How a writer frames images

Photographs shot by William Dalrymple on his cellphone are on display in the Capital


It’s perhaps difficult not to find a narrative in a photograph, especially when the one capturing it is a writer. William Dalrymple, however, insists that the 60 images now on display at south Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery are more spur-of-the-moment, abstract, and an extension of reality. “They are, in fact, a contrast to my writing. They come from the ‘visual’ part of my brain,” Dalrymple says of his “grainy, black and white” work.

The gallery is hosting The Writer’s Eye, a visual ode to Dalrymple’s travels over the past 18 months “from Leh to Lindisfarne, from the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs across the rolling hills south of Sienna”. The images are part of his first photo book, also titled The Writer’s Eye, which was released on 29 March at the gallery.

And that’s not the only reason they are special—all the photographs have been taken with his Samsung Note phone camera. “These have been a result of a restless year, between books, when I visited some of the world’s most remote places, especially in Central Asia. The ruins of Afghanistan, the Mughal architecture, the stupa and mani walls (stone walls with prayers engraved on them) of Ladakh, the domes of Golconda, the deserts of western Iran, the journey along the Ganges looking for an ittar (perfume) in Kannauj—all are part of this collection,” says the 51-year-old. “Yes, you definitely lose in terms of lenses, pixels, wide- angle frames and shutter speed, but don’t most interesting things happen when you are least prepared?” he asks.

“You can’t always walk around lugging a DSLR; the phone is with you at all times. It helps break down reality into an essence; you don’t have to stop to consider depth of field. Composition is all that matters,” says Dalrymple. The City Of Djinns writer uses the Snapseed app to edit the pictures. “I spend my spare time creating 10 different versions of one picture, thanks to this app.”

Dalrymple discovered a love for the camera much before he took up writing—at the age of 7, to be precise, when he was gifted a small Kodak on his birthday. At 15, he bought himself a Contax 35mm SLR, and for the next five years, the school darkroom became his second home.

“After that, writing took over as my artistic outlet. It is only in the last 18 months, since I jettisoned my last BlackBerry for a Samsung Note, that I have rediscovered my passion for photography,” he says.

Most of Dalrymple’s pictures play on light and shadow, rendering almost a melancholic effect. “They’re also terrifically solitary, not just the landscapes, but also the ones with people in them are imbued with a sense of longing,” says Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, the show’s curator and a writer himself. “They are a fine counterpoint to the exuberance of William’s books,” he adds. Dalrymple agrees: “There is indeed a sense of bleakness to them. Even I’m surprised. I’m not at all a dark guy.”

Explaining his reason for not using colour, the Scottish author says he was always influenced by the dark, grainy, images by British photojournalist Bill Brandt and photographer Fay Godwin. “The black and white combination has a visceral power that colour can never match. Also, my first 18 years were spent far from any metropolis, under dark northern skies, right on the edge of things. The remote places celebrated in these images reflect a taste for the austere, ascetic and windswept forms of those years,” Dalrymple says.

The Writer’s Eye is on till 20 April, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at the Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony (46103550). For details, visit www.vadehraart.com

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