In conversation with photographer Randhir Singh, we discuss the critical aspects behind the cognisance of capturing a pertinent architectural photograph, as well as the methods which assist the process.
The following text is the edited transcript from the conversation with Randhir Singh, conducted on February 10th, 2021
Chapter 01: ORIGINS [00:20]
Part I – Education [00:27]
I studied architecture – in the US – and I worked as an architect for fifteen years, in New York. While I was working there, I started photographing the projects that our office was doing, (and) I photographed projects that my friends were doing, and it built that way. In college, I did a semester abroad in Italy, and that was actually the first time I really made pictures with any sort of seriousness. I had a little Cannon film camera, and we traveled all over the country and spent a lot of time in Rome.
It was very exciting to be able to make photographs back then. Now when I think back to how I was making pictures, it was very similar to what I do now – in the sense, that the photographs were made quite slowly, because you are a student and film is expensive. So, you think about every picture you make. The process built like that. In New York when I was working, I was also splitting my time as an architect, and then making pictures on the weekends. I did a couple of classes – for many years, actually – I was taking classes at ICP (International Center for Photography).
I found my real interest in photography only after I did a class on 4×5 – large format photography. That is what really made the whole process of photographing architecture that much more exciting and interesting. I moved back to Delhi (I am from Delhi) in 2013, and switched careers from architecture to photography. So I have just been working as a photographer since then.
Part II – Initial Projects [02:21]
The first project that I worked on was for a wellness retreat in Dehradun, called Vana. They asked me to come initially just to photograph the architecture. Then I actually ended up making almost a dozen trips to Dehradun to photograph for them. I did all sorts of things, and that was a really great learning experience.
As I had returned to Delhi after maybe a 20-year gap (I lived outside the country most of my life), simultaneously, I was looking for ways to explore the city. So I started working on a number of projects – two projects in particular – that were allowing me to explore. One was – I was photographing these little roadside Shrines; these little Dargahs, one in particular that was near Bappanagar in Delhi, really caught my interest, and that led to others.
I was using them as a way to explore the city. As you are driving around, you see something and you return and make some photographs of it. These were all being done on large format. I also started photographing a nallah that runs through my neighbourhood in Defence Colony. It is the Barapullah Nallah. There is an old Mughal era Bridge on it, closer to the Yamuna – it is called the Barapullah Bridge.
I started following the nallah from the source, which is a parking lot right next to Kanpur. It disappears underneath the parking lot. I do not know where the water is coming from. At this point it is all sewage, but it was a naturally occurring stream (at one point). I followed it from the south in Kanpur all the way up, past Saketh, GK, Panchsheel Park and Defence colony, and then past Jawaharlal Nehru stadium and Nizamuddhin and into the river. I just kept making trips up and down the nallah – going into the nallah and photographing (it).
It was a really interesting project to work on. The project itself remains unfinished. I am still thinking about where it goes and what becomes of it. So, both of these two personal projects, as well as the work with Vana – that is how I really got into photographing in the landscape in Delhi, and started making more and more pictures in the city.
One thing led to another. The Barapullah project led to others. One day I photographed a Water Tower that was along the nallah. That reminded me of my thesis in college, which was an urban development project set in Delhi. I remember then, looking at this city map, and it struck me that the map then showed the locations of water towers in the landscape. I always thought that was odd. Who cares where the water tower is? But apparently it was important enough to be included alongside monuments and Government buildings.
All these years later I was using the same map, on an updated version of the book. Again, using them to go and find water towers around the landscape in Delhi and photographing them. That work is more complete and has been shown a couple of times. These projects were really instrumental in developing a process and a habit of making pictures.
Part III – Learnings [05:26]
I think the classes I was taking at ICP were very important, in two ways: One, helping me understand that as a photographer, what do I not want to do, and also what I would like to do. While studying there I did classes in portraiture and street photography – like Henri Cartier Bresson – you want to go and make these kinds of street photography pictures and I hate it. It is very painful; l do not enjoy doing it at all.
I also learned that I prefer a much more deliberate (and) slow working process. So that is where working with the 4×5 camera and shooting large format and shooting architecture came about. Because the architecture is not going anywhere. It will sit there and wait as long as you feel like you are ready to make a photograph. That slowness, is really important, and that is something that I struggle with when I am moving between two mediums. I do work in shooting film and I shoot digitally as well, and that is something that I struggle with moving between these two mediums, because the digital process is much faster.
