August 8, 2001
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Pamela Singh's new passion: art photography

Photographer and former Miss India Pamela Singh was featured in two shows over the summer in New York City, one at Sepia International, from June 29 through July 27, and the other at Admit One, from May 3 through June 2.

The Admit One show, her debut solo exhibition, featured hand-painted art photographs assembled in a studio in Jaipur. The Sepia exhibition, where she was one of three photographers featured, showed Singh's images of Angkor Wat and other Hindu temples of Cambodia.

Previously a photojournalist with Gamma agency, Singh took the perilous leap from photo-documentarian to photo-artist with the reckless courage that has characterised most of her public ventures. She spoke to Jeet Thayil between assignments in New York. Excerpts:

What precipitated your jump from photojournalism?

I found it very difficult to continue doing journalistic magazine work. I've been working really hard with my photography, many hours nonstop, many years nonstop, completely focused, and then I got really exhausted. I used to keep having these breakdowns. I'd work constantly for six months without a break, every day. I wouldn't speak to anybody. I'd just work, work and then I'd have a breakdown, my nerves would crash. So I'd have to be in bed for three months and then I'd get up again and work for another six months and then I'd crash again for another two or three months. That's how I worked, very obsessive. In the end I got really quite sick. I worked in Africa a lot, reportage and documentary work, and that was pretty dangerous and pretty hectic.

When did you make the jump?

I always knew I'd be some kind of artist. I used to paint, but I wasn't very confident. I made the jump over the last two years. I've been exhibiting for a very long time and started to do well some years ago when my pictures went to the Aperture show at the Philadelphia Museum and then on a world tour. That gave me a lot of confidence, now I'm on my way I suppose. It's not been easy. I think you need to be taking pictures for a good 10 years to get a little balance and to understand what you're trying to do. It gets better after that.

When did you become serious about photography?

I was always serious. I was serious since I was 13. I used to work in a darkroom from the age of 13, started taking pictures in my 20s. I started the other way around, in the dark room, which is really the better way to start. If you know how pictures are made and how negatives work and the way light falls on emulsions, it becomes a lot easier to take photographs. Eventually you have to go back into the darkroom and then you see all the mistakes you've made. I used to print all my own pictures, now I don't have the time so I give them to professional darkrooms to make exhibition prints. Collectors buy those prints so they have to be immaculate.

Could you describe the technique behind the gold- and hand-painted prints?

I set up a studio in Jaipur. I wanted to understand the old techniques like tinting, hand-painting. Nobody tints pictures anymore. Those are black and white pictures originally, they're not colour. I employed this old craftsman, he was over 60. I had to find him to teach me how to do the tinting and how to mix the colours because it's an old technique. We hand-tinted the pictures with cotton-wool and colour pigments, then I painted on that myself with acrylics, then I employed someone to teach me how to mix the gold. If you use normal gold it just falls off. It's pure gold, 22-carat gold powder. We had to buy the powder and make our own emulsions. Then I painted it with a brush and my thumb. I wanted to do it so I had to learn how to, it was always in my mind. It is inspired from a style called 'palimpsest'.

In India the street is a great inspiration because people come and paste a poster, then they write on it, then they'll post another one, then they'll pee on it and they'll spit on it and they'll tear the first one, paint graffitti on the street, so you get this kind of fancy layering. I was trying to do a kind of layering, but I didn't want to manipulate it in the lab. People can do it digitally, but you don't get the same effect, you know it's digital. I shot the pictures in black & white, then I blew the prints up about 3 feet by 31/2 feet. I had the lab work done here, then I took it to India, set up a studio with the technicians. I even had my own chap making frames. I wanted them beautiful, flushed red. I wanted a symmetry and a rhythm in the colour.

What about the Angkor Wat series of photographs?

I did the two projects simultaneously. I went to Angkor Wat, then I came back to Jaipur. I was painting, then I was photographing, back and forth. It's not unusual for an artist to do two or three things simultaneously. If you wipe out the painting, you still get journalism because there is a lot of information in the pictures. That's what was so interesting, it was a documentary-style image and then it changed. I think I'm going to continue in that tradition because I'm having a really good time with it.

Why Angkor Wat?

The Angkor Wat temples are the most important Hindu temples outside of India. I think many people in India don't know that. They've become famous only recently after the war ended. I'd heard about Angkor Wat because when the war was going on, the Archaeological Survey of India sent a team of people to work there. The construction of it is a microcosm of the macrocosm, it is a great place of worship according to Tantric principles. It just seemed like an opportunity to go and photograph it. The Magnum photographer Mark Ribout had done a book. I'd seen that book and it was absolutely stunning. So I decided to go there.

Every time I'd go to Angkor Wat, I'd meet these really interesting historians and they'd be sitting in the main temple and they'd tell me about other places they'd been to. It is a very nice healing kind of place. I'd always go there really sad about things that had happened in my life and I'd always come back feeling really good. It's a very powerful place. Even though they don't worship it actively, there are people who actually live in the shrines, whom I've photographed in my work, and they're very innocent and they're very poor and their prayers are very real, so the place is charged with this energy. I mean, I can't describe it, it's most unusual, it's like kind of a light breeze that blows through your hair all the time.

You just move back into time. It's fascinating, because they have all these projects, the Japanese government is funding a project there and the World Monument Fund is doing tremendously good work there. They take these satellite pictures all the time and you can look at them. They're finding new stuff all the time, they're unearthing these new lakes and new monuments, it's absolutely massive.

What kind of cameras did you use?

I switched my cameras. I used to shoot with a Leica. The 35mm format is the closest to the human eye. From the point of view of perception and response of the eye, the easiest tool is a 35mm camera because that's how you actually see an image. So I actually changed the format. I went to a square format. I got a Hasselblad.

It's so easy to take pictures these days, it's been made so easy for you, but still people don't take good pictures. For a Hasselblad you need a tripod, you need plenty of light. It's a very difficult camera to use. It's more of a studio camera, but it's very sharp, the lenses are very good. You get fine quality.

Then this year I experimented with a Mamiya 645 because I was having such a difficult time with my Hasselblad, it's so heavy and I was moving around these big tripods at Angkor Wat, about 15-20 pounds. And then other cameras and the lenses are really heavy, in the end I had to hire somebody to help me carry the bags. I just couldn't do it, I didn't have the strength to carry so much stuff around. By the end of the day you're completely exhausted. I was working a long day, getting up very early, shooting all day, coming home for lunch, then going back out again and doing eight hours.

After I'd done the documentary work, I had all these pictures. I didn't know what I was going to do with them. I started playing around in the studio, and all this stuff started started coming out. It started evolving, it was very nice because I was kind of chilled out in my studio, doing stuff, and learning how to make gold emulsions, how to tint pictures. Those are techniques I'm going to employ in my next project.

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