Welcome to the book review! Whenever I get my hands on a book, I will share my thoughts with you. There are a mix of books from artist monographs to history’s to theory.
I am always on the lookout for anything related to photography from South Asia. On my way to Nepal, I was in the Indra Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. I had gone in one of the airport bookstores. In addition to books on South Asian photography, I also enjoy reading travelogues. In the book store I was looking at the books in the travel section and came across a photography book. The book, The Writer’s Eye, is an exhibition catalog from an exhibition at Sunapartanta Goa Centre for the Arts in Goa, India for an exhibition by the same name. To my surprise, the photographer is famed writer William Dalrymple. Dalrymple is known for his books which combined his own travel with the history of the region he is visiting. Many but not his entire collection of books take place in India and this is how I came to know him.
I was immediately interested in exploring the book more, however, I had to catch my flight. I decided to just purchase the book so I could spend more time with it later. I examined the photographs in the book more closely once I had reached where I was staying in Kathmandu. The book includes an introduction by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghi and a statement by Dalrymple. The photographs are from across the globe. Many are from Central and South Asia; however, some of the photographs are from Great Britain, Europe and North America. All of the 41 photographs are black and white and they were all taken with Dalrymple Samsung Note.
Shanghi’s introduction begins with Shangi describing his first encounter with Dalrymple’s photographs at a dinner party in Goa in 2014. He thought the photographs took the viewer to a quiet place full of questions and he was interested in the fact that they were made with Dalrymple’s Samsung Note (5). I agree that cell phone photography is increasingly becoming a valued commodity, whether used by well-known artists such as then one’s mentioned by Shanghi, Sooni Taraporevala or Ai Weiwei. Sites like Instagram are invaluable for full and part-time travelers to reach a broader audience for their blogs, vlogs or products.
Beyond his introduction and interest in mode of production, Shanghi discusses what draws him to the photographs. He says at first glance they may appear to be about place, however, he says he is drawn to them for the same reason he is attracted to the novels of Virginia Woolf; he says they are about interiors (5-6). I can see where he is coming from. The photographs are uncluttered, even when I know where they were made they go beyond the document of place. They have a spirit and invite a contemplative mood. In the end, Shanghi says, “once things are named and known, admired and adored, something essential leaves them; they become communal things” (8). (The book does not note where or when the photographs were taken.) I can see what he means, however, I am not sure I agree with this. I know where some of the photographs were taken just by looking at them. Those images still hold a mystery for me, a longing. In some cases, a longing of something I have known, like the image of two hay bales in a field or a longing for what I have yet to know, like the photographs from Bamiyan, Afganastan where the colossal Buddha’s were destroyed by the Taliban. I agree the stillness of the photographs stir an emotional response in the viewer’s soul.
I am also intrigued by Dalrymple’s statement. It gives a good background on his interest in photography and how these photographs came to be. For me the most interesting revelation from the statement is that Dalrymple had an interest in photography before writing. He got a Kodak camera for his seventh birthday (14). As a teenager he upgraded his camera and spent five years working in the darkroom (14). His great-great aunt is famed nineteenth century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (13). Furthermore, I had no idea that Cameron was born in Calcutta, how I missed or forgot this information, I have no idea. He notes that he was always drawn to black and white photography, saying, it “seemed a much more daring and exciting world” (14). He states that eventually writing took over as his major artistic outlet and his camera got put away (15). He goes on to say that his interest in photograph returned after trading his Blackberry for a Samsung Note with a good camera (15). He also uses an in camera editing app called Snapseed (15). In addition, he notes that Bill Brandt was a major influence on his work early on. He goes on to say that Brandt’s work is an obvious influence on these photographs, saying, the photographs are a testament “to the degree to which great images are capable of lodging themselves into our unconsciousness and influence the way we see, even many years later” (17). I think any photographer I know would agree with this statement. While I the texts in the book are well written the photographs are the heart of the book.
The individual photographs are well composed. It is obvious that Dalrymple has an eye. However, the photographs as a group lack cohesion. The photographs do not cover the entire globe, eighteen of the photographs are from Central or South Asia, fifteen of the photographs are from what are unidentifiable locations for me and four of the photographs are from Europe or North America. While many of the photographs could be considered landscapes, 13 of them I would consider pure landscapes. Seven of the photographs are landscape style photographs of archaeological or historic sites. Seven of the photographs are architectural photos and seven of the photographs are cityscapes. There is one photograph of the interior of a museum or studio space showing European sculpture and one detail photograph showing birds inside small box compartments.
While I do not think all of the photographs make a cohesive unit, they are laid out in the book so that the photographs on facing pages make sense together. Many of the individual photographs I like very much. Dalrymple has an eye for composition and use of contrast. For example, in the photograph above, the device known as a frame within a frame has been used. The mosque entrance is framed by the pointed arch of the gate. The pointed arch is repeated as the viewer looks back into the one-point linear perspective. The foreground is sliced in half by the bright sunlight cutting through the shadow on the ground. This bright spot contrasts the darkness of the two women in Abaya (black cloak worn over their cloths). Furthermore, the weight of the women on the left is counter balanced by the weight of the chair on the right. Compositionally this photograph is spot on.
The biggest downfall of the book is that some of the reproductions are pixelated. This makes me feel bad for Dalrymple. I admire him as a writer and I can see he has a good eye, so I am sorry that all of his work was not shown in the best possible light in his main form of expression, the book.
Overall, I am glad I came across the book. It has its reproduction problems and if I saw all of Dalrymple’s photographs I might have edited the group differently. However, I think the introduction and Dalrymple’s statements are well written and give good insight into the work. As someone who is familiar with Dalrymple’s writing I find it interesting to see the world through his eyes in contrast to what his words express. I am glad I came across the book in the airport. It gives me inspiration. I have been making photographs for 20 years and have more recently begun expressing myself through writing. For me, this is proof that I should pursue both. I think that is the ultimate goal of any artist, whether visual, writer, or musician, we each want to inspire those who encounter us.
Harper Collins Publishers
A-75, Sector 57, Noida, Uttar Pradesh 201301, India
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25 Ryde Road, Pymble, Sydney, NSW 2073, Australia
10 East 53rd Street, New York NY 10022, USA
Copyright Sunaparanta 2016
Photographs and essay copyright Williams Dalrymple 2016
Introduction copyright Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi 2016
My copy printed and bound at Thomson Press (India) Ltd.