MARC RIBOUD is one of the most remarkable photojournalists of the 20th century. He is a poet of the camera without intending to be one. He is the most celebrated French photographer of the 1950s, that of the post-Cartier-Bresson generation. Tasveer, an Indian organisation devoted to photography, held a show of his works from April 1 to 10 at Gallery Art Motif, New Delhi.
It was a small exhibition with two 1953 pictures from Paris, two from the British Museum, London; a haunting one of a boy drying himself by a large tank in a temple complex in Angkor, Cambodia (1969); and the rest mostly from his visits to Nepal, India, Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan in 1956. The latest picture included is one taken in Shanghai, China, in 2002, with a distinct surreal flavour.
Ribouds photographs reflect a variety of moods and, when required, the ability to compose complicated visual elements with amazing grace. In this respect he equals his senior Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose mastery of visual geometry in 35mm candid photography remains unchallenged to this day. But Ribouds goals are different from that of Cartier-Bresson. Modest to a fault, he is first and foremost delighted to connect with the people he has photographed and those who see them published in a magazine or occasionally in exhibitions. He has never regarded himself as an artist but became one by temperament and a lifetime of achievement.
Musing about his metier, he has observed: Rather than a profession, photography has always been a passion for me, a passion closer to an obsession.
His pictures have compassion, sometimes wit of both varieties, gentle and cracking. There is, to state the obvious, a search beyond recording, perhaps for the elusive; an acknowledgement of the will-of-the-wisp quality of life itself. Take, for instance, a 1956 photograph taken somewhere in Iran. It is a vertical composition with a tortoise crossing the road from left to right in the foreground. At the back is a darkish car driving away, in the middle ground and beyond it is the outline of hills.
Seen today, it seems to encapsulate the destiny of 20th-century Iran. There is an incongruity in the elements that constitute the picture. One can be quite sure that Riboud had not thought out his image. It happened to present itself to him and his athletes reflexes made it possible. To those who are politically oriented, Irans repeatedly thwarted attempts to attain modernity may be seen in this innocent picture.
Irans existence as a highly sophisticated civilisation, with its own pantheon of poets, painters and architects and an identity distinct and separate from the Arab Islamic World, was well-known even as the Anglo-Saxon world became aware of its most precious natural resource oil. It was first the British and then the Americans who coveted it. A politically vibrant country would never allow such a presumptuous takeover. Mohammad Mossadegh, a patriot and a highly capable Prime Minister, nationalised the oil industry. Major American oil companies had huge stakes in the Iranian oil industry. The American government, through the Central Intelligence Agency, engineered a military coup in 1953 to overthrow Mossadeghs government and installed Shah Reza Pehlavi, a man with a fake imperial lineage, in his stead (Saga of resistance, Frontline, September 26, 2008). To call him a contradictory progressive would not be wrong. He wanted women to be educated and the sexes to mix freely with each other. The upper classes were the major beneficiaries of his munificence. Those who opposed the Shah faced the wrath of the secret police, SAVAK. Nationalists saw him as an American stooge and erred even more grievously by bringing the rabid cleric Ayatollah Khomeini to power following the Shahs overthrow in 1978. The rest, as they say, is history.
There are two other moving pictures from a 1955 trip to Iran. The first is of two burqa-clad women crossing each other in front of an ornate building. The figure on the left is wearing an off-white garment with polka dots and the one on the right a dark but not black one, with white polka dots. Apart from the visually arresting quality of the composition, there appears to be a subtle feminine statement made, not necessarily ideological.
There is another picture: a vertical one of two little girls, facing left and right respectively, and an even smaller boy in very soft focus, down the frame at right. The focus on the girls is quite acceptably sharp. It captures a mysterious aspect of childhood, which is deeply poetic and which cuts across economic deprivation, and as a glimpse of fleeting childhood links up with a picture of two small girls in their drawers, in the woods somewhere in France, taken in 1953.
