Photo Fiction

A Novel Short Story

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House of Love, nine ‘short stories’ by artist Dayanita Singh that bring word and image together, is a literary accomplishment
Photo Fiction ~ ‘Fear on the Footpath’. The slideshow below can be best enjoyed by clicking on the fullscreen-mode button (bottom right corner) of the slideshow player.

For Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, words do the work of line and colour. “I have the painter’s sensitivity to light,” she said, “Much of my writing is verbal painting.” This is not unusual—after all, the arts have perpetually borrowed from each other. They say Turner’s ‘awful’ (in old English, literally full of awe) paintings, capturing nature in all its frightening beauty, were the trigger for the literary Romantic Movement in 19th-century England. On a more humble scale, paintings have often inspired poetic counterparts and vice-versa—Pieter Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus begot WH Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, while John Everett Millais’ poignant portrayal of Ophelia was inspired by a character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However, Dayanita Singh’s transgressions in the form of a book of ‘photo-fiction’ bring the word and image together, reunited like long-lost lovers.

House of Love, a book of nine parts or ‘short stories’ accompanied by Aveek Sen’s writings, hasn’t sprung out in sudden, solitary isolation. From the bulk of her work in the past, it’s evident that Singh is enamoured of and challenged by narrative form, by a correspondence between the image and the viewer. “The idea of the ‘plot’ has been in my work since Mona [in 2001],” she explains, “and more consciously since Go Away Closer.” The latter was a “novella without words” that explored, through its twinned photographs, a series of opposites—absence and presence, dreams and reality. Sent a Letter in 2008 comprised seven slip-cover photo journals—rather like pictorial diaries—of her travels in India. These atmospheric black-and-white images are strung together in accordion folds, unfurling on your lap or across a table, allowing the viewer to voyeuristically ‘read’ these intimate entries. Her next project, Blue Book, was a series of richly-coloured images captured during her wanderings around India’s desolate industrial landscapes—each photo could be ripped out of the binding and used as a postcard, passing the work on to many corners of the world. As she says, “Making art is so much about the conversations and this is where my work thrives. I think Sent a Letter showed me that—the importance of the addressee, the response to the conversation.”

The responses to House of Love will be plethoric, for the ‘plots’ the stories conjure are what viewers bring to it rather than something Singh has stringently prescribed. American photographer Dorothea Lange spoke of how photographs sometimes prove to us how little our eyes permit us to see—and this is where our minds fill in the gaps, constructing narratives, characters and meaning. This, in turn, is informed, as Singh says, “by the books you read, the music you listen to, the films, conversations, experiences you allow yourself”. Her own literary self is influenced by the works of Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, Italo Calvino, Geoff Dyer and her friend and conversationalist Aveek Sen. House of Love, which she calls “[her] book, and not a catalogue of [her] works”, is designed to look and feel like a literary novel, and, with a plain white cover and carefully placed font, it lives up to its typographic ambitions. The hidden stories begin before the book is opened, for concealed on the cover beneath the jacket is a detail of Taj Mahal, an installation by Sudarshan Shetty—a clear indication that the book title alludes to this tomb. Appearing a number of times in both its ‘real’ and represented form, the Taj Mahal, a house of love and death, becomes the motif around which the stories wrap themselves. Sen’s lyrical prose, which forms an elegiac accompaniment to the photos, are musings on art and time and also function to push our imagistic interpretations. ‘In ‘The One and the Many’, he writes, ‘the monument is at once a unique embodiment of beauty, love and loss and the most commonly replicated image or brand, its name and appearance commodified to a degree of banality.’ The duplication of the Taj Mahal serves as a parallel to the replication of ‘reality’ that photography aspires to. This is also what restricts it. As Singh states, “Photography in itself is very limiting—it’s just like knowing a language, [yet] it’s what you do with it that will make you a writer or a poet... For me, the alphabet, and forming a few words is not enough. I want to do more, to push the limits, to make fiction from seemingly ‘real’ images.”

It is befitting that the book begins not with images, but wraparound text of a looping sentence running on from the cover—‘A house of love is a house of illusions is a house of art is a house of death’—and the first few pictures, standing apart from the stories, is a Hitchcockian visualisation of the city at night—swarms of buildings with lit windows, each hiding and revealing their inhabitants’ secrets. House of Love tells particularly urban stories—the first one is titled ‘Continuous Cities’ (suggestive of Calvino’s Invisible Cities)—and they are rich in detail, imbued in the evocative blue and gold of much of Singh’s work. Yet, also interspersed within the colour prints are black-and-white photographs—a move that “immediately broke the rules of a photo book”. The stories themselves are loosely linked, yet, as Singh says, “however disparate the ‘obvious’ subject matter may be, there is a thought that ties them all together”. For example, in ‘The Ambulance’, we are first confronted by the image of a nurse, then pictures of buildings that could be hospitals, followed by street scenes mingled with a mosque site, silhouettes of trees and leaves, and ending with a lonely ambulance parked next to a festively lit building. The narrative remains untethered because the photographs aren’t pinned down by captions that inform us of featured people and places, except in the story ‘Return to Sender’. Here the titles serve to multiply the connotations of communication and conversation that Singh holds dear—‘General Post Office, Calcutta’; ‘Printing Machine, Yamuna Nagar’, among others, ending with a spread of the Taj Mahal overlaid by ghosts of other images, including one of the photographer herself, as though they’ve all gathered for a universal danse macabre. Singh, the central figure on the page, is both the receiver and sender of images.

What differentiates House of Love from a collection of ‘photo essays’ (also defined as a series of photographs intended to tell a story), is the fact that the images are spatially distinct, occupying different times and geographical locations. They are orchestrated—like a set of delicate études— from a vast body of a year’s worth of work. Also, while a photo essay intends to pluck highlights from a particular event or explore a certain personal or social situation, what’s important to Singh is that her images make the leap from the “reassuringly objective” to the “treacherously subjective”. In fact, to delight in the trickery and craft of fiction. On the back flap, Walter Keller’s quote mentions how ‘in books, turning a page is more than a movement’—and that’s true in the sense that we carry along the weight of the story from previous pages, and the weight of all the other books we have read, loved and cherished. That is precisely why House of Love is a literary work—we fill the blank margins and silences with ourselves.

House of Love will show at Nature Morte, New Delhi, from 17 December 2011 to 29 January 2012