An artist best known for her photographs, Dayanita Singh has of late been investigating the archive. Her most recent series, “File Keepers,” developed out of “File Room,” a 2011 series of 36 black- and-white photographs depicting the crowded interiors of document archives in India; it was originally shown at the Venice Biennale last year. “File Keepers” focuses instead on the individuals who maintain those facilities. The two projects were first presented together in the exhibition “Monument of Knowledge” at King’s College London earlier this year. It makes sense that Singh has focused on the ways in which information is stored and preserved, considering her interest in collecting photographs in book form. To date she has published 10 volumes, often with unique structural conceits — inventive bindings, or photographs arranged and presented in a box — that challenge and provoke the customary modes of digesting images.
Born in India in 1961, Singh attended the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and the International Center of Photography in New York. She lives and works in New Delhi.
Archives are living beings whose function is to sleep. In photographing them were you trying to wake them up?
I wish I could wake them up. I’m not sure I did wake them up, but at least I’ve made a record. At least I have created an archive. I have great faith in archives. So in that sense, right from the beginning, what kept me going with photography, whether there was an interest in my work or not, was having watched historian friends sit in the Teen Murti archive in Delhi looking at photographs. If you are sitting with the right kind of person, you soon realize that they are not just focusing on Prime Minister Nehru’s face. They are looking at what kind of watch he was wearing, the type of table he was writing on. Was that an Eames chair? What else is the picture not revealing? I had that experience early on and so I knew that even if nobody were to be interested in my work, nobody wanted to show it or make a book, at least I’d have made a record and that, at some point, it would be of interest to someone someday.
People use my books in a variety of ways, so for example, my book "Privacy"  is used by the keeper of the Ganges View Hotel to glean furniture ideas. He’ll show his carpenter one of my photographs and ask him to make a bed like this or a lamp like that. Another friend based in Chennai told me that there are 37 different weaves of saris in the book.
So in a way you create archives that you yourself cannot control.
Absolutely. Some architecture student might get really excited by the archaic architecture of the archive or the shelving system. The photographs have layer within layer within layer. So you could read it as an archive or a study of chairs. You could create an entire book on just how we tie things, a book about thread and fabric.
But at the same time, I would like to explore the idea of the unbound book. You buy the box where the photographs are contained and you keep playing with them, keep making different combinations.
What is the relationship between the use of the slides in “File Keepers” and the photographs?
I think projection is a great tool and it’s very close to photography, but because we have stopped using Kodachrome we have forgotten about projections. What I like very much about projections is that there is no one image you take away, you take away this composite of 36 or 40 images. There is really nothing to hold on to. Ideally those images would not even be reproduced on the exhibition poster. So what you are left with is a memory or whatever you experience or perceive in that zone. If you go into these archives, it is a complete blur. If I could do it completely my way, I would have 20 projections in the gallery because that’s just how they are, they are just overwhelming, these archives. You just want to get out, it’s too much.
I think a lot about projections now that Kodak has declared bankruptcy. I don’t know how long I’ll have access to film. At some point I’m going to have to think in digital. But if I am going to photograph things digitally, why make prints? Maybe the next iPhone will have a projector built into it. So if I make these shifts because of technology, then why not go all the way with that and not try to do what I did in my previous work with my Hasselblad.
You describe your experience of working with the file keepers as emotional. Had they ever been photographed by anyone else?
I was the first one, and we made some quite deep bonds. I didn’t even photograph them at first because I was there to photograph the archive. They were not expecting to be photographed. I think that they were also quite overwhelmed. When I think that I will send the prints back to them and that they will hang them in their archive, I get very excited. I love the idea that the pictures go back to where they were made and that they will see them. I keep saying how it was women who did all the work, and I hate that, including all those other categories like photography, gender, and nationality. I’m not comfortable with the categories woman this or woman that. But in the archives, time and again, I saw a woman working in an office who would go to the boss and say, “Look, there are rooms full of papers, may I organize them?” And then she would work out her own system both in terms of the cataloguing and in the architecture of the archive. Some of these women have been there for 25 or 30 years and have not been celebrated in any way. In that structure, whatever the survey or whichever department, there was always this kind of person who held it together but who operated in the background. These selfless tribes of archivists probably never expect anyone even to ask their name.
To have any access to these paper archives we have to have people. So we need to have people getting interested in looking after the archives and getting excited about the archives. But nobody sees them because you can’t go inside most archives. That’s what I’ve been able to do in this project — I have been able to go inside, where you wouldn’t normally get permission to go.
With “Privacy,” 2004, you were able to enter the homes of India’s urban elite families, capturing them in their domestic opulence. There is no word for privacy in Hindi. You have to know people to gain permission to enter their private spaces.