Ribouds attitude towards photography is very simple: Beauty is everywhere, as is strangeness, which even came my way in Shanghai last year in the form of a small plastic bag left in the garden of the Mandarin Yu: with its knot forming ears, it looked like a lost little rabbit.
Images come to him through hours of waiting, usually; occasionally they also come quick. A face on a poster with a small diagonal gash on the right eye running slightly down across the bridge of the nose and towards the left ear, taken in Bratislava in 1994, is a singular picture: its impact is as much, if not more, as any taken along the same lines by the American great Walker Evans.
An even more dramatic photograph is the one taken in 2002 in Shanghai through a car windscreen, with a large, angled billboard of a womans startled eyes, her forehead and the bridge of her nose. Aesthetically, it belongs to the Bauhaus School of 1920s Germany, but its wit would please even an Alfred Hitchcock.
Riboud never ceases to spring a surprise. There is a formal composition of the Forbidden City in the old quarter of Peking, or Beijing (1957). The geometrical perfection of the picture, with a descending figure in black on the right, the white of snow in the middle-ground and the lines of the old imperial building bisecting each other, often at right angles, does help to freeze time. It could well be a frame from an old nitrate-based silent film. There is also a deceptively simple 1971 picture of Chairman Maos statue in profile with industrial chimneys billowing smoke in the background.
Then there are two landscapes from 1983, in colour so muted as to be almost monochromatic. Their visual impact is no less than that of any watercolour by a great Chinese classical landscape painter. The China pictures included in this exhibition highlight the countrys position as an ancient culture and also reflect its dilemmas and contradictions as a communist state in the post-modern world.
Ribouds penchant for contradictions is often brought out with droll humour. One example is an elegantly composed vertical shot of a Sikh gentleman with a shaft of vertically slanting light falling behind him in a drab, grey and somewhat intimidating interior of a new building in the just-built city of Chandigarh (1956) and an anonymous shadowy peasant in the middle ground.
A picture of a peasant boy, bare-bodied save for his shorts and an improvised headgear to protect him from the sun and the rain, posing against a giant stone wheel at the Konark Sun Temple is evocative, as is his Calcutta (now Kolkata) picture of a dhoti-clad figure in sleep, with modelled gods and goddesses in clay behind him keeping watch. Two other pictures from the same 1956 trip, of the Calcutta ghats with people in the foreground and boats in the distance, but taken in different light conditions one on a cloudy morning and the other at dusk capture very deftly the literal and metaphorical passing of time.
Two Parisian pictures from 1953 are full of quiet mischief. In the first, a bespectacled Capuchin Nun is awkwardly trying to board a partially seen taxi in an overcast morning; the second is of a precariously balanced workman painting one of the girders of the Eiffel tower with a portion of Paris seen in plunging perspective. This photograph could well be a still out of a Buster Keaton silent comedy.
Ribouds attitude to life and photography has always been celebratory but in a gentle, refined way while remaining energetic. Look at his picture of a vehicle crowded with people driving away from the camera, with the slogan Its Great to be Young painted in white on its back, and one will immediately share his joie-de-vivre. It is a fleeting image of an emerging modern society. The lone man smiling at the camera is, in retrospect, symbolic of Ghana in 1960.
Riboud quotes Walker Evans in empathy thus: The photographer is a joyous sensualist for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings and not in thoughts.
As a photojournalist he has consistently shown respect and love for his subjects over the past 70 years. Whether it is an abstract pattern of a Shanghai bridge with a road-marker in the centre of the frame disappearing dramatically into the distance, or a camel fair in India more than 50 years ago, or a bent old man walking across, one finds in them a photographer, an artist, truly in love with life and conversant with its changing moods. Also testifying to this quality were his photographs of the street in Leeds, England, from the same period, of a pensive young Ravi Shankar tuning his sitar, of a woman offering a flower to the armed-to-theteeth National Guardsman in Washington during an anti-Vietnam war rally, and of a couple silhouetted against a partially seen sky in one of the alcoves of the rigorously geometrical Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.