Indian photographer Dayanita Singh has spent nearly four decades challenging familiar modes of viewing and interpreting photographs. Through labor-intensive processes of sequencing, bookmaking, and installation design, his images move beyond the realm of two-dimensional visual works and become conceptual art objects and tactile experiences. At a time when labels like visual storyteller and lens-based artist are as ubiquitous as the sea of digital images they usher in, his commitment to the photographic process and promotion of the medium’s storytelling potential are both rare. and refreshing.
Singh began making photographs in New Deli in the 1980s. Her first body of work was born out of a chance meeting with famous tabla player Zakir Hussain when she attempted to photograph him during a performance in direct. Their meeting evolved into a lifelong creative friendship, during which Singh spent several years photographing Hussain in rehearsal and on tour. These photographs were eventually published in her first book, Zakir Hussain, originally conceived as a model when she was a graphic design student.
The project eventually led Singh to pursue a degree in photojournalism instead. An early assignment to document gender-nonconforming underground communities in India led Singh to befriend Mona Ahmed, a trans woman who took up residence in a Muslim cemetery, which she spent the next ten years photographing. . These images were published in 2001 in Myself, Mona Ahmed, a groundbreaking visual novel blending biography, autobiography and fiction.
Singh’s early work makes it clear that his affection for his subjects and the relationships that inevitably result from working together lack the impartiality of a photojournalist. It is therefore not surprising that his trajectory rather developed towards art photography. She went on to publish a number of acclaimed collections, continually expanding her use of the book format and eventually crafting exhibition-specific exhibits—portable “museums” at different scales—to bring her work to the world.
Let’s See is Dayanita Singh’s most recent offering, published in early 2022 by Steidl Publishers. Described as a photographic novel, the book brings together never-before-seen images from hundreds of contact sheets made during his early years as an emerging photographer. Free of any text except for a quote from art editor Walter Keller on the cover page, Let’s See invites the viewer to collaborate with Singh by constructing their own narratives from his sequencing. Each page of the book is a full-bleed photograph in the grainy black and white of his original film stock, illustrating intimate moments between family and friends that could only be seen by his then “amateur” eye. The tenderness and familiarity with which she photographs the scenes of a wedding, a funeral, musical performances and shared hotel rooms with traveling companions offer an unmediated insight into her inner world as a young woman. developing his artistic voice.
These early images shed light on the arc of Singh’s photographic career and the organic development of the relationships depicted in his work. Mona Ahmed, Zakir Hussain and the artist’s own mother, Nony Singh, are all important subjects of Let’s See, which artfully straddles the line between photobook and personal album. While most of the photographs appear to be intimate, candid snapshots, Singh’s acumen for composition and the “decisive moment” was already evident before she even considered herself a photographer. This period of his artistic output is perhaps the most compelling for this very reason: the early photographs lack any sense of self-awareness and his subjects seem completely natural and dynamic. We are in each scene with them and can imagine the sounds of their laughter, of their music.
Only about 20% of Dayanita Singh’s archive has been seen by the public. The vast majority of his work exists only in the form of negatives and contact sheets, while prints of his photographs are extremely rare. Imagining the process by which she excavated these images under decades of more recent work adds another conceptual layer to Let’s See. We have the rare opportunity to witness the sequence of the artist and his own life, moving fluidly between past and present. Very often artists try to bury their early work for fear it will be seen as unrefined or undeveloped, but Singh’s ability to show herself the same fondness as an emerging photographer that she showed her subjects is surprisingly moving. Let’s See is, ultimately, the visual story of an artist who finds herself through her medium.