The Indian photographer Dayanita Singh received one of the top honors in her field last night, the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award. It is for her latest work – a box that contains nine small books that expand into what she calls pocket museums. NPR’s Bilal Qureshi went to meet the artist at her studio in New Delhi.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: The stairs leading up to Dayanita Singh’s studio are lined with posters. They look like prints from one of her many museum exhibitions, but they’re not. Singh has made them herself to make the point that being a photographer in the age of Instagram has nothing to do with institutional success.
DAYANITA SINGH: To be a photographer in my book would be you have to understand how to build a book. You have to understand editing and sequencing because I can find you 30 wonderful photographs on your Instagram feed. But you have to know how to cook, you know? You have to know how to build the symphony. You have to know how to find a form for photography.
QURESHI: Dayanita Singh’s form is the physical book.
MARIO KRAMER: It’s a whole exhibition in a pocket format. So you can have a Dayanita exhibition with a very simple transport (laughter).
QURESHI: Mario Kramer is the curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, Germany. He’s been collecting Singh’s work for years.
KRAMER: Dayanita was not interested anymore just the photo framed on the wall. She thought it’s much more interesting to use the book page by page as a kind of storyline. And this intimacy in your two hands with a book is something totally different than standing in front of a wall.
QURESHI: The tactile experience of leafing through an old family album is the inspiration behind Dayanita Singh’s latest book.
SINGH: The most magical experience of photography is when it’s in your hands because it’s here. You’re touching it. You can hear it. You can smell it, you know? The first thing I do when I get a book is to actually smell it.
QURESHI: Her new book is called “Museum Bhavan.” Each of the nine slim volumes expands from a few inches into a 7 1/2-foot-long gallery. Dreamy images of Indian family life and architecture, billowing curtains in the afternoon light, portraits of mothers and daughters, all in black and white. It’s not the National Geographic view of India. And it’s certainly not what Singh started out shooting 30 years ago as a photojournalist.
SINGH: Too often, and partly because of photojournalism, the photograph is too much about the point that it’s trying to make. So the photograph, if it leaves you sort of not quite sure about what else is going on, then obviously it’s going to linger with you. And that really is the magic of photography when it can go where there are no words.
(SOUNDBITE OF TABLA MUSIC)
QURESHI: For her first book, Dayanita Singh followed the tabla player Zakir Hussain. She says musicians taught her how to compose. And to this day she says her favorite part of bookmaking is setting hundreds of images out on a table and finding the music.
SINGH: It’s about listening to the photograph. You have to find the pitch that you want to do the work with. I was doing that last night with a series of images. And I was saying, is this a (humming), or is it a (humming)? (Humming). And I set a certain pitch for it. And then I know this works and it doesn’t work. I can almost do it with my eyes shut.
(SOUNDBITE OF TABLA MUSIC)
QURESHI: The writer Teju Cole says Dayanita Singh thinks like a novelist.
TEJU COLE: There’s allusions between a picture you saw and then six pictures later another picture that has alluded to that one the way a novelist might drop something in the third chapter and then mention it again in the seventh.
QURESHI: That approach earned Dayanita Singh a lucrative place on the global art market. But she says she wasn’t satisfied selling individual prints.
SINGH: I felt you had plucked one note out of this symphony that I had produced. And that used to hurt me physically. How can you just take one sound out? I have made a whole symphony for you.
QURESHI: Her solution was the first “Museum Bhavan,” a series of large wood cabinets that fold open and shut like Japanese screens.
SINGH: And I love, love it because professional curators, when they come here and I do all of this, they can’t bear that I’m handling the artwork like this. But it’s my work. I can turn it over and sleep on it if I like.
QURESHI: Each of these cabinet museums contain scores of images that tell a story, says writer Teju Cole.
COLE: It’s a photograph of a bed. It’s a photograph of a group of people. It’s a photograph of a man standing on his head. It’s a photograph of a grave. And yet because of her instinct for what picture should come after what picture, all of it just feels like it belongs.
QURESHI: And last year Dayanita Singh debuted the pocket edition.
SINGH: Hi. Hello.
QURESHI: At the Delhi opening, she unfolded her portable galleries out of a suitcase and onto shelves.
SINGH: So we made 3,000 unique boxes.
QURESHI: Since then she’s been holding pop-up openings around the world where for less than a hundred dollars people can buy an exhibition.
SINGH: I’m inviting you – you – to be the curator of my work. And certainly when you have an exhibition of my work in your house it’s a great privilege for me. It’s a privilege to be in a museum, but it’s also a privilege to be in a domestic space.
QURESHI: With these new books, Dayanita Singh says she wants to recreate the memory and the music of leafing through an old family album. That, too, is a museum. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.