Scottish author and historian William Dalrymple took a break after his last book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (2012), and travelled for 18 months to remote regions around the globe. In the process, he rediscovered his passion for black-and-white photography, using a simple camera phone. The result is the book, The Writer’s Eye, published by Harper Collins India. A selection of these photographs was recently shown at Sunaparanta-Goa Centre for the Arts in Panjim and Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, and is coming to the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in June. ForbesLife India spoke to the 51-year-old Dalrymple about donning a photographer’s hat, and found that he wears it as comfortably as he wields his pen. Edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q. These photos, they are the result of the many journeys undertaken after your last book.
After a book, I often spend at least a year on the road, doing travel journalism, decompressing. It’s a very nice antidote to the slog of a big book. And it is a real slog—the nearest writing ever comes to being serious work is when you are doing an 800-page history on something, with the notes and references and piles of card indexes. I am always totally exhausted at the end of one of those long projects. After my last book, I was wandering around, from Leh to Lindisfarne (an island off the north-eastern coast of England), from the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs (a range of hills in southern Scotland), and across the rolling hills south of Siena (in Italy) and the deserts of Iran, writing small stories in the dark.
Q. It seems almost as though you had merely taken a break to write before returning to photography, an abiding interest since your teens.
It’s my first love that I’ve come back to. Up till now it’s been about writing text for other photographers… for Prabuddha Dasgupta, Raghu Rai, others too, the new Steve McCurry book… one for David Bailey’s book on Delhi, for Karen Knorr’s India Song series (I love her work!) for which I got a lovely print in return. I always ask for payment in kind rather than cash, so we have a collection enhancing our rooms. It’s a lovely negotiation!
Q. You didn’t start out thinking in any way that these pictures were going to become a book.
At no point. These were genuinely taken just out of things that inspired me, things that I thought were beautiful, that looked strange and interesting. And there were no overriding philosophical points to prove. I mean, in the past, I have taken pictures with a view to illustrating a travel book. But these were emphatically not taken with a view to publication or exhibition. All that happened entirely through the intervention of (author) Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi who happened to see these images (the curator of the book and exhibition).
These were trips that were being done for their own sake, often not even that. I’d just put these photos up on Facebook. I got this new enthusiasm for my Samsung phone and I suddenly realised I have a really good little camera. And I used Snapseed suite, a free Google app, to tweak and refine the tonality of the images.
Q. These images are so quiet, so austere.
It’s an aesthetic choice. It works at a visual, emotional level. My life is far from ascetic [points around]. There’s a bottle of wine here, I like to live life; I am no hermit in the desert.
Q. But these images are from places of the sacred, of light…
That’s an abiding theme in my writing, certainly. That’s probably because my family are borderline Catholic fundamentalists. I have a brother and an uncle who are Catholic priests. I am personally not that religious at all. [But] I come from a background where faith is essential to people’s lives. And while you can reject faith, it can never be unimportant to you if you’re brought up in that milieu. You can totally throw it out the window but it is still part of the lens through which you see life… it’s something that they can’t quite get rid of. And, certainly, religion seems to come into all my books, I mean most obviously, I suppose in From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1997) and Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009), which are overtly about religion, but in the other books too…
Q. Your photos reveal a certain mastery in execution, in the choice of a classic, formalist composition and attention to light. It reminds me of the great British photographers.
I love Bill Brandt. And also Fay Godwin. Not well known here in India... she’s gone now but was a fantastic landscape photographer, worked a lot with writers, with Ted Hughes particularly. I remember one of the very first photographic books I really got excited about in the school library. I must’ve been 13 or 14. It was Remains of Elmet (1979). Elmet was a brief-lived Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the 8th century in what’s now the West Yorkshire moors. It’s where Hughes lived. And he wrote poems about the landscape and Fay photographed them. It was more or less where I went to school, with a similar landscape and I was thinking ‘Oh, if I’d only be able to photograph like that’. They were dark, moody prints.
Q. You have a legacy too. Your great-great aunt was Julia Margaret Cameron, the greatest photographer of the 19th century! I read about you poring through her photographic albums in your youth.
Julia was great, she was bonkers! She was Virginia Woolf’s aunt, and Virginia wrote a very funny essay about her. Among her four sisters who were all incredibly beautiful, Julia Margaret Cameron was an unusually ugly one. She was this bossy woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Her sister Sara Prinsep had a grand literary salon in London. They were all Anglo-Indian with this dark Bengali exotic looks (all of them were born in Calcutta). Julia would take [Lord Alfred] Tennyson, put tinsel in his hair, make him pose as King Arthur, sit in a boat, recite his own poems to illustrate ‘Idylls of the King’. And it wasn’t always grand or famous people. She’d take passers-by and make them pose with a sword and a shield, representing freedom or liberty.
