Photo Books

New Ideas in Photo Book Making: Dayanita Singh’s “Museum Bhavan”

July 19, 2017

By Conor Risch

What is a photograph? What are its physical properties? What is its relationship to time? Does photography require a camera? And what do we do with its abundance? These and other inward-looking questions currently preoccupy many “lens-based artists” creating conceptual artwork with and about the medium of photography. It can all feel a bit navel-gazing and inaccessible to any but the most insider audiences.

The conceptual work that Indian photographer Dayanita Singh is creating is different. It’s concerned with how the audience experiences photography. Museum Bhavan, Singh’s new book with longtime collaborator Gerhard Steidl—which she refers to as a “pocket museum”—seeks to change the artist-viewer relationship. Created to encourage those who purchase the book to organize their own exhibitions of Singh’s work, it is outward-looking, balancing image and physical form in a way that is meant to elicit maximum engagement from viewers.

Museum Bhavan is nine small, accordion-fold books housed in a clamshell box. There is a different pattern on the cloth that covers each of the 3,000 boxes in the edition, so each is “a unique multiple,” Singh explains to PDN.

© Dayanita Singh

An image from “Museum of Vitrines,” part of Dayanita Singh’s Museum Bhavan. © Dayanita Singh

Each of the 3×4-inch, tritone-printed books is comprised of black-and-white images Singh has made throughout her career, beginning in the early 1980s. There is the “Printing Press Museum,” a typology of mostly old printing presses. There is a “Museum of Furniture,” which includes images of interesting tables and chairs and beds, as if the pieces were people posing for environmental portraits. There is a “Museum of Men,” which Singh alternately titles, with a wink, “Museum of Curiosities.” And also a “Museum of Machines” and a “Little Ladies Museum,” among others.

The Museum Bhavan book grew out of Singh’s ongoing exhibition of the same name, which she debuted in 2015 at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi. Singh created the “Museum Bhavan” exhibition in reaction to her “concerns with showing in museums,” she explains. She wanted to be able to change the configuration of the exhibition space and “to change my work all the time, to bring in new images and take away images. You know how images change when they’re in conversation with other images.” She created a handful of temporary wooden walls that display photographs and can be moved and adjusted to create different spaces within a gallery. They also allow Singh to evolve the exhibition continuously by changing photographs and sequences.

The book takes the concept of an evolving presentation of the work even further, inviting the viewer to make their own sequences and interpretations of the work and choosing how to display them. In this way, the book describes the entirety of the art-making process, from making the photos, to looking at and editing the images and then choosing how to present them to the world. “You might install Museum Bhavan in your house. You might build shelves for each one of the books, and then you have an exhibition going on in your house or your community center or some school, or just passing them around at a dinner party,” she says.

© Dayanita Singh

Dayanita Singh’s “pocket museum” features images she made throughout her career. © Dayanita Singh

When Singh was growing up, her mother catalogued images and made albums, she says, so it was natural for her to associate making photographs with making books. Exhibitions have been secondary. And, as an analogue photographer who uses contact sheets, she has always looked at images in relation to one another.

“The photograph for me is very connected to the form it takes, and I guess for me the forms that existed are not enough—just the print on the wall or the book, it’s not enough, because I want them to be structures that can grow and enlarge, wax and wane…. I don’t want to just show you the print as the final work, and I think we photographers have such a great gold mine in our contact sheets,” she says. “The idea of pulling one print out and then that print being fetishized is not the only way.”

Though Singh wants viewers to use the book to create their own exhibitions of her work, that doesn’t mean the editing process was unimportant to creating Museum Bhavan. “The making of the images is maybe 10 percent of the work, but I would say 70 percent or even 80 percent is really the editing and to find this group of images that can work together in any combination,” she explains.

Singh is known as an innovative editor of her own work, drawing on literature, music and other sources of inspiration. As a student, she began a six-year project photographing the Indian classical musician Zakir Hussain, who taught her to approach whatever she did with “a relentless rigor,” a lesson that “shaped” her approach to editing. “It was never good enough and there was always more to do,” she recalls, “and it was important in all of that to try and find your own little voice, however out of tune.”

Singh also worked with the late publisher Walter Keller, and has had a long collaboration with Steidl. (A conversation between Singh and publisher Gerhard Steidl about bookmaking is included in a booklet that accompanies Museum Bhavan, as is a conversation about the project with writer Aveek Sen.) Keller and Steidl “have always encouraged me to go with my own intuition about the work,” she says. “When you have two such masters backing you, as well as a certain sense of what you don’t want to do, that’s very helpful. And then beyond that, you’re just on your own and one just has the risk of falling on one’s face all the time. But if you want to be pushing the limits constantly, then that’s just a risk you learn to live with.”

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