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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Here, there, and everywhere

Dayanita Singh’s images ask the viewer to write their captions

The images in Dayanita Singh’s exhibit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum are all 24-by-24 inches and only framed, not matted. The images in Dayanita Singh’s exhibit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum are all 24-by-24 inches and only framed, not matted.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / March 13, 2011

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The old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words assumes a constant image-and-text exchange rate. Dayanita Singh conceives of the relationship as more of a barter system. While she provides the photographs, the verbal part of the transaction is all up to the viewer.

None of the 39 pictures in “House of Love: Photographic Fiction, Dayanita Singh’’ has a caption. The show runs through Sept. 5 at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Neither is any matted, though all have frames. Looking at them is like gazing through small windows (the photographs are 24 inches by 24 inches). Those windows open up on worlds — on stories — we can see easily enough but have to struggle to explain. In her own words, Singh presents “truth inextricable from fiction that functions sometimes like music and sometimes like literature.’’

One picture, for example, shows two men in a comfortable room filled with soft natural light. One man sits, the other lies down. They’re looking into each other’s eyes. Are they lovers? Brothers? Colleagues? Analyst and analysand? A reproduction of Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring’’ hangs on the wall behind them, the inscrutability of her gaze defying us to arrive at some understanding.

Singh’s fondness for opacity can be visual as well as verbal. The house referred to in the show’s title is the Taj Mahal. It figures in several photographs — though in all but one it takes the form of figurine or souvenir. Those simulacra suggest Singh’s fondness for upending expectations. That fondness can relate to form as well as content. Half of the pictures are black and white, yet Singh has lighted them so dramatically they almost feel as though they’re in color.

At her most straightforward, Singh can still remain elusive. Her pictures are not so much mysterious (no murky focus or concealed corners for her) as they are unforthcoming. What you see is both what you get and what you wonder about. Even when she shows her subjects close up, it’s as if we see them from afar — with a slightly eerie detachment. The fact that all the exteriors are nocturnal further contributes to that eeriness.

Three old-fashioned alarm clocks sit in a battered display case that’s centered askew in the frame. A white horse stands in the middle of a city street. A frond of leaves conceals the head of a statue — the juxtaposition of green vegetation and white stone adding a further layer of obscuration. A gilded automobile has even its windows and tires painted over, like an internal-combustion version of Shirley Eaton, in “Goldfinger.’’

Born in 1961, Singh is Indian. Many of the photographs in “House of Love’’ come from her native land. Others come from England, Germany, Korea. The point of one sequence in the show, “Continuous Cities,’’ is how national distinctions evaporate in our postmodern world. A city is a city is a city. When Marx and Engels declared “All that is solid melts into air,’’ little did they realize that it was culturally that their words would be borne out rather than economically or politically.

These pictures are like stills for a silent movie for which you write the title cards. The more you look at them the more you see. No, that’s not quite right, actually. The more you look at them, the more you imagine.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

HOUSE OF LOVE: PHOTOGRAPHIC FICTION, DAYANITA SINGH

At: the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, through Sept. 5. 617-496-1027, www.peabody.harvard.edu