Rich displays of the recent work of Dayanita Singh, the internationally esteemed Indian photographer, were on view earlier this year in Mumbai and New Delhi. The generous gathering of C-prints (40 in New Delhi, 26 in Mumbai) made clear that this artist loves the night—for what she can do with the available light, certainly, but even more for the powerful sensations it can conjure of mystery and potential threat, of suspended time, aching melancholy and solitude. Her current technique is to shoot with daylight color film in low light conditions, most often outdoors at night, which results in chromatically warped, deeply saturated color photographs.
Made in locations across India, Singh’s “Blue Book” and “Dream Villa” series, both completed in 2009 and shown in Mumbai and New Delhi, respectively, are a significant departure from her trademark black-and-white work. They shift from the more sober interiors, portraits and somewhat autobiographical imagery for which she first gained recognition toward subjects that feel less specific, and more evocative and disquieting. Like the previous series, they have been published in handy small-format books by Steidl.
Concentrating on vacant factories, hulking structures and machinery seen from both far away and close up, “Blue Book” feels like an elegy to a passing industrial era. Unlike the Bechers’ objectivizing, typological homage to industrial architecture, Singh’s images are a kind of mournful love song, with buildings lit by the moon, or by light bouncing off water, seeping in through windows or reflected from rooftops. Using this limited illumination to define form, she relies on darkness to obscure and hide. The very few references to specific locations seem to be intentional witticisms, as in the shot of an abandoned room with a standard vision chart that has both Devnagari and Roman lettering, prodding viewers to reflect on how they read the world—and how they view her work.
In the “Dream Villa” series, Singh plunges further into the distortions and transformations afforded by nocturnal conditions. With super high contrast, areas of slick darkness and an odd palette, these powerful compositions of streets, trees, traffic lights, buildings, backyards and cityscapes could be shot just about anywhere. Anonymous and inhospitable, the places they depict radiate a sense of instability and alienation. The artist told me these pictures come from inside her head rather than from the locations themselves.
Singh cites literature and music as her primary inspirations, and mentions Italo Calvino in particular. True to form, when she is asked about her forthcoming travels in Europe, Singh opens her eyes wide and says she’s going to follow the moon.
Photo: Dayanita Singh: Dream Villa #11, 2009, C-print, 173⁄4 inches square; at Nature Morte.