Gallery Sightings: Asia through a Frenchman’s Lens

What: Witness at a Crossroads: Photographer Marc Riboud in Asia

When: Through March 23rd, 2015

Where: The Rubin Museum of Art (W17th St.)

Admission:  Students: $10

General Admission: $15

FREE on Friday evenings from 6 p.m.–10 p.m.

Photographer Marc Riboud at the 2009 Sony Photography Awards. Photo via Fotoblogia/Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Photographer Marc Riboud at the 2009 Sony Photography Awards. Photo via Fotoblogia/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

After climbing three flights up the Rubin Museum’s central spiral staircase and passing two floors of Himalayan scroll paintings and Buddhist sculptures, visitors may be surprised to encounter an entire floor devoted to photography. This is the Rubin Museum’s newest exhibit, Witness at a Crossroads. While the gelatin silver prints may seem out of place beside Tibetan tapestries, these photographs provide a striking interpretative extension to the Museum’s vast collection of Asian art.

Witness at a Crossroads features over a hundred black-and-white photographs by Frenchman Marc Riboud (1923–present), all taken during journeys through Asia. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s, Riboud traveled across the continent, documenting both landmark events and simple moments of everyday life. At the time, Asia was experiencing unprecedented political and social change, from the recent independence of India to the Cultural Revolution of Maoist China. The exhibit is organized by country, starting with a section on India, then proceeding to Nepal, China, Japan, then back to Turkey, and finally ending with a section that combines Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This geographic organization highlights the distinct character of each region and facilitates comparisons between countries.

The main theme of the exhibit is the tension between modernization and tradition. The first section of the exhibit, called “Riboud’s Journey,” introduces this theme through a particularly evocative pairing: Nightclub in Ginza (1958) with Traditional Junk at the Construction Site of a Bridge over the Yangtze River (1957). Nightclub in Ginza contrasts a imitation French nightclub, called “Soir,” with women in traditional kimonos on the sidewalk. The tattered sails of the traditional Chinese junk likewise contrast with the massive concrete bridge being built over the river. This pairing illuminates how China and Japan experience modernity in strikingly different ways: one through entertainment, the other through infrastructure. This thoughtful pairing illustrates the careful attention given to the placement and grouping of photographs throughout the exhibit.

Riboud’s work is primarily reportage. In addition to documenting the social, economic, and political changes taking place in the region, he also covers important events like the historic meeting of the Dalai Lama, Zhou Enlai, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi. But those accustomed to contemporary documentary photography will find Riboud’s style quite unusual. He employs balanced, precise, geometric compositions characteristic of the fine-art photographs of his mentor, Henri Cartier-Bresson (see his 1955 photograph of Turkey, Construction of the Seyhan Dam, for a striking example of his technique). Riboud also infuses his images with a kindness and empathy rarely seen in contemporary reportage. His even catches Mao at a tender moment. Riboud’s work is an ideal marriage of fine art photography and documentary photojournalism, infused with empathy and compassion.

There is something in this show for everybody, regardless of whether one’s interest is political history, art history, or the photographic process. For those interested in political history, the exhibit features a timeline of landmark political and social events across twentieth-century Asia. This timeline also maps the major events in Riboud’s life and adds some of his own images to the chronology. Art historians will take particular interest in the original copies of letters exchanged between Marc Riboud and his mentor, Henri Cartier-Bresson. These letters are displayed alongside translated excerpts that highlight Cartier-Bresson’s advice on how to take good photographs. Those interested in photographic processes can examine Riboud’s contact sheets, which reveal both his shooting style and his editing choices.

This well-designed exhibit has only one minor flaw: its use of space. The fourth floor, like the others, is circular, forming a ring around the central staircase. This exhibit does not take advantage of this circular layout, for its organization is linear. Also, the exhibit ends abruptly with a last section on the Middle East, and as a result lacks closure. It would have been much more successful had it tied the ending back to the beginning, making the photographs come full circle, following the circular space. However, this need not hamper the viewer, who can still return to give his favorite photographs a second look.

As the viewer leaves, descending once again down the spiral staircase, and encountering once more the age-old artifacts on the floors below, perhaps a conclusion to the exhibit emerges on its own. By showing us a French photographer’s impression of Asian peoples and their history, Witness at a Crossroads gives us a lens through which we can understand the various histories and artistic traditions presented in the rest of the Rubin Museum. Riboud’s photography also gives us a perspective for understanding present-day Asia, which continues to confront the tensions that arise when modernity meets tradition. If we retraced Riboud’s journey in the twenty-first century, camera in hand, what kinds of images would we bring back today?

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