There is less time to think, which can be great when you are chasing light and you are trying to do something quickly, but at other times, I find that having the time to think about what you are doing and to move slowly. I prefer it. I find it quite beneficial. I do not know if that is necessarily something specific to New York and different from Delhi, nothing like that. I think it is just in terms of learning the process of the practice and how do go about it.
I think photography – like architecture and design – is a practice. It is a muscle and you have to do it, every day, all the time and keep repeating things. If you do not, you fall out of practice and you forget. I have not done any design work in a long time. If I were to sit down with a piece of paper and draw something and figure something out, analytically – it would take some time. It would be difficult to do.
Something that one of my professors at ICP, when we were talking about projects and thinking about what to photograph – like subject matter – said, got stuck in my mind. He said, ‘try and find subject matter that nobody else has photographed’. Which is quite difficult in this day and age, but as an architect and a photographer working with architecture in India, especially, the field seems wide open. I mean very few people are looking at the built environment, outside of commissioned projects. An architect hires you to photograph this building, you go photograph that building and that is it. I really wish there were more photographers, who are looking at the environment that they live in, like the neighbourhoods, the homes, all the stuff that is being built around you.
For me, being in Delhi is significant. Delhi, as a capital city, has a lot of modernist architecture that has been built pre-Independence and post-independence which has more or less been ignored. Things were photographed back when they were built, by Madan Mahatta, usually. Over the years it has been a slow process of figuring out how to think about it, and how to gain access to the buildings and how to photograph them, and how to think about that. I think that process is very much ongoing and I suspect that I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how to photograph things. That should be something that needs to evolve and change overtime.
Chapter 02: PROCESS [09:02]
Part I – Method [09:06]
Wherever I can, looking at drawings is really the first step. For example, even (when) I was photographing the water towers, I was looking at aerial footage – Google Earth images of water towers and trying to understand what was happening around it (and) what was in the neighbourhood. Photographing CPWD architecture was the same, and with commissioned work, and with my own projects. It really starts with drawings and trying to understand the building on some level through drawings. Again, my education as an architect predisposes me to want to look at drawings and understand things through drawing.
Then it is really about visiting the site and allowing the experience to guide you. I allow the experiences to guide me. And (you) work your way around it. I tend not to be too scripted when I am making pictures. So I usually do not have a defined list of ten frames (that) I know I am going to make through the day. But, I do understand how the Sun is moving, (and) I understand what is important in the building and what is not as important. Then I allow it to shape myself. Hence, the process for me is more intuitive. It is less intellectual.
Part II – Collaboration [10:24]
With Architects, it is obviously a little different. So far (it) has mostly been commissioned work. Some people contact me if they have completed a building and we will go and make pictures of it. Again that process involves conversations, looking at drawings. If a site visit is possible that is always great. It has not always been possible. Quite often there isn’t a whole lot of time to make the pictures because the clients are moving in.
That process works a little differently because usually in those kinds of projects, I am sending the architect lots of photographs to look at. Then we work together on editing it down to a smaller set, and then those will become the final selection. I have photographed a number of projects by Studio Lotus. I photographed a couple of projects for vir.mueller architects as well. I have done some work for Architecture BRIO. All three of them produce some really interesting work and nice projects. I have (also) done some work for Morphogenesis.
Rather than producing the standard set of documentary photographs of a building, I am more interested in something that is a little bit more analytical, (and) looking at the building in a more analytical way. Which is not necessarily what an architect is looking for, and I understand it. I was an architect, (so) I get it. You want your project documented in a particular way that matches your vision of it. I have had architects go as far as giving me SketchUp renderings and prescribe the view.
I am more interested in something more analytical, and that may reveal things about the building that the architect may not really be interested in. Very often, the architects want the glossy dust shot – sunsetting, colorful. It may be beautiful – do not get me wrong. I think it is lovely, but it can be a bit limiting when that is all that comes out of it. There have been other projects that have been looser.
The making of the photograph when you are there is really step two, of a much longer process. Step one is Research. Step two is (that) you go there and you make a picture. And then step three is where you print, and edit. Step four is – whether it is going in an exhibition or going in the book. There are a whole number of steps in the process. I think as a photographer this has been important for my own learning – of course, you have to make the picture. No picture, means nothing is happening. But, it is an intermediary step along the way. There are many pictures that just sit on my hard drive, or sit on the negatives and never make it anywhere.
