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Leaving a lot to one's imagination

Arati Menon Carroll  |  Mumbai 

It's not hard to tell that interviews are a bit of drudgery for image-maker Dayanita Singh. She looks upon the interviewer with some degree of scepticism and takes umbrage at being ordered to smile for a photograph "" "I shan't if I don't want to." Her work, black and white images titled "Go Away Closer", displays a similar sense of withholding.
Singh's visual compositions don't give much away, not least because they are accompanied by no tagging, but also because the subjects defy immediate identification. We're left to hazard guesses of the particulars. "Let the viewer have something to do," says Singh. She motions a photograph, seemingly of the night sky that will only reveal the crinkles of a spectral ocean if you look close enough.
Accompanying the exhibition is a notebook-sized publication of the same name and containing 31 of these images, of luminous clarity and drawn from five years of the artist's work, again without a preface or artist's biography. The contents present a muted statement about the inevitability of loss and departure, even in intimacy.
A bride bids goodbye to her parents even as she seems to look ahead into her imminent future. Vacant furniture "" a recurring subject "" bears silent witness to unseen generations. Rows of scooters lie in a factory waiting to be claimed, or not. Rows of auditorium seats wait to be occupied, or not.
The opening image of a girl lying along the length of her bed burying her head under a pillow suggests that she is distancing someone, with a touch of both the tragic and the teasing.
In an uncharacteristic departure from keeping things impersonal, Singh says, "The sooner you realise that you're all alone in this world, the happier you are." In that sense, Go Away Closer is a vast depar-ture from an earlier publication titled Privacy, which dwells on tightly knit human connections.
Some of her evasiveness comes from a her concern that art photography isn't understood enough in India. "When the art market got out of hand three years ago, people started looking towards photography for its relative affordability, and even photographers weren't prepared for that kind of demand."
She points to the absence of museums and galleries dedicated to photography, and the lack of awareness among buyers. Getting back to her own works she says, "Black and white photography is the most fragile form of art. I want my images to be of historical interest to researchers in the future."
And so Singh chooses to work with the finest in the industry "" Frith Street Gallery, London, controls her editions and she only publishes with Steidl, known for publishing some of the most distinctive voices in literature and visual arts.
She protects her edition releases (there are only 106 photographs in edition after 26 years of photography) zealously. She rarely takes on commissions. "I'm doing this for myself. Everything else, including appreciation, is a bonus," she says, once again separating herself from the viewer.

First Published: Sun, February 11 2007. 00:00 IST