‘I am not sure why my photos are much darker than my writings’

‘I am not sure why my photos are much darker than my writings’

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 23 April, 2016
William Dalrymple.
William Dalrymple has just launched his debut book of photographs, The Writer’s Eye, which features images taken on his many travels around the world. He speaks to Bhumika Popli.

Q. When were you given your first camera, and what kind of equipment do you use now?

A. I have taken photographs ever since I was first given a tiny Kodak for my seventh birthday. Then, when I was 15, I was left some money by a relation and spent it on a fabulous Contax 35mm SLR with a pin-sharp Carl Zeiss T* lens. The photographs in my recent collection, though, were taken with a mobile phone.


Q. You have been a writer first and foremost.  So what prompted you to take up photography?

A: I was, in fact, a photographer first.  When I finished my book In Xanadu: A Quest, slowly I think writing took over, and photography took more of a backseat. Two years ago, got a Samsung Note, which has such a good phone camera. So I again started photography. I started sharing the photographs I took with it on Instagram and Facebook and back then, had no more ambition for the photographs. But when [author] Siddhant Dhanavat Sanghvi talked to me about exhibiting the photos, I was surprised. I sent him about 100 pictures, and he chose 30 or 40. Then the whole thing moved from one show to two shows to three shows. Photos from the three shows we did are in the book. 


Q. What was the inspiration behind these photographs?

A. These were taken on my journeys, when I was between projects.  I had finished The Return of the King: The Battle for Afghanistan. I hadn’t started with the book I am writing now. So this was a period of restlessness between projects. I was travelling a great deal in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and India.


Q.As a writer, did you use photography as a note-taking device?

A. Yes, I certainly did. As a travel writer, in my 20s, I used to take a lot of photographs. Then, more recently, the lovely mobile phone, with a fantastic camera, turned out to be my main device.


Q. Lots of people are using phones instead of professional cameras for photography these days. What’s your take on that?

A. Well, I think I am not surprised. I suspect this is the future. Many real and great photographers are using mobile phones to take pictures now, like Raghu Rai for example, and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Certainly, with phone cameras you lose a lot. You can’t play with the depth of field, you can’t use high shutter speed like that used in sports photography on an SLR. But having said that, a phone camera is always by your side and you have your phone all the time so you have access to your photos. Henry Cartier-Bresson, for instance, used a discreet, tiny little Leica in his pocket and he was always snapping with it.


Q. While shooting these pictures, did you discover anything new about yourself?

A.  I discovered that the pictures are definitely darker, I think, than my writing. My writing is lively and humorous, has a persona, but the photographs are darker — having a bleaker landscape. I don’t know why, even I am surprised.


Q. What made you choose to shoot in black-and-white?

A. I always preferred black-and white, partly because it allows me to develop and edit my own prints; but mainly because black-and-white seems a much more daring and exciting world, full of artistic possibilities. “Black”, wrote [French artist Henri] Matisse — a man who knew something about colour — “is a force”, and I have always believed that black-and-white has a visceral power that colour can never match.


Q: Could you name some photographers whose work you admire?

A: I am a big admirer in this country of Raghu Rai. I love Prabbhudha’s work, too. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time leafing through photographic books and particularly admired the bleak and grainy war photography of Don McCullin and the landscape work of Fay Godwin. But my real hero was Bill Brandt, whose darkly brooding images were marked by a stark chiaroscuro, a strongly geometrical sense of composition, a whiff of the surreal and a taste for the uncanny and unsettling.


Q. What were the initial challenges or any technical roadblocks you faced while shooting?

A: None. I am a bit of a photography nerd. So when taking pictures I am not worrying about depth of field, shutter speed, light meter and so on.


 Q: Will we also see another photography book by you anytime soon?

A: May be at some point of time. But as of now, I am giving more time to writing.


For a photo essay featuring Dalrymple’s images, go to photos section on the website.

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