I have only collaborated with one artist – Seher, who is my wife. The two of us have been working together for a number of years, and most recently, the big project that we have been working on is something called ‘Studies In Form‘. It is a large series of cyanotype prints, that we actually spent all lockdown finishing. There were 600 prints that we had to make, which is insanely difficult task. So between the two of us, I think we have been working together for many, many years on many, many different things. But, this project in particular was really interesting because through lots of conversation and trial and error, the project emerged to be something that is exploring these overlaps between architecture, photography, drawing and printmaking; Thinking about how these things all overlap, and what is the space that exists between these overlaps. Cyanotypes and blueprints, sit right in the middle of this little thing really nicely. And it is like a constant process between two of us and the things that we work on together. So the process is a little different that way.
Chapter 03: CURATING EXHIBITIONS [14:16]
Part I – Studies In Form [14:24]
I will talk about it first with ‘Studies In Form’, because I think that it is a really big project. Seher was invited to produce a project for the Dhaka Art Summit, and we went to Bangladesh and we looked at the exhibition space. In conversation, we decided to try and develop this idea of cyanotypes and to use them as a way to enter a conversation about – as I mentioned earlier – about architecture, photography, drawing and printmaking. We had been documenting modernist architecture for some time. So the ‘Studies In Form’ project has a number of different chapters and each chapter looks at a different building. We had already been photographing some of these buildings in the UK, and India and Japan. We had this archive, and it was working with this archive to create these projects.
Then it was a very lengthy process of going back and forth to write the text for it. And the text is something that continues to evolve over time, and the project itself is something that is ongoing. We will be adding chapters to it at some point later, and it is conceivable that with new chapters that the text will change. So when we exhibited the work in Dhaka, it was exhibited very much like – the work is pinned up on the wall. So it was very informal (like a crit). The work was pinned up on the wall and each chapter was meshed in with the one next to it. It was like one continuous, blue line of a hundred and twenty seven cyanotypes.
We then exhibited the work a second time – a whole new set of prints, but the same project – a second time in Dubai at the Jameel Art Center and there everything was framed, and it was exhibited very differently. Each chapter was in a grid format, and there was white space between each chapter. It lent itself to a slightly different interpretation. It was very interesting for us to see the work that way as well, because we do not have a wall big enough in a house, or in our studios to put up a hundred twenty-seven prints (it is too big). The only space we can actually see everything together has been in these exhibition spaces. Seeing the work up on the wall then has this feedback into how we are writing about it, and how we are thinking about it. It has been this loop or back-and-forth between these aspects.
Part II – Water Towers [16:57]
Some of the other projects like the Water Towers project – it started as just a general interest. I am interested in this object that sits in the landscape. Therefore, I wanted to go and explore these objects, and it allowed me as I mentioned earlier, this way to explore the city, and to visit neighbourhoods in areas that I would simply have no reason to go to. The writing about it, and thinking about it, and then coming up with how to show the work, came later. And, thinking about questions such as, ‘What does this mean? What is of interest to me in this process and in this project?’ That came later.
The work was shown initially at the Pondy PHOTO Festival a few years ago, and it was exhibited in a line – in groups of three. Then it was shown again in Dubai at the Ishara Art Foundation, and there it was shown in grids. There are 27 prints and they are shown in three groupings of 9. The groupings of nine allowed me to create conversations between prints, between photographs. Each set had a relationship. So it allowed me to create a different conversation around the work, which was quite interesting to see, because I had not necessarily considered (the work) that way.
Part III – IIT, Delhi [18:14]
Most recently photographs of IIT Delhi where shown at a gallery – at PHOTOINK – in Delhi. That particular process was a design intended to be conversation between two photographers. That was the project. It was Madan Mahatta’s photographs from the 60s, and then a contemporary perspective on the same building. It was very important to avoid a ‘before and after’ – this is what it looked like then, and look at how bad it is now approach. That was not the point at all and of course, concrete architecture in particular does not age well. It is hard to maintain, it is hard to renovate, and as with most Government institutions, they tend not to be taken care of very well either.
In my photographs, I was not necessarily trying to dig under the skin of the building and indicate things such as the maintenance level. That was not what I was trying to get at. In making the pictures as well as in the curatorial process, I was thinking about what interests me about the building, and the curatorial process was about putting my photographs together with Madan’s and creating a narrative of the building that was interesting. I do not think at any point, we even have two pictures of the same space adjacent to each other in the exhibition. The exhibition itself was – the photographs were printed in a range of different sizes, his of course were black-and-white, mine were in colour and they were exhibited in a very free-flowing way.