Q. Coming back to this picture (on Page 1), all those patterns of gridded light poring into the arched dark interiors…
It was a tricky one, with the light. It was a panoramic shot, starting with the archway and panning all the way to the left. I couldn’t get it right, it wasn’t working. I must’ve taken about a hundred versions of that shot before I got the one that worked perfectly.
Q. Writers tend to get impatient with photographers who wait on a scene to get that perfect shot.
It can’t happen otherwise. Look at this image (above); the chair is perfect in that pool of light. That was a lucky capture. Then there’s this one that took a great deal of effort and many failures. There was a dome up there and I couldn’t get that in to work.
All the photographs with the women in black and arches were taken in two days in Iran, in Yazd and Isfahan. Yazd is like the Jaisalmer of Iran; it’s out in the desert beyond everything else. It’s the last stop. And it’s wild and hot and bleak… it was a big Zoroastrian centre until recently.
You can’t get around on your own in Iran with a British passport except in a group. So three or four travel writers and I got together, we were all writing competing stories and I was taking photographs [laughs].
Q. When a writer and a photographer look at a landscape, they don’t see the same thing. A writer imposes his imagination with a memory of the past associated with that place. Whereas the photographer sees what’s in front for what it is because that’s what will show in a photo. How do you deal with that?
I was travelling with other writers. And at that particular point, I was more interested in photography. For once, I was in your shoes, as the photographer holding everyone else up, while they were eagerly, and anxiously, taking notes.
I was in Nagaland last month. My wife says she could see me in a state of confusion because I couldn’t make up my mind whether to pick up my notebook or the camera. And it’s very difficult to do both. Which takes priority? You are taking someone’s interview, and they strike an interesting pose and you drop your notebook!
Q. Especially when you see those gestures and see meaning in it.
There is a conflict… I’ve been in both situations: I’ve been a photographer among writers and a writer with a photographer. I used to travel a lot with Pablo [Bartholomew], we were great mates when I first came here. In the late ’80s and the early ’90s; I did a lot of magazine work with him and we did many trips together. Me writing, him taking the images, we were a package. We used to pitch ideas together. Now he’s gotten very grand, doing retrospectives!
Q. For Raghu Rai to use an image by you on the cover of the inaugural issue of Creative Image, his magazine, is an acknowledgement.
He’s a good friend, and he said, ‘You’ve got to be there for the launch. This is my big magazine, don’t you dare miss it’. He put emotional pressure on me to attend. I knew my pictures were going to be in the magazine but I didn’t know they were on the cover.
Q It’s a lovely image (left). Where’s it from?
One of my favourites is taken in Lindisfarne, a marshland off the coast of Northumberland in England. This is a holy island, a centre of Celtic Christianity, with a monastery; it’s a very famous spiritual centre. Twice a day the water comes in and cuts the access from the mainland. We happened to arrive at this moment with the water covering the road. My friend’s dog walked across the road as it was being submerged. When I took a picture and turned to the side, there was this perfect reflection. That’s the nicest print in the show.
Q. You mentioned somewhere about the light in South India, how you couldn’t get many images from the south into the show…
I was back in Scotland last week for my father’s 90th birthday party. I was taking pictures on one day but I got five really nice exhibitable shots. Compare that to this long trip I did around the south [India] following Andal, the Tamil poetess. I got some lovely text but not one top-class image.
Q. Was it something to do with the light or the topography of the land?
I know how to photograph bleak landscapes, and I don’t know how to photograph tropical landscapes. It’s not something I’ve learnt to do.
Q. These photos are so elemental, so pared down to the nature’s basic essentials—a rock here, a tree there. Are you like that as a person?
There are different sides to one’s character. When I’m in Delhi, I’m quite sociable in the evenings, but I spend my holidays walking. I am a walker, and that was very much my childhood, walking the moors, out on the hills, alone with the camera; that’s where my travel books came from, I suppose. I think if you’re alone with a history book, the urge in the evening to get out and talk to other people is overwhelming because you’re living with dead people all day! But if you’re a travel writer, you’re out there on your own anyway—a solitary figure in the landscape, with your notebook, your camera phone, taking your time.