Variations of “India’s most celebrated photographer” are the kind of sobriquet with which reviews of her work begin in the West, something that might cause wry amusement in India since Dayanita Singh’s is a name that has bypassed all but the more “cerebral” among collectors. This lack of a pop-followership in the country of her birth may be ironic but it has hardly impacted Singh, who works according to what can best be described by that over-used cliché, “honesty”.
Which is why Singh, who sells seven editions each only of the approximately 250 photographs she has turned into edition prints, rejects the medium of the secondary market, particularly auction houses, “while the edition is open” claiming that it “fools the collector who then pays a higher price than the open edition price”. And which is why she did not use pictures of her subject, the eunuch Mona Ahmed, whom she photographed for 13 years before the hijra allowed permission to convert them into a book, its text dictated by Mona herself to the publisher in the form of emails. Each missive ends with Mona’s uniquely literal rendition of a vernacular sign-off, “Myself Mona Ahmed”, which lent itself to the title (earlier Mona Darling), one among several such series. The latest, Dayanita Singh (Penguin Studio, Rs 5,999) attempts to collate these as a Singh omnibus or a Singh [auto]biography stretching across a template of pictures with accompanying texts by Sunil Khilnani and Aveek Sen, its associated world exhibition curated by Carlos Gollonet.
I Am As I Am looks at life in the cloistered, but also joyful, world of an ashram for girls in Benares, and the elegiac Ladies of Calcutta iterates her interest in portraits of “timeless women” (men are rare in her works). Myself Mona Ahmed is perhaps Singh’s most iconic work, and it is Mona who is responsible for naming another of Singh’s series, Go Away Closer, based on her lament, “She always says, ‘Now I will stay in Delhi’, but then she always goes away.” Sent a Letter is cast in the unique manner of a visual “diary” consisting of images from different cities that, accordion-like, open out into an unfolding series of images first published by Steidl, but reproduced in this version by Fundacio Mapfre/Penguin. Singh’s departure from black-and-white portraits and spaces into the world of colour in Blue Book and Dream Villa must await more critical evaluation, not least because she is giving up a unique territory to foray into a nuanced disquiet over which others have stellar command.
Singh denies that the books are an exercise in documentation; nor are they “catalogues” as much as a way “to present an entire series in the precise way that one conceives it to be read”. Nor does she see a dilemma or conflict “between selling books and edition prints”, perhaps because they are intended for different groups. Prices for her edition prints vary from Rs 3 lakh to Rs 5 lakh of which edition 7/7 is not sold in the open market “as we keep it for an institution that might want the entire series”, Singh says, and of the 250-odd works that are in edition prints, a third are now “closed editions”, or sold out. “I think the people who collect my work,” she points out, “tend to collect them in series.”
It is perhaps early to tell how prices for these closed editions have increased, but Singh admits that for her open editions “prices are raised very slowly, and only when there is a major show or book. We try to keep the number of images available, limited. The risk in photography is that you can flood the market with your own work and saturate it. Besides, work needs to be refined, sifted through ruthlessly, resolved before it is shown.” This finiteness of the edition market is what gives Singh her distinctiveness, and prints are only sold through Nature Morte of New Delhi and Frith Street Gallery, London — and “if a third gallery wants to show them, they go through one of these two galleries. They are never sold directly. The three of us have an online edition list and each image printed, framed/unframed, sold/unsold is accounted for. This, as you can imagine, is crucial when one is selling works in editions in the photographic medium.”
For someone who started off resenting being photographed by her mother, and who remembers childhood departures being delayed on account of the picture not yet taken, Singh has come a long way, travelling around the world funded by her photography — and partly by “a grant from Robert Frank in 1997, which allowed me to do most of the Family portraits, two years ago the Robert Gardner fellowship from Harvard, and then the Prince Claus award” — while “for the rest I manage, and manage quite well, from my photography”. She also lays claim to a freedom she had always hoped for: “No husband. No children, no pets, no financial obligations...just as I had dreamed life would be; life in a suitcase.”
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.