Consequently, it lent itself to a conversation between photographs, and that is what I think was interesting about it. What happens when you put a photograph next to another one? What is the dialogue over there? What is the dialogue, from this side of the room to the other side of the room? Riyaz Tayyibji wrote a lovely essay for it, which is in the book, and he reflects on (the) building and its history as well as Madan’s photographs and my photographs, and how they come together and the nature of this dialogue.
In that sense, it was quite (an) interesting process and is quite unique. It was intended to be this kind of conversation between them.
Chapter 04: DISCOVERIES [20:26]
Part I – Consistency [20:34]
What I have learned is (that) it is better to allow lots of time to do something. Nothing can happen in a short amount of time. As long as you are willing to give it time and just keep applying pressure, things usually get done. Funding remains a challenge in all these projects. Everything costs money, and you need to figure out how you are going to pay for these things.
Quite frankly, I think the biggest challenge is just making sure you go out there and do the work. It may be the middle of summer in August, and it may be 45 degrees outside with five hundred percent humidity, and you may really not want to go. I think recognising the importance to go out there and make the work, and then to persist with it and to keep doing it, every day – That, I think is the single most important thing – to just go out there and do it, every day.
I think different photographers work differently. I think some people like to work – there will be a two-week period when it is very consistent, every day, eight hours a day of shooting and then you take a break and look at your work over a period of time. Some photographers work a little bit every day. I am still trying to figure out where I fall. I am not quite sure, but I think having that practice and, exactly what I mean by practice – that you really do the same thing everyday, repeated over and over and over again. I think that is very important. And that is the hardest part of it for me.
Part II – Passion Projects [22:12]
I will take a little step back and just talk about the lockdown period. The forced pause during the lockdown was very beneficial in allowing room and space to think about what it is that I want to do with my life. What is the direction that I would like my career to go in, and to be a little bit more deliberate about it. I feel that has sort of clarified that I would really like to continue to only photograph things that I am specifically interested in, where I am the driving force behind it. It is not that I am saying I am not going to do commission work. That is not the intention at all. Rather, my interest is in pursuing my own projects and self-initiated projects. I think the most exciting things that I have worked on in the seven years or so that I have been in Delhi, have been projects that have been self-initiated. Whether it has been the Barapullah Nallah project, or the cyanotype project ‘Studies In Form’, or the Water Towers or working on the IIT Delhi project – while it was a commission, it very much falls into my area of interest already. I am already interested in modernist architecture and I am already pursuing it. I am already photographing CPWD housing.
I am working on a book project right now that I hope to have done soon. Let us see how long that takes. Generally, I have been working on documenting our built heritage. I think if I can just do that, I am pretty happy with that. For me, it is not really about a passion project. This is just what I want to do in my life and there are other things that I may have to do because I have to make a living, which is fine.
I do feel that there is a way to have all these things work out and to find a route through it. I think living and working in India does give you some space to do these things.
Part III – Monochromes [24:17]
Maybe this is something that is coming out of the lockdown time. A lot of my work in the past, the last seven – eight years or so has been in colour, but I have done smaller projects like the Igualada Book, for example – that has been in black and white.
As I am photographing more architecture and thinking about it, I feel like I want to distill things down a little bit more. Hélène Binet actually spoke about how the human eye responds to form and colour. I think what she said is that the first thing that eye takes in, is a black and white image of the form – its shadow and light, and then the colour information only comes later. Colour is very powerful and it tends to saturate – literally – everything, and it can change your understanding of a photograph quite dramatically.
As it is, the relationship between the photograph, as a two-dimensional object, and the building, or the three-dimensional space is tenuous. I think photography plays a trick on us, where we tend to believe that, that is the real thing. But it is not – the photograph is not the building, it is not anything like the real thing. It is a completely separate thing, and it already has some abstraction built into it. Depending on how you use the camera and lenses, you can further that abstraction in many different ways. So black-and-white allows a kind of distillation of the built form, and allows for a different kind of understanding of the architecture. That is just something that is resonating more, at least with me in the way I am seeing things and the way I am looking at things. Also my wife’s work – Seher’s work – is almost entirely in black-and-white and that is also obviously very influential in the way of looking at things.
