Witness at a Crossroads: Photographer Marc Riboud in Asia @Rubin Museum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 96 black and white and color photographs, generally framed in black and matted, and hung against dark blue walls in a series of divided spaces on the fourth floor of the museum. Aside from two color prints, all of the works are gelatin silver prints, made in the 1950s and 1960s (largely between 1955-1958). The exhibit was curated by Beth Citron.

The show is divided into sections, generally based on geography. Each section is listed below, along with the number of prints (and other ephemera) on view:

  • Introduction: 1 gelatin silver print
  • Riboud’s Journey: 8 gelatin silver prints, 7 gelatin silver prints (portraits of Riboud), 2 cases (passport, suitcase, negative sleeves, knife, camera, letters to/from Henri Cartier-Bresson, notebook, French/English dictionary)
  • India and Nepal: 15 gelatin silver prints
  • China: 17 gelatin silver prints, 2 color prints, 1 case (7 magazine spreads/covers)
  • Japan: 15 gelatin silver prints, 1 case (2 contact sheets, 3 caption sheets)
  • Iran, Afghanistan, and Iran: 14 gelatin silver prints, 1 case (5 contact sheets, 3 caption sheets)
  • Turkey: 12 gelatin silver prints, 1 map, 1 video
  • Chronology: 5 gelatin silver prints, plus 10 image reproductions in the timeline

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Marc Riboud’s sprawling show of work from his overland travels in Asia during the 1950s and 1960s opens with an image taken in Afghanistan, of the road to the Khyber Pass. It’s a desolate road, little more than a dirt track headed toward an imposing set of mountains in the distance. A lone cyclist is its only traveler, and Riboud has captured him behind a small hand drawn traffic sign indicating that cars should go to the left and donkeys and camels should go to the right. As visual metaphors go, it’s a pretty compelling symbol – this is a show about a photographer capturing the dichotomies and transformations of post-World War II modernization across a broad diversity of Asian cultures, and the wry juxtaposition of the old and the new is often what caught his eye.

While the exhibit opens with an introductory area that introduces Riboud, his personal story (including his time with Magnum and his friendship with Henri Cartier-Bresson), and some of his most famous images from the period, it quickly moves on to a country-hopping geography-driven organizational structure, with single spaces devoted to each country/region. Each room is part travelogue, part anthropology lesson, and part historical documentation, with Riboud highlighting how signature motifs and behaviors from each culture were being challenged by the arrival of the new. In the best of his pictures, sophisticated framing and composition are the underlying framework that gives his sense of tender curiosity its open lightness – a traditional Chinese junk moves among the modern trading vessels of the Yangtse river, geometric circular pipes decorate the construction site of a Turkish dam, and the textural clothing folds of workers at a Pakistani arms factory contrast with the shiny machined parts being so carefully assembled.

Riboud had a particular talent for the all-over composition of bustling dense crowds. In Nepal, he captured windows overflowing with people watching a coronation parade, while in India he saw dusty magic in lingering clusters of cattle and camels; a Japanese camera club outing to a rocky setting is a symphony of trench coats and posing models. In other images, he patiently moved in closer to capture more poignant and subtly humorous moments: kite flying in Turkey, street show block smashing in China, sleeping boys and temple dogs in India, and Nepalese sherpas wearing woven leaf hats in the rain. His snowy vista of the Bamyian Buddha (later destroyed by the Taliban in 2001) now functions as both a well-crafted Afghani landscape and a despairing historical artifact.

Wandering through the rooms of this show is a bit like a time traveling, magical mystery tour – we cover enormous distances, jump from country to country in far off lands, and discover intimate visual treasures in each place. This is a photojournalistic show first and foremost, but there are plenty of small wonders to be found in tagging along with Riboud.

Collector’s POV: This is a museum show, so there are, of course, no posted prices. Marc Riboud is represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York (here) and Polka Galerie in Paris (here) among others around the world. His work has had an intermittent presence in the secondary markets in the past decade, often in later prints of his famous Painter of the Eiffel Tower, Paris image. Prices have generally ranged between $1000 and $12000.

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Read more about: Marc Riboud, Rubin Museum of Art

One comment

  1. Eric Winnert /

    This looks very interesting, especially in the current political climate, where these countries are key players. So not only is old & new, but also then & now. In the context of a political discourse its timing is spot on.

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