The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Finding a Story
Marc Riboud
Witness at a Crossroads
Photo by Marc Riboud . Source:
Marc Riboud, "Crossroads, Kyber Pass" 1958

"You're still having trouble finding a story." Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote to Marc Riboud in Asia. The older man could offer only sympathy and encouragement, but he need not have worried. Riboud had found countless stories and, in retrospect, a sense of humanity and a style.

"Witness at a Crossroads" at the Rubin Museum through March 23— tells his story, but had an entire continent, like photography for Cartier-Bresson, had come upon its "decisive moment"? Born in 1923, just one year before Robert Frank in Switzerland, Riboud began his three-year journey in 1955 to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, China, and Japan (a journey interrupted by his mother's illness). India had its first prime minister, and Mao had still to embark on the Great Leap Forward. A decade after World War II, country after country faced a choice between East and West, capitalism and communism, a rural economy and modernity. Then again, they could always choose neither or both. A photograph by the entry shows the Khyber Pass, with arrows directing cars to the left and camels to the right, but a man in desert clothing hurtles onward by bicycle.

Photo by Marc  Riboud . Source:
Marc Riboud, "Pekin" 1965

Riboud, too, was not one for taking sides, unlike Walker Evans in America or indeed his mentor in France. Where Cartier-Bresson photographed a man sleeping under a bridge, Riboud selects a man sleeping on a shelf beside the Hindu god of death and destruction. Where Cartier-Bresson has an artistry born of Surrealism, the artistry of a man leaping over his own shadow, Riboud's deepest shadows fall across a couple separated by the dark confines of their bedroom. Where Cartier-Bresson followed him to Asia in 1958 in pursuit of change, Riboud's subjects include a meeting of the Dalai Lama, Zhou Enlai, Indira Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru. One has to wonder what was resolved.

Photo by Marc  Riboud . Source:
Marc Riboud, "JAPAN, Karuizawa. Photographer's rally." 1958

Like Cartier-Bresson, he worked at once in art photography, commercial photography, street photography, and photojournalism. Like the older man, too, he trusted his art to a hand-held Leica, a press pass, and a passport, not the darkroom. The exhibition, curated by Beth Citron, has a display case for all three. Thanks to Cartier-Bresson, he also carried introductions to Ravi Shankar and Satjayit Ray (a contact sheet tracks Ray directing a film.) Riboud photographed Mao and Zhou looking ambiguously thoughtful or calculating, but his real interest lay in ordinary people and a continent in motion. When he returned to China briefly in the 1960s, it showed no signs of slowing down.

Photo by Marc  Riboud . Source:
Marc Riboud, "Weapons Factory in Kohat, Near the Afghan Border, Kohat, Pakistan" 1956

Each country has for him its own stories, if not necessarily the expected ones. Turkey seems no closer to modernity, after years of Kemal Atatürk's wrenching secular reforms. Communities pack into makeshift wooden housing, and women hug one another between love and despair. In Pakistan, children play and men show off together at the gym, but a young man hides behind a revolver, and another's dark eyes peer out threateningly and cautiously from behind the spokes of a wheel. Heads everywhere are bent, even as the camera engages them with sympathy. Women still wear burqas, and Riboud deemed their folds "wonderful."

Photo by Marc  Riboud . Source:
Marc Riboud, "Mao in 1957"

Further east, the pageantry widens, and so does the ambiguity. People in India loll apart in the sunlight, creating their own elegant compositions, and a beheading in China belongs to a street show. Chinese look out from a cluster of broad windows, neither fully confined nor free. As a family struggles to convey a junk across the Yangtze, it could be continuing a task unchanged for centuries or caught up in a flood. Only Japan seems fully a part of what a 2010 retrospective of Cartier-Bresson called "The Modern Century." A worker on a skyscraper engages it in a turn close to a silent comedy or a dance, while crowds press into supermarkets and nightclubs.

Photo by Marc  Riboud . Source:
Marc Riboud, "High Court Building Designed by Le Corbusier; Chandigarh, India

" 1956

Riboud portrays them all as on a stage, much like the bedroom and the beheading. They may be creative actors intentionally, like art students in China, or unintentionally, like Chinese wielding umbrellas, out of a garden party or René Magritte. An individual with a flower faces a row of soldiers with bayonets and rifles, and who knows who will survive the confrontation as they were? Ultimately, Riboud found his story in the contrast between inscrutable leaders and the human tapestry. He creates a psychology of mists and mountains, while faces remain at a distance even in close-up. In his warmth and objectivity, his equal trust as an artist in things and in people, he also found his modernity.

Marc Riboud
Witness at a Crossroads
Curator: Beth Citron

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Thursday, October 16 to
Monday, March 23, 2015
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