Dayanita Singh

Captured at an angle, two adjacent doors appear to tilt, thrusting themselves into our line of vision. Suffused with a soft glow, they compete to entice viewers into alternative, equally mysterious, realms. This is Blue Book #2, one of thirty-six untitled images in “Blue Book,” 2009, Dayanita Singh’s series of photographs of industrial sites and deserted, down-at-the-heel interiors swaddled in shades of . . . you guessed it: blue. The deep indigo of corrugated rooftops in Blue Book #9, for example, vies for attention with the wide expanse of azure sky (punctuated with a teardrop-size white moon) in Blue Book #22.

The images of “Blue Book” owe their cerulean-tinted moodiness to the vagaries of daylight and color film—no digital manipulation was involved. Since this was the first time color had seeped into the Goa- and New Delhi–based photographer’s practice, the show would have been noteworthy even if there were nothing else to recommend it. But there was.

Despite her choice of tint (if sadness had a color, it would, of course, be blue), Singh did not wallow in sentimentality. Photographs of empty spaces throbbed with emotional intensity, but viewers never discovered why. In Blue Book #5, shafts of metallic light flood a paper factory. Stacked sheets of white paper stand suggestively in limbo next to one another, as if waiting to be elsewhere. But where are the workers? Were they hurriedly called away? Is this the aftermath of a catastrophe? We speculate in vain, since Singh does not reveal where or when her photographs were taken—at twilight or dawn, in India or elsewhere.

Her lens has veered between treating the photograph as a document and using it to capture the occasionally poetic synchronicity of things (and people). Singh’s early work was straightforwardly photojournalistic: The monochrome series “Myself Mona Ahmed,” 2001, accompanies a eunuch, Mona, to marriage and birth ceremonies and empathizes with her in the loss of her adopted child. But in the later sequence “Privacy,” 2004, Singh comes into her own, documentary the social milieu to which she belongs: that of the glitterati of Calcutta, Delhi, and Goa, preening in their glamorous homes. As bejeweled women cluster together for a family photograph, rush toward the camera in the company of well-matched dogs, or gaze haughtily out at us from amid their pretty, priceless possessions, they revel in their status as India’s “beautiful people.” Singh’s decorative presentation is not imposed on them, but merely corroborates their images of themselves—leaving the issue of our right to scrutinize their private lives safely out of the picture.

In “Blue Book,” too, Singh has tackled the ethics of looking. In the strongest images, the objects depicted seem to call their own shots, insisting that the artist’s gaze be counterbalanced by another. Often, this is achieved through the shrewdly varied sizes of the photographs. The farther away Singh stood to take a picture, the more intimacy the resulting photograph requests from the viewer; the converse holds true as well. So close-ups of interiors (rusty equipment in a hospital ward in Blue Book #33, an eye chart at an abandoned optician’s office in Blue Book #3, a table laden with blackened crockery in Blue Book #32) invariably loomed over us in large prints—forcing us to step back to observe them properly. Contrariwise, panoramas of far-off factories compelled a closer vantage point, thanks to their minute, gemhued details. In Blue Book #36, silvery factory buildings shrouded in a sapphire haze are threaded through with tiny amber lights; twinkling through the mist—or is it smog?—they seem to flutter like fireflies.

Zehra Jumabhoy