I like visual novels, the novels that lurk in pictures, with a contemporary consciousness of ruptures, blockages, surprises, interruptions, Steve Reich’s rhythms and frictions.
—Walter Keller, founder, Scalo
One of the characters in Italian writer Italo Calvino’s book of short stories, Difficult Loves, is that of a young photographer who concludes that “true, total photography” is a pile of fragments of private images. Calvino asks of his half-mad protagonist: “Did he want to photograph dreams?”
Photographer Dayanita Singh’s book House of Love is this vivid dreamscape; a book of film stills that have yet to leave the dark room. She plays visualizer to a Proustian narrative, to the slow-motion descriptions of an insomniac who is unable to sleep in an unfamiliar hotel room in a town he doesn’t know too well.
Dream analysis: Continuous Cities, pages 34-35; and (below) Portrait of a Marriage, page 79, from House of Love.
One of the most significant photographers of our generation, Singh’s work has let go of context and captions over time. She has charted a different route, one that is less about capturing the moment and more about reflection. While she has shown herself to be a visual poet with her previous photo-books such as Go Away Closer (2007) and Dream Villa (2010), with this she takes on prose.
House of Love is a book of photo-fiction with nine interconnected short stories. With its 106 colour and black and white illustrations, it is more than a photo-book, blurring the lines between an art book of photographic images and a work of literary fiction. It is a book whose images ask to be read, not just seen. And the combination creates a new vocabulary for the visual book.
Singh’s characters and themes recur, as they do in dreams. There are street scenes and buildings from various cities, in India, England, Germany and Korea; a kurta-clad man who appears to be waiting for someone; domestic objects; cupboards that spill over.
The photographs don’t follow the logical progression of a photo essay. They are free-floating images, tied to one another only by the “stories” in which they have been grouped; stories with titles such as Continuous Cities, Theft in a Cake Shop and Return to Sender.
The images in House of Love are characterized by long-exposure shots that dance between silent blues and and fiery reds. This is the first time in a single series that Singh has combined her trademark black and white photographs with her newer, nocturnal colour work. As the book’s bibliography by writer Aveek Sen says: The use of daylight film after dark, long exposures and the refusal to go digital mean relinquishing control over vision and image. The result is a subconscious sensory experience, in which neither the photographer nor the viewer is wholly in control.
Singh does play an elegant curator with colour, willing you to submission to the different moods. One warm-hued picture from Continuous Cities, for instance, shows two men in a room filled with a soft, languorous light. They’re looking into each other’s eyes. Who are they? Why does the kurta-clad man reappear through the book? A copy of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring hangs on the wall behind them, her piercing gaze prompting the viewer to dig deeper.
In the fifth story, Portraits of a Marriage—strategically placed in the middle of the book—Singh makes an appearance. It is a self-portrait, camera in tow. Here she establishes herself as spectator: the book a semiotic minefield.
The soul of the book, the House of Love itself, is another name for the Taj Mahal. It is a recurring motif that stands in for a range of meanings—as an installation by Sudarshan Shetty, a photograph of a photograph, an artificial set.
The book, says Singh, is her response to the delirious satisfaction she has found in the works of her favourite authors, including Calvino, Amitav Ghosh, Orhan Pamuk, W.G. Sebald and Vikram Seth. She excerpts a couple of them in testimony: lines from Seth’s poem Mistaken and text by historian Sunil Khilnani (who had contributed to Dream Villa too), which suggests that what the photograph displaces is not—as as is usually claimed—the art of painting, but that of writing; the keeping of a diary.
Aveek Sen’s essays at the back of the book follow a journey of their own, exploring the relationship between photography, memory and writing. They go from childhood memories of a blood-splattered magic show by P.C. Sorcar in Kolkata to obtuse musings on the Taj Mahal. He, and the contemporary Indian artists such as Sudarshan Shetty and Bharti Kher—the images of whose works are in the book—are presumably those that Singh considers fellow travellers in her visual quest.
The last book that Singh authored, Dream Villa(published by Steidl), was an artefact in its own right. It had no page numbers, captions, locations, dates or essays—and each image was guttered down in the middle and bled to the edges of the page. House of Lovesheds the extravagance of a coffee-table book too. Many of the images are guttered down, forcing the reader to hold the book open and “read” it.
The book is an outcome of the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography given annually by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University; Singh was its second recipient, in 2008. House of Love has been jointly published by the Peabody Museum Press and Radius Books, a Santa Fe-based non-profit publisher of art and culture books.
Every detail in House of Love talks, like the veteran art books publisher and Scalo’s founder Walter Keller’s quote on the back flap, which whispers: “In books, turning a page is more than a movement.”
In House of Love, turning a page is Proust’s insomniac narrator gently falling asleep.
House of Love can be ordered online at radiusbooks.org. 172 pages, $45 (approx. Rs2,300). An accompanying exhibition will run at Nature Morte, New Delhi, from 16 December-29 January.