I expect that, few years down the line, your interest changes and your eye sees things differently and your mental state is different, and you want to look at things differently, that is the way it should be.
Chapter 05: EPILOGUE [26:44]
Part I – Design Education [26:52]
A good architecture education, in my opinion, is an education that is teaching you how to think, and how to think about design and space. It is not teaching you how to make a museum, or an apartment building, or an office, or a house. You learn that stuff when you get a job, but having the analytical tools to be able to think about these things – I think that is the most important thing.
The same thing applies to photography in general. I do not think it is necessary to distinguish between photography and architecture photography, per se. I went to an architecture school, and then I took a lot of informal classes in photography and now I have ended up as an architectural photographer. Or I call myself that – somebody else may disagree with my description of myself, which is totally fine.
I think the teaching of it needs to be something that is rooted in teaching you how to think as a human being, and less about ‘this is f-stop’, and ‘this is a tilt shift lens ‘- the nuts and bolts of it is not that difficult to learn you can pick it up pretty easily, but understanding space and understanding, the way we think about these things analytically is harder. Understanding the history of it, those things are important. I would say the emphasis should be much more on that end, rather than on technical aspects of it, which I am sure is important too, but it is easy.
Part II – The Democratisation of Photography [28:21]
About the question of cell phones and the ubiquity of the camera – I think the nature of photography obviously changes, because there are just so many of these devices everywhere. When photography first started off, it required, huge, truck-sized, equipment that you had to bring with you everywhere and to make these pictures. Going from that to a cell phone that everybody has in their pocket, the nature of the image changes. Of course as as individuals today, we are exposed to so many more images than anybody has been in.
The nature of the image has changed, and at least in my mind – I like to distinguish between the image and the photograph. The image is something that you will get on your phone and on your screen – Instagram is full of images. But I think the photograph is like a physical thing. I think that the physicality of it is really very important. Yes your photograph can exist on your screen as well, I work digitally and I work with film – but I think it is important not to lose sight of the physicality of it. That the photograph is printed on a piece of paper that has a certain thickness to it, has a texture to it, and it can be produced in many different ways. This desire to return to the physicality of the process, to do things by hand was one of the impetuses behind the whole cyanotype project; wanting to print – make physical prints by hand. I think the photographer is someone that works with this physical medium in some way, and thinks about it in in some way. I think as all of us do with our cell phones, we take lots of pictures without thinking about them at all, which is fine. I will use the phone to document things that I see around me. I will use it as a note-taking device. I will take pictures of things to remind myself or something, and cell phones have had a massive impact on the way society is changing around us.
Whether it is footage coming from the farmers protests outside Delhi or the CAA protest, or from the Black Lives Matter protests – all this footage that is coming out from these phones is absolutely critical, and I am not one to judge and say this person is a photographer, and that person is not a photographer – no. But to me, I think being a photographer is much more about how you are thinking about photography, and not at all really about the camera that you are using. So you can be a photographer and you can use a cell phone, or you can be a photographer and you can use like an 8×10, polaroid camera. Both are equally photographers because of the way you are thinking about your approach to the work.
To just return to this idea of the photograph, as something printed: I suppose there are lots of photographers whose work stays within the digital realm, and that is totally valid as well. So, I would kind of distinguish it at that point. It is really about how you are thinking about it. Without being prescriptive because, who am I to say?
Images: ©Randhir Singh
Born 1976 in New Delhi, Randhir Singh received his Bachelor of Architecture and Bachelor of Science degrees from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York in 1999. He spent fifteen years working in New York at award winning architecture and design firms. In 2013, he moved to New Delhi to develop his photographic practice focusing on architecture and urbanism.
His most recent project “IIT Delhi: A Modernist Case Study” is a two person show with the late Madan Mahatta exploring the role of the photographer in relationship to architecture, history and time. Exhibited at Photoink in 2020, the modernist site of the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, built between 1961-1968, is viewed through the vantage points of Mahatta’s stark and heroic buildings, and Singh’s contemporary perspective six decades later drawing in issues of inhabitation and architectural materiality. The exhibition is accompanied by a forthcoming publication with an essay by architect and writer, Riyaz Tayyibji, reflecting on the photographs and articulating the dialogue between the photographers♦
On Photography is a series of conversations with photographers of different contexts, discussing the various ideologies behind capturing a meaningful photograph.