by Jody Zellen


"Surprises of every kind lie in wait for the photographer -- they open the eyes and quicken the heartbeat of those with a passion for looking"
Marc Riboud

photograph, © 1965.


"Eiffel Tower Painter,"
photograph, © 1953

 (Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood) Marc Riboud has wandered the globe photographing all walks of life. He first picked up a camera at the age of 14, as a small boy in France, and later gave up a promising career as an engineer to follow his heart and his passion. Riboud started his career as a photojournalist in the1950's and became a Magnum agency photographer in 1953. Alongside mentors Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Riboud was encouraged and subsequently became the articulate and sensitive photographer he is today.

Unsure about the fast paced life-style of Paris, Riboud took to traveling, camera in hand. From Paris he ventured East, moving through India, then Hong Kong en route to China. He was one of the first western photographers to enter China since the 1949 Cultural Revolution. His early photographs, coupled with those he took on many subsequent trips, paint a unique and compelling portrait of a country undergoing a profound transformation. Riboud is a shy photographer who took refuge behind the camera in order to see without being seen. As he states, "I was torn between the fear of getting too close to people and another force that egged me on to get a closer look."

The simultaneity of wanting to be close and distant created tensions with- in Riboud's images. His compositions are strong and graphic, yet there is a compassion toward humanity that also surfaces. "Photography," he has said, "must not try to be persuasive. It cannot change the world, but it can show the world, especially when it is changing."

How the world has changed and how photography has been able to document that change is the core of Riboud's work. He has photographed all over the world, in both hostile and friendly situations. He has photographed stars and presidents and diplomats. Yet it is his images of the streets and of the peasants, of the overlooked and unwanted, as well as of the poor and of the homeless for which he has become recognized. For example in the image, Peking [1965], he depicts the action in the street, shot through a window that divides the scene into six different parts. In each of the frames is a slice of life-- a young girl attempts to whistle, an old man leans over to talk to another small girl. The composition is active. The heads form an ascending diagonal that carries the viewers eye through the composition. In this image, Riboud succeeds at being a humanist and a formalist at once.

In photography it is that chance moment when things line up, when, say, a person smiles, that makes one photograph extraordinary and another ordinary. Riboud's photographs are extraordinary. His sense of balance and light keep the compositions moving and dynamic. A gesture or a glance directs the viewer's gaze. Riboud's images, however are not without humor. Many are ironic juxtapositions that make the viewer smile.

One of Riboud's best known images is Eiffel Tower Painter, taken in Paris in 1953. It depicts a man painting the famous structure. He is posed as if a dancer, perched between the metal armature of the tower, below which the city of Paris emerges out of the photographic haze. Lone figures appear frequently in Riboud's images. In Ankara [1955], a central figure is silhouetted against an industrial background, whereas in France [1962], a man lies in a field. The vertical composition emphasizes the landscape, the trees, sky, water and blowing grass, all of which surround but do not overpower the human element.

The human element is central to Riboud's work. He does not pass judgement but rather depicts what is there in front of him. He does not make fun of the old people sitting in the park in Paris [1985], where there appears to be an armless hand (which turns out to be a glove) covering an elderly woman's eyes. He photographs private moments as well as public gatherings. Children playing in the streets of Paris or London or India filled his early compositions. In the later works he was lured into politics by increasingly violent events, photographing political gatherings and truce agreements as if still on assignment for Magnum, whom he left in 1979 .

In this retrospective exhibition works spanning over 40 years are presented. In comparing the early images from the 1950's to the later photographs not much has changed. Although the landscape and the architecture and the clothing have become more modern, the captured gestures, the juxtapositions and the compassion that motivates Riboud's eye have remained the same. No matter where he turns his camera, whether it is in China or Iran, France or India, he photographs the essence of those before him, not as they might want to be remembered but as they appear to him.