Shooter who found focus under tyrant

Marc Riboud
July 30, 2004

Fortunate are those individuals who at some point in their lives have encountered - though for not too long - a tyrant." It is an engaging comment from an engaging veteran photographer in a brief statement prefacing this selection of 120 images from a half century of his work, which accompanies an exhibition on show in Paris. Marc Riboud's "salutary tyrant" - from whom he broke free - was Henri Cartier-Bresson. "He told me exactly which books to read, which museums to see, which political opinions to espouse and which pictures to take and not to take. But it was his enthusiasm for life and culture which taught me more than all his lessons."

At a practical level, Cartier-Bresson also invited Riboud to join the recently founded photo agency Magnum in 1952. Within its embrace, he quickly established himself as one of Magnum's leading names, travelling the world in the years before television brought the world into the home and mass tourism allowed people to visit the world for themselves.

One of Riboud's "news" images, that of a young female protester against the Vietnam War holding up a flower in front of the fixed bayonets of a line of helmeted US soldiers guarding the Pentagon from antiwar demonstrators in 1967, has become an icon of the 1960s - rather in the way that one suspects George W. Bush's jaunty "war on terror" soundbite-cum-golf-swing in Fahrenheit 9/11 may come to epitomise today's protests against the Iraq War.

In 1956, Riboud paid a long visit to India and took some enduring photographs, especially in Bengal. At one point he accompanied the movie giant Satyajit Ray, working on the second film in his Apu Trilogy. A shot Riboud took of a supremely focused Ray drenched in sweat behind his cameraman is one of the most exciting images ever made of a film director - or of any great artist - in the throes of creation. It is superbly reproduced (as are the other images).

As Riboud once wrote about Ray for a book I edited: "His presence, the breadth of his gestures, the ampleness of his kurta fascinated me: on him, around him, no colour, only shades of black and white, weathered." Ray had begun life as a commercial artist and typographer. "Through calligraphy, he told me, he came to cinema. His eye had been trained by the rigour of the well-formed letter. This concern for the beauty of signs, so as better to tell a story - isn't it, at root, the definition of cinema itself?I While Bombay makes colour dreams in the studio which do not permit one to dream, Ray prefers the austerity of black and white in the true light of Calcutta."

Like his mentor Cartier-Bresson, Riboud has remained faithful to black-and-white photography - though even he regrets his lack of colour in one of his captions to an Indian photograph showing a peacock and women in gorgeous saris outside a prince's palace in Rajasthan. The best images in this book undoubtedly benefit strongly from this purist commitment. One can hardly imagine, say, the balletic workman poised high up on the Eiffel Tower with his paint brush and paint pot and only one hand gripping the tower's steel frame, or the immaculately dressed member of the British establishment eyeing a marble horse from the Parthenon in the British Museum, or a misty scene of trees and umbrellas in the hill station of Darjeeling, having any impact in colour.

As for Riboud's trademark as a photographer, it seems hard to be precise, at least on the evidence of this selection. His happy marriage of form and content, his refusal to caricature individuals, his reticence about showing the violent and the sexual, and his witty catching of incongruous juxtapositions - are all characteristics of Cartier-Bresson's work, too.

Robert Delpire, in his foreword, settles for Riboud as "one of those humanists who loves life"; Annick Cojean, in her unpretentious and helpful pen portrait of Riboud, plumps for his being "blatantly, avidly, curious".

I am sure they are both right, yet one cannot escape the feeling that, for all his fascinating life and work, Riboud does not quite belong among the first rank of photographers. There are too many images in this book that require one to read the caption at the back of the book before they become interesting and meaningful. For instance, the retired French couple facing the camera in a modest apartment who "pose beneath a carpet woven with a camel pattern that their son brought back from the war in Algeria"; or the solitary railway freight car with a barely visible inscription in German unnaturally perched on a short length of track in an empty yard in a borough of New York City, which turns out to be an avant-garde art installation evoking Auschwitz.

This need for captioning does not prevent the book from being an important and elegant publication by a major 20th-century photographer, as well as an excellent source of social detail about the events, customs and cultures of its period (notably British life in the mid-1950s). But it does diminish the impact of many of the images, which are too often merely informative or amusing, rather than mysteriously appealing and worth revisiting like the finest of Riboud's work.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The Times Higher , is the author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye .

Marc Riboud: 50 Years of Photography

Author - Annick Cojean, Marc Riboud and Catherine Chaine
Publisher - Flammarion
Pages - 176
Price - £32.00
ISBN - 2 08 030447 X

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