The Death Of The Photographer
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Last week, Dayanita Singh’s Museum Of Chance was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It is the most ambitious of her “mobile museums”, comprising two structures, around 8ft tall, holding 162 photographs in all. It contains images spanning her career from 1986-2016, punctuated with stills from Federico Fellini movies, art by Louise Bourgeois, a poem by Vikram Seth, and a particularly compelling self-portrait of her lying in bed with a camera obscuring her face.
Over the last decade, 56-year-old Singh has championed the photo book, taken the glass off her photographs and done away with captions. One of India’s most significant photographic artists, she has been consumed by the idea of developing a new architecture for photography. Her mobile museums are moveable wooden structures that house hundreds of photographs that anybody can rearrange to make their own exhibits.
When we spoke earlier this week, she was in Tokyo for a retrospective of her work at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. Incidentally, the very idea of creating the mobile museums came from a trip to Japan in 2011. It was born of her fascination with ryokans, traditional Japanese inns with their moveable walls.
Before we spoke, she sent me a picture of the elaborate meal she was having with her Mount Fuji views. I recalled an interview several years ago in Mumbai, when she was particular that we meet not at a café but at her suite in the Sun-n-Sand hotel, with sweeping views of the Arabian Sea from two windows at right-angles: a rare find in a city of few windows. Framing is important to her.
As a young journalist, it was confusing to be told by a photographer that making photographs wasn’t enough. So I made it a point to ask Singh the same question every year and she gave me new approaches each time. At the sea-view suite, she had produced a shoebox-sized carton filled with prints that she carried with her everywhere she travelled. And with the sure fingers of a pasta maker, she had proceeded to pick different sets and make many different edits from the same set of photographs to illustrate her point. “The myth of photography is over. That’s why it’s more important than ever to tell stories with them,” she had said.
In his 1967 essay, “The Death Of The Author”, Roland Barthes wrote about how the writing only begins when the author enters into his own death. The literary analogy is relevant because for Singh, a photograph is not unlike a morpheme in the visual world where syllables, words, sentences, and then stories, wait to be formed. It’s how they are framed in the context of something larger than what a photographer can technically produce that matters.
Almost all her mobile museums have been acquired by museums. But Singh tells me she had joked with Jane Hamlyn, the founder and director of Frith Street Gallery, which represents her, that she would never part with the Museum Of Chance as long as she lived…unless it was MoMA. “It’s my mother museum…very fertile. It carries so many museums within it,” she says. It has also grown over the years. When it was on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi last year during the India Art Fair, she had invited friends and artists to make their own iterations: Curator Shanay Jhaveri produced a Museum Of Erotics, designer Aneeth Arora created a Museum Of Cloth. It now goes to MoMA, with video documentation of its rich life.
Singh has often felt misunderstood, especially in India. The MoMA acquisition is a validation of her efforts at developing new directions in photography. The photographer, as we knew her, is dead. Long live the photographer. The writer tweets at @aninditaghose