It was in November 2015 that William Dalrymple had written the text for a collection of Steve McCurry’s photographs on India. Less than four months later, Dalrymple has come out with his own book of photographs — a suite of black and white images, published by HarperCollins, and titled The Writer’s Eye.
The photographs are the results of the writer-historian’s travels over the past 18 months — ranging from “Leh to Lindisafarne, from the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs across the rolling hills south of Sienna”, as he mentions in an introduction to The Writer’s Eye.
While Dalrymple has been known over the past two decades for his books, like White Mughals, Nine Lives and City of Djinns, his foray into photography is not a departure from his oeuvre. Rather, it is a return to his roots.
Dalrymple’s interest in photography began very early on — at the age of seven, in fact, which was when he got his first camera, a tiny Kodak. The writer says that in a sense, photography was “in his blood” — his great-great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron was a noted photographer in the 19th century. Dalrymple has described sifting through the portraits she shot, as a child, and being impressed by them. But his own photographs as a young man were influenced by Don McCullin, Faye Godwin, Bill Brandt, and of course, Bruce Chatwin.
“(Theirs) were the images that influenced me,” says Dalrymple. “These dark, grainy, alienated landscapes. I do like these very black, anthracite skies; velvety landscapes.”
Dalrymple's photos are also being exhibited at Sunaparanta: Goa Centre for the Arts, the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi and in June, at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. He admits that photography engages a very different part of him, as compared to writing.
“When you’re writing, you’re thinking about something intensely. It’s a very considered act. You edit, re-edit. Photography is about capturing something in the instant; if you’re a second late, it passes. It doesn’t come from an intellectual part of the brain… With writing you’re definitely out to say something. It’s an intellectual act. Photography is far more instantaneous, spontaneous. It’s a different process,” Dalrymple says.
While Dalrymple was shooting throughout his early adulthood (he saved up to buy a Contax 35 mm camera at the age of 15, and even developed his own photos in the darkroom), writing eventually took over photography as his “primary creative outlet”. Incidentally, it was a review for an exhibition of Faye Godwin’s photos that led Dalrymple, then a student at Cambridge, into journalism and writing.
But now that he has returned to photography after so many years, he is still drawn to similar images. “I’m finding amazing continuities (between the photographs I took then and now),” Dalrymple says. “It’s like rediscovering a part of me.” Does that also mean he’s now constantly looking at the world through a figurative lens, seeking out the perfect frame in every vista? “Yes, when you’re fixated by photography and are in the headlights of it, you do start looking at landscapes with a view to capturing photographs. You’re like a hunter in a way, on the lookout for prey,” he says.
His choice of camera now is his trusty Samsung cellphone, which he has previously said is much more convenient than lugging around a bulky SLR. Does that also mean making compromises in the kinds of photographs he wants to take? Dalrymple, who has been hanging up photographs all afternoon in preparation for his exhibition in Goa, says using a cellphone camera has had its benefits and disadvantages: “You do lose things (image quality) which wouldn’t happen if you were using a DSLR or large format camera. I’m not using a wide angle lens. You can’t work in low light, can’t work at high speed… but in a way, it’s good because you aren’t worrying about shutter speed. You always have your weapon with you. SLR images would have been sharper, larger, but there is an immediacy and suddenness to using a cellphone camera.”
Now that he has “rediscovered” it, Dalrymple doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to put his photography on the backburner again. “I should be working on my next big book – a history of how the East India Company took over India. But for two weeks now I’ve been travelling and my wife pointed out that I’ve been taking more photographs than writing,” he admits. “So photography is going to be a wonderful distraction.”