One of the first generation of Magnum photographers, Marc Riboud was born in Lyon in 1923, the fifth child of a large bourgeois family. His father, a keen traveler and amateur photographer, gave him his first camera – a “Vest-Pocket” Kodak – when he was 13. He was such a shy and reticent youth that his brother declared: “You don’t use your mouth, so maybe you’ll use your eyes.” 65 years later, still producing photographs, having traveled all over the world, the subject of ten monographs and exhibitions in galleries such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Marc Riboud reflected back on his life’s work and the path it took him on. “Taking pictures,” he said, “is like savoring life at 125th of a second.”
In 1943 the 20-year-old Riboud joined the French Resistance, and was part of the Maquis forces in Vercors. After the war he studied engineering at the Ecole Centrale in Lyon, graduating in 1948. Eschewing a comfortable career in industry, Riboud became a freelance photographer in 1952. He went to Paris and met Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, two of the founders of Magnum Photos. They were impressed by his work, and invited him to join the agency. Cartier-Bresson became Riboud’s mentor, and Capa his supporter, arranging for him to have his first picture published in LIFE magazine. Now regarded as one of the definitive Parisian images, it was the picture of the workman painting the Eiffel Tower in 1953. “That painter was joyful, singing as he worked. I think photographers should behave like him – he was free and carried little equipment.” That was Riboud’s approach; traveling freely with a hand-held camera, photographing, as he said, “the rhymes and rhythms in my viewfinder”.
In the mid-50s he set off for India in a specially converted Land Rover. This vehicle he bought from Magnum founder George Rodger, who had used it for his celebrated work in Africa. After spending a year in India, Riboud made the first of his numerous journeys to China, where he worked extensively over the next three decades. Many of his monographs, the first of which was published in 1966, are devoted to China. It was there, in Beijing in 1965, that Riboud took one of his most archetypal photographs. Taken from inside an antique dealer’s shop, the photograph depicts a typical street scene in the Chinese capital as witnessed by a traveler: old and young stand talking amid ornate but rundown architecture. But the scene is only visible through six rounded windows, the striking framing device giving the work an element of bold abstraction (this, remember, only one year before Mao’s Cultural Revolution). This combination of formal composition and informal everyday life is a hallmark of Riboud’s work. “A good photograph is a surprise; my camera has to be ready to catch it”, he has said. Riboud has also quoted the poet Ren’ Char, who suggested that one should “forsee like a strategist and act like a primitive”. The results are very positive, as the artist has noted: “When we succeed, it’s a great joy, a way of putting a visual order into the chaos that’s all around us”.
Having traveled to the USSR, sub-Saharan Africa, and Algeria at around the time of its independence, Riboud went on to work in both North and South Vietnam. It was from this war that one of his most famous pictures arose: Confrontation between a flower and the bayonets of soldiers guarding the Pentagon during the March for Peace in Vietnam. Washington DC, 1967. A young woman holds up a flower in the face of aggression, a simple but wise gesture that stands as an individual’s effort amidst the march of time – this is emblematic of Riboud’s oeuvre.
After Vietnam, Riboud covered the war in Bangladesh, and then traveled to Tibet and Cambodia, where he photographed the temples at Angkor. Although he has worked primarily in black and white, he has also created a significant body of color photography; of these, particularly notable are his pictures of Huang Shan, a range of mountains at the heart of Chinese traditions in poetry and painting. The timeless spirituality of these pictures struck a chord with Riboud’s close friend Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who at the time was an editor at publishers Doubleday. At the former First Lady’s insistence, the images were brought together to form the book Capital of Heaven in 1990, named after one of the peaks in this sublime mountain range. Here Riboud captures the astonishingly changeable scenes (cloud movement famously alters the views here in a matter of minutes) within compositions based upon a formal painting tradition that has spanned hundreds of years. The evocative series proved to be a further example of Riboud’s astonishing ability to marry the fleeting and the formal in a single image.