Yes, the difficult part is always gaining access. Once you get access there is incredible generosity. Sometimes it takes a year, letter after letter. In India, people have a sense of the importance of the visual archive, and so they are happy to participate in it, to become part of history.
Why the square format?
I like the square. I’ve been using the square for over 20 years. The square format forces your attention in every direction.
Both the slide projector and the box have a certain looseness about them, they contain the individual images while separating them. You seem to refrain from creating an order in the same way that you leave a narrative open for the viewer.
Yes. Even when you create a narrative you’re also trying to undo it. I try to be like Michael Ondaatje. I take out that one image to disorient you. I am not interested in the complete picture that you can hold onto. The secrets and clues are very important. I don’t want to tell you the whole story because there is no complete story, the story keeps changing, so the same photograph here means something, but in another context it will mean something else.
What books have influenced you?
The two books that have influenced me are "Difficult Loves" by Italo Calvino and "Running in the Family" by Michael Ondaatje. These were the most influential books for me, with a background in photojournalism, in finding another way to work with photography. In India, photojournalism was the only way one knew. So it was really through these books that I could gain access to new ways of working with images.
But Calvino’s photographer is obsessed with the idea of composing a catalogue of everything in the world that resists photography, to photograph the “impossible photograph,” that which captures what is systematically omitted from the visual field. And with Bellocq, photographs become a fetish, a joyless and private game that leads to death.
It’s not that Calvino or Ondaatje write about photography. Photography, in my view, is just language. It’s what Calvino does with his language, the kind of fiction he is able to create, the new genres he is able to make with each story, or book, that interests me. So the inspiration is not in what he writes about photography. The inspiration is how he constructs his narratives. Ondaatje is the master of withholding.
If photography is another kind of writing, how does it differ from language itself?
It has its own disadvantages, in that it works with what is available in front of the camera. But then the challenge is to take that limitation on. Everyone can make photos now. For this reason, there’s no rigor left in the making of images. And this puts an even greater constraint on photography. So then you have to put the rigor into your thought.
Would you move into film?
No. Film, no. Projections, yes. Boxes, yes.
Archive fever? Is there a certain anxiety underpinning your project? You constantly question the way your images cohere.
It’s not in that destructive way. It’s conscious and unconscious. You start doing something else, and then you realize that you are missing that image. So you then go back to the pile and realize, “I’ve completely created something else here!” There is an ongoing desire to undo. That is problematic because the art world would like to feel that this is one definitive project or piece, but that’s not how I seem to be working. I want to be open. I don’t want to be bound by anything, by my gender, by my nationality, by my medium.
What is your investment in archiving your own material?
Archiving is terribly important. I can’t imagine photographing and not having the proper record for it.
Digital has great archival possibilities, but the book is also important.
[Publisher] Gerhard Steidl is the most important man in my life. There is one man who completely, wholeheartedly supports what I want to do. I told him recently I wanted to make a book like a Persian manuscript with golden lettering. I saw many of these while in Turkey. He agreed. There is no other publisher in the world who would have made "Sent a Letter"  as a box. I don’t know how much money he lost on it.
In "Indian Highway" at the Serpentine gallery you scaled up your crisp, 45-centimeter photograph of city traffic at twilight into three-meter-high wallpaper, pixelated and rough.
That is the effect I wanted to achieve with the book "Dream Villa." I like the idea of a book that is so tightly bound that it closes on itself — so the reader has to press it down, even though the book won’t stay open; so the book is doing exactly what the projections do. If you look at it you see maybe 2, 3, 10 images, but you cannot look at the whole book. Every time you open it you have to start in a different place. There are no page numbers.
What are you working on now?
In November I am going to show something further about this work at the Frith Street Gallery in London. I don’t know the language yet, but it will be an archive of an archive, it will be one piece. I have a dream of showing my work in Orhan Pamuk’s museum in Istanbul, but no plans to do so yet.
Like an installation.
Yes, because I am very concerned about the spaces in which the work is viewed. So I love the idea of "Sent a Letter" because it sits in your hand, or the projection because you can’t take anything away from it. The work that I’m going to show in November is very much the opposite of what might be expected or seen. The structure of the piece is like a giant book, and it opens on both sides so that it can become a corner or it can turn into a big wall. Inside the shelves there will be an archive of these images and more. There will be 40 images displayed outside and 80 images on the inside. The viewer will have to walk around it in order to look at the work. So she will relate to it in a different way than say, the image hanging on the wall. The image on the wall is just one way, and there are so many different ways in which to experience images. Each project finds its own form. If you want to call it installation, it’s fine; I’m not bothered.
This article appears in the summer issue of Modern Painters magazine.