Reading Cinema, Finding Words: Art After Marcel Broodthaers exhibition at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto and The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (2013 and 2014).
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 six winters following this, 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. 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 this, publishing has been a significant part of Singh’s practice. She has created multiple “book-objects” – works that are concurrently books, art objects, exhibitions, and catalogs—often in collaboration with the publisher Gerhard Steidl in Göttingen, Germany. These include Privacy, Chairs, the direction-changing Go Away Closer, the seven-volume Sent a Letter, Blue Book, Dream Villa, Fileroom, and Museum of Chance. The “book-object” 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 communicate and 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 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. Museum Bhavan has been shown at the Hayward Gallery, London (2013), the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2014), the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (2014), and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi (2016).
Singh’s works have also been presented at the German pavilion in the Venice Biennale. In 2009, the Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid organised a retrospective of her work, which subsequently traveled to Amsterdam, Bogota, and Umea. Her pictures of “File Rooms” were first presented in the exhibition, Illuminazione, at the 2011 Venice Biennale. In 2014, at the National Museum, New Delhi, Singh built the Book Museum using her publications File Room and Privacy as well as her mother’s book, Nony Singh: The Archivist. And she also displayed a part of the Kitchen Museum which are accordion-fold books with silver gelatin prints in 8 teak vitrines that she makes as letters to fellow travelers or conservationists since 2000. Seven of these were published by Steidl as “Sent a Letter”.
Singh also presented the Museum of Chance as a book-object for the first time in India in November 2014 at a show in the Goethe-Institut in Mumbai and in January 2015 at a show in the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi. The book-object is a work that is a book, an art object, an exhibition, and a catalogue, all at once. In order to move away from showing editioned prints framed on the wall, Singh made the book itself the art object: a work to be valued, looked at and read as such, rather than being regarded as a gathering of photographic reproductions.
In 2018 Singh released Museum Bhavan as a book. It is an “exhibition” in the form of a book, with “galleries” held in a small box containing nine thin accordion books that expand to a 7.5-foot-long gallery of black and white photos drawn from Singh’s archive. In 2017 Museum Bhavan won PhotoBook of the Year in the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards and in 2018 was awarded the Infinity Award of the International Center of Photography.