Internationally renowned photographer Dayanita Singh was recently honoured with the prestigious Prince Claus award by the government of The Netherlands for exploring and highlighting overlooked facets of “contemporary Indian reality”. Over the years, Singh, 47, has turned her lens on unconventional subjects such as the upwardly mobile inside their comfortable homes, her eunuch friend and the women inmates of an ashram.
What she’s doing now
This penchant for the overlooked and the unfashionable continues with her new show,Blue Book—a set of 36 exterior and interior images of industrial sites and their surrounding environment.
The project happened entirely by chance. Industrialist Rahul Bajaj was unable to
keep an appointment for a family portrait and suggested she shoot his factory instead. Reluctantly, she went—and was fascinated by what she saw. “It was a new world for me,” she says.
Photo: Dayanita Singh
Many of the photos of factories and machinery, currently on display at the Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi, are bathed in a lambent blue hue which softens the images of gigantic boilers, chimneys, conveyor belts and multi-storey structures of machinery.
Singh hasn’t captioned the images and won’t divulge when and where they were shot. She wants no context—she wants only the image to remain, making for a kind of unalloyed viewing experience. Not pinned by coordinates of space and time, the images of heavy machinery attain a kind of lightness—the quality is enhanced because they are aesthetically appealing—that is quite independent of the sheer massiveness of the subjects. You are essentially staring at a flat rectangular surface stuck against a white wall.
Singh arrived at the particular tone of blue quite by accident. “I used the wrong film at the wrong time of the day,” she says. “I had only ‘daylight colour film’ at the time.” Not what she would ideally use when the sun is setting, but she went ahead and shot anyway, and was totally taken by the blue effect she achieved. She decided to stick with it for the series. This meant that to get the blue tone, she had only a 20-minute window to shoot on a given day—the duration between sunset and complete darkness.
Some images, such as those taken inside a medical clinic, are more starkly realistic, the anaemic light-blue tone heightening their ugliness, quite in contrast to the lush, and even soothing, industrial imagery.
Since 2000, Singh’s photos— including the set of works on display—have not had any people in them, a big departure for someone who made a name as a family portrait photographer. This too happened by chance—she would be in a room all alone, waiting for her subjects to turn up, and feel other human presence there. Minus the people, the room was still interesting.
Like the absence of captions, the lack of people in her photos seems to tie in with the direction she sees her work taking. “Compared to my earlier works, I feel there is more distance and detachment now,” she says. She no longer sees her shoots as planned projects with deadlines. “I see myself as more open and porous now, more receptive to what I see around me.”
Blue Book is on at Nature Morte, A-1, Niti Bagh, New Delhi, until 7 March. The price per print ranges from Rs3-4.5 lakh.