Witness at a Crossroads: Photographer Marc Riboud in Asia

THE RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART-- In 1955, a youthful Marc Riboud embarked eastward on a journey through Asia in post-war transition. Armed with his Leica and trademark eye for observation, Riboud captured in his photographs not only politics and culture, but also beauty, humor, and humanity. It is the photographs from this trip across Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Japan, and China, which comprise ‘Witness at a Crossroads,’ the fantastic collection of Riboud’s works now on view at the Rubin Museum of Art.

Though Riboud’s work took him through lands regarded by the west as a mysterious Shangri-la, his lens captured not only beauty but also truths of the human condition. A founding member of the collective Magnum (along with Robert Capa and David Seymour), Marc Riboud developed his craft under the tutelage of Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographic great of an earlier generation. Like Cartier-Bresson, Riboud’s works united journalism and fine art.

Though the entire collection is captivating, for me, the highlight was a series of prints from China taken during the earlier half of the Mao era. Arriving in China in 1957, Riboud became one of the first European photographers to gain access to the Peoples’ Republic in the throes of Soviet-inspired social revolution and land reform. Witnessing firsthand the tumult of a transitional society, Riboud used his Leica to showcase individual humanity against the backdrop of an increasingly austere communitarian lifestyle. In one image, a dignified elderly woman walks down a dusty street, her glamorous coat and white fox fur striking a cord of descent among a population of uniform-wearing proletarians. Her sartorial appearance and unapologetic individuality are presented in stark contrast to the anonymity that characterized China’s urban areas circa 1957.

Riboud’s photographs of Japan close the exhibition on a lighthearted note. A series of prints taken during Japan’s National Photography Day are testament to Riboud’s elegant sense of humor. In one photograph, scores of amateur photographers scramble over one another to shoot catalogue models posing in a rather precarious outdoor setting. Images of immaculately dressed Japanese women point at the post-war influence of Western culture within the fiercely nationalistic Japan of the earlier half of the twentieth century.

Though the exhibit’s introductory text alludes to the collection’s wider cultural context in a “period of great cultural and political transition in the [Central and East Asian] region,” I found myself somewhat disappointed in the face of the Rubin’s usually comprehensive label copy. A viewer well acquainted with the finer details of the transitional politics of this period will bring her own insight to the weight of Riboud’s seminal work as an artifact of international history. Those of us less savvy on the subject, however, could have benefited from a higher degree of detail. This shortcoming aside, however, the exhibition is a must-see. I walked away with the sense of having been, if only for a short while, a voyeur of a beautiful and heartbreaking array of history.  

The exhibition is on view through 23 March 2015.