Poetic photography of the bestselling author, William Dalrymple

The Historian’s Eye tells a visual tale of the travels and encounters of Dalrymple, exploring a whole new dimension of his creative expression.

by Rahul Kumar Published on : Jun 23, 2020

Author. Historian. Photographer. Co-founder of the largest literary festival. William Dalrymple is all this and more, rolled into one. For Dalrymple, photography has been his first love that formed an artistic outlet since his youth. While his approach is intuitive and instinctive, his aesthetics create a unique emotion of the overlap and continuum of past and present. The images are often poetic, yet narrative, oscillating between history and reality.

The Historian’s Eye is a selection of photographs taken by Dalrymple during his travels while researching for his books. The images are not controlled and staged. They most often depict rawness and wonderment in the mundane. “I have been visiting all the places where this history took place – the battlefields and ruins, the mosques, sufi shrines and temples, the paradise gardens and pleasure grounds, the barrack blocks and townhouses, the crumbling Mughal havelis and the palaces and forts,” he says.

I speak to the artist about straddling the two worlds, one that of the frenzy of a monumental festival and in contrast, the calm of his images.

  • Quran Class, Fakhr-ul-Masjid, Kashmiri Gate, Old Delhi | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
    Quran Class, Fakhr-ul-Masjid, Kashmiri Gate, Old Delhi Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery
  • Tipu Sultan’s Madrasa, Srirangapatnam | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
    Tipu Sultan’s Madrasa, Srirangapatnam Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery
Saraswati Puja in Galtaji, near Jaipur | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
Saraswati Puja in Galtaji, near Jaipur Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

Running of a literary festival involves programming, inviting authors to speak, and everything that goes in between. For most parts this involves me sitting in my office and thinking things through. But the role of an author and photographer work very well together. This is almost like a circular process – when I read about something, I want to visit it to research more. And this passion to travel links very well with my interest in photography.

The Capital, Timgad, Algeria | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
The Capital, Timgad, Algeria Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery
Qasr Ghardaia, in the Algerian Sahara | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
Qasr Ghardaia, in the Algerian Sahara Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

Painting a visual image on page or taking a picture: both emerge from my love for history and travel that takes me to places where I find stories and see photographs. They engage different parts of brains. I don’t plan photographs. They are visually-led. I visit someplace because I am writing about it, but photographs are a visual response, using my eyes, not my brain or even heart. It involves lining things up in such a way that they are attractive and encapsulating. There is an intellectual element too around planning where to go, but it is a very different process to see a photograph before it is clicked, to know what you want to capture, and to manipulate the perspective and direction of your camera. This is layered with methodology to edit and process the picture and frame it.

  • The Siddi Boumediene Mosque | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
    The Siddi Boumediene Mosque Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery
  • Solah Khamba Masjid, Bidar Fort, Bidar | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
    Solah Khamba Masjid, Bidar Fort, Bidar Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery
Dawn over Skardu, Pakistan I | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
Dawn over Skardu, Pakistan I Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

Photography is very different from facing a blank screen and trying to create a literary image with words. While you may edit a photograph, the essence is capturing something in that millisecond. It is a frozen moment. While in writing, much of the art is in re-writing. And in that sense, it is more like sculpting, you start with something and refine it until it feels right. Almost nothing that is eventually printed is as it is first written. It’s a lot of hard work to chisel away the excess and perfecting it. In creation of stories, it really couldn’t be a more different process than an instant sensation of photography.

Heading Home, Shyok Gorges, Pakistan | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
Heading Home, Shyok Gorges, Pakistan Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery
Jantar Mantar, Delhi | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
Jantar Mantar, Delhi Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

What you photograph, cumulatively adds up to the biography of the photographer. It is telling of the things that you are interested in, your obsessions – things you want to capture are reflections of who you are. But you are not consciously creating biographical images. My images are an instant response to a visual stimulus. I see something, I am attracted to it…an avenue of trees, a landscape, a beautiful face or a fascinating ruin lit in a particular way in a particular moment…and I capture it. It is generally not an intellectual thing. It is a response to visual. I do not layer it with the intellectual or the idea of recording my life.

  • Sleeping off Durga Puja, Kumortoli, Calcutta | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
    Sleeping off Durga Puja, Kumortoli, Calcutta Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery
  • Durga Puja, Calcutta | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
    Durga Puja, Calcutta Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery
Bass Rock, Scotland | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
Bass Rock, Scotland Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

I do think it helps when the viewers know what they are looking at, but it is not essential. I feel a photograph should stand on its own. With my first book of photographs there were no captions at all, and people were accepting of it, and in contrast in second book I felt people would be interested to know what they are seeing, so I gave full captions.

The Jehangiri Mahal, Orchha | The Historian’s Eye | William Dalrymple | STIRworld
The Jehangiri Mahal, Orchha Image Credit: William Dalrymple, Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

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About Author

Rahul Kumar

Rahul Kumar

Rahul has written for various publications and leading journals like Arts Illustrated and Mint-Lounge. He led an art venture for NDTV and was involved in its television programming. He is a Fulbright scholar and a practising artist. Rahul retired from mainstream corporate roles and as an Editor for STIR, he is responsible for curating the Art section.

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