The places Raghubir Singh photographed are full of people—crowds are a given, voids an exception—yet, in the busy streets he took as his subjects, I don’t think anyone else has ever stood exactly where he stood, looked exactly where he looked. His images mark an observing eye that few, if any, possess. These are not just images of Bombay, or Calcutta, or Rajasthan, but something more specific. This generous retrospective traces the development of an extraordinary career in color photography, from the late sixties until Singh’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1999.
On ViewThe Met Breuer
Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs
October 11, 2017 – January 2, 2018
Singh’s work operates in grand sweeps and minute pivots—in the willingness not only to traverse the entire Indian subcontinent but also to shift 90 degrees around a corner, to duck through traffic, or peer into doorways. His subjects, from taxi drivers to worshippers and revelers, are captured in monumental transience, their movements not so much frozen by the stills, but incipient within the frame.
We use the word static to describe that which is devoid of change, but also to refer to a phenomenon seemingly full of spontaneity: the static on the radio or a television is anything but still, and static electricity jolts us out of stillness. Singh’s images are truly static in both senses. In Man Diving, Ganges Floods, Benares, Uttar Pradesh (1985), the diver’s plunge may be halted in midair by the film’s split-second exposure, but his downward arc is still felt by the viewer. Kinetic energy buzzes just below the surface. Taut muscles, impending gravity, blurred peripheries—all of these elements indicate what has been and what is to come. The terse language of the present, upon closer inspection, yields to events unfolding through time, their contrails caught in the blurs and grain of the quick shots.
Singh’s humanism is defined by this truth of the static: for all conditions, there exists an opposite. In desolation there is beauty, in celebration, menace. The young men in his photo of Benares have transformed the aftermath of a tremendous flood into a swimming pool: perched above the water, roofs become diving boards, disaster becomes exuberance—suggesting just as the floodwaters have risen, they will subside. What Singh has captured in his best pictures is the moment of transfer, the jolt between states that wakes us from the expected and signals that seldom-heard voice in the back of the head: now, focus.
In a 1975 photograph of Holi revelers in Rajasthan, celebrating the spring festival of color, intense pigments are nowhere to be found. A tangle of five men dominates the ochre and tan composition, oblivious to the camera before them, enmeshed in struggle. On the left, a man pushed by the force of four others, falls, in a blur, to the ground. Behind and in front of the subjects, two men peer quizzically at Singh’s lens. One of the few curatorial missteps is the decision to place this directly next to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1947 picture of refugees in Punjab. Singh did not hide Cartier-Bresson’s influence on his practice, but the pairing somehow manages to diminish both pictures. Highlighting the formal similarities between the two unfairly casts a shadow of violence and fear over Singh’s image, and suggests a stereotypically Western pessimism on the part of Cartier-Bresson, while ignoring the important distinction: Cartier-Bresson was a photographer of intense, singular experience, who focused on scenes of homogenous feeling, be it ecstasy or anxiety, while Singh was interested in contradiction and the cohabitation of jubilance and despair within the same human experience. It is not a question of time and heritage that separates these photographs, or even the difference between the drama of black and white over the realism of Kodachrome’s color, but the conscious choice to depict two different worldviews, both specific and valid in their own right.
Singh’s embrace of duality is most evident in Women and Rickshaw Driver, Benares, Uttar Pradesh (1984). In it, the camera’s flash has passed through a Muslim woman’s black veil, illuminating her smiling face beneath the thin fabric—the private becomes public. Singh’s transgressive and humanizing act here incites anger and wonder in equal measure. The woman peers back directly at you—are you re-enacting an act of violation or liberation?
Look at the Taj Mahal visitors caught in the flash—alternately graceful and windswept, or the tea server at Crawford Market in Bombay, hurriedly sipping from the teapot’s spout amidst a frenzy of commerce. Singh was extremely precise in his printing instructions—demanding a specificity of color value and contrast that is evident in the finished prints. In Curious Villagers Outside a Circus, Pushkar, Rajasthan (1976) a patch of sky is visible through the circus tent—it is one of the most vivid blues I have ever seen, surpassing even the ultramarine robes in a Fra Angelico panel. There is an abundance of saturated color here—your head will spin. The photographs are difficult because they are so beautiful. It is unfortunate that a photographer’s technical mastery of color comes with the subconscious suggestion that his work is about color. This is work that encourages second looks—it has the power to rejuvenate, to alternately confirm and challenge your views of a place. The images are beautiful, yes, but they are true.
Other wonderful passages in the show include works by Singh’s close friends, the filmmaker Satyajit Ray and fellow photographer Lee Friedlander. An excerpt from Ray’s Apu Trilogy (1955 – 1959) displays a young Apu’s first sight of a train plowing through the rural landscape—his eyes marvel at the powerful vision, wonder and fear both present in his young gaze. Friedlander’s quintessential modernist invention plays off of several of Singh’s photographs, where reflection and shadows signal the photographer’s presence outside the frame. There is a conversation here of mutual influence between friends and travel partners that merits its own future exhibition.
In a late photo, passersby contemplate mirrors at a street stall in Howrah, West Bengal. The playful, shattered composition flickers between flatness and deep space. Up top, Singh’s reflection points back at us from a mirror on display. Blurred, moving faster than his shutter can capture, he is caught deep in the static, jumping between frames. This is a still life full of objects reflecting movement, but not moving themselves. It is dizzying. I can’t look away.