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Dalrymple’s Poetic Frames

Jugneeta Sudan
“Black – is a force”, says William Dalrymple quoting Henri Matisse in his latest book of photographs The Writer’s Eye. “And, anyway, you know, black is the colour of the light” writes the British author AS Byatt in her book The Matisse Stories. What is it about the monochromatic palette that lures the greatest of artists and creative minds to render their work in that mode? “Black and white has a visceral power that colour can never match. The bleak and grainy photography, dark brooding images marked by a stark chiaroscuro, has a primeval elemental unmatched quality”, says Dalrymple inspired by the works of his mentors Bill Brandt, Fay Godwin and Don McCullin.
The exhibition The Writer’s Eye (photographs and the photobook) opened at Sunaparanta last month and is set to release alongside exhibitions in Delhi and London. The book-Dalrymple’s first collection of photographs – has been curated by author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi.
William Darlymple, better known to us as a historian and researcher, parlays into photography with his set of 60 images that he shot informally with his Samsung mobile and thereafter edited with the app Snapseed. A talent which seems to have resurfaced from his time as a young Scottish boy brought up on bleak windswept shores of Firth of Forth, Scotland, where he clicked frames on his first Contax 35mm SLR. Stained with chemicals and fixers in the darkroom, he now revels in the latest technology which renders photographic services on a pocket mobile with ease and immediacy. Unplanned extraordinary moments are captured spontaneously and a more intimate dialogue ensues between the observer and the subject, when the in-between object piece, the camera becomes small and discreet.
One is drawn by the sheer force of the photographic frames hanging on the gallery walls. The camera can see more than the eye, they say. Therefore a rock is a rock, but it is more than a rock. It draws you in. Vast expanses taking in the sweeping vistas of cliffs against a skyline of scattered clouds, a dramatic sky with dark, billowing clouds suffused in black and white light, a lone dog or a bird caught in a backdrop of undulating plateaus or an overcast heavy sky, the eternal jali walls in forts casting webbed patterns of white light, sheer height of domes and arches captured in majestic forms, women in burquas lining a paved passage with the last in the row turning back to acknowledge the camera. The eerie silence of palaces, cemeteries, hollowed passages whispers, weaving the bleakness of shadowy contours in all that it etches and frames.
The sensibility of the specificity of light has been used skilfully by Dalrymple to draw focus at specific points automatically rendering dark drama in its vicinity. The transient light redefines the surfaces and gives them new meanings, which change with the shifting light. Dalrymple continues the legacy of photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, taping the incidence and reflection of light from varied materials and structures. Deft strokes of the monochrome light up and obscure, creating a drama of revealing and hiding, known and unknown spaces. It’s a classical trajectory of light and dark which resounds with the viewer’s own core of dark and light. An endless tale of that is and that is not, taking the viewer into a whirlpool of the beyond where words die out and silence, a kind of truth surfaces.
He says, “This collection is a record of a restless year between books, when I took the opportunity to visit some of the world’s remotest places, especially in Central Asia. Themes relating to Mughal architecture, the ruins of Afghanistan, the domes of Golconda run throughout the book – from Leh to Lindisafarne, from the ribcage of the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs and across the rolling hills south of Sienna. “Dark granite, silent, empty, bleak mountain ranges with valleys of white snow – stretched over miles of undulating landscape, devoid of a human imprint – forceful and powerful in their form – We Exist, We Are, We Stand!” He describes his visit to Bamiyan – ‘the place of shinning light’ which hangs suspended in the Hindu Kush – bathed by an illuminating yellow light reflected back by the salmon-pink of the mountain boulders around it. The pronounced bleakness and remote quality of his work surprised him too. He admits he didn’t think he had it in him. “There is a tone of darkness and bleakness to it, which surprised me. I’m not a dark guy — I don’t write bleak books.”
Dalrymple strings together a range of affinities in his childhood and teenage years that seem to have left impressions in his mind about the art. His Calcutta-born part Bengali great grand aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the greatest photographers of the 19th century who excelled in portraiture and whose works he leafed through in his family home in the York moors; celebrity photographers like Fay Godwin whose landscape works he dwelled upon for his project in college, the grainy dark war photography of Don McCullin, and the intensity of black and white photography of Bill Brandt – he seems to have deliberated on his best work – Shadow and Light. But first and foremost, he feels indebted to Bruce Chatwin the travel writer and photographer for his charismatic personality and that chance encounter at a lunch which changed his whole life trajectory and pitched him for the kind of work he has been doing since.
Siddharth, instrumental in facilitating the exhibition and publishing of the photobook, has curated the show at Sunaparanta. In his introduction in the book, he pristinely compares the photographs to classical literature per se Virginia Woolf’s works. That a great book turns you inside out and invites you into a solitude to muse, reflect, mend and cross a milestone; so do Dalrymple’s frames invoke a moment of candidness and inner monologue within the labyrinthine neural pathways of the viewer’s minds. His brilliant stroke of leaving the frames untitled provides a gap in the visual narrative for the viewer to step in and totally engage with the art work.
Photographs that slip into your bloodstream and make you sit up, photographs that stand out in the visual noise around, photographs that hold up and invoke a different response in you!
If you still haven’t seen them, pop in at Sunaparanta. The photo-poetic alchemy will astound you!

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