Women of Japan by Riboud, Marc; Christine Arnothy
Recent decades have made us all too familiar with images of tumult and conflict from Asia. However, the current exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Marc Riboud’s work takes us back to a different time, that period of transition after World War II when Afghanistan was at peace, India was still a new democracy, Mao had not yet called for a Cultural Revolution, and Japan was rapidly changing under the US Occupation. It is the record of a road trip that began in 1955 in Turkey. Before it was over in 1958, it would encompass Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, and Japan (with only a brief break to attend to his ailing mother in France). Even though images from a subsequent visit to China in 1965 are included, the feel is still of “a time between.”
Unlike a modern series of quick hops by air to places made familiar by popular media, Riboud’s journey was a grounded progress through areas still unfamiliar to the majority in the West. But it was an old-school road trip, not as manic as Kerouac nor as interrupted as Frank. Time was spent along the way and photos record the hospitality “long forgotten in Europe” of local teahouses. (Riboud has remarked how lucky he was to have been able to travel back then in the Afghan and Pakistani tribal zones which are so dangerous today). Riboud brought to the journey a humanistic approach that coupled well with his eye for design to create a number of memorable images. He had seen Cartier-Bresson’s work in Asia in the 1940’s and benefited from his advice as well as his introductions (Riboud had joined Magnum in 1953).
There are many images where the design elements predominate. While his photos of the High Court buildig in India almost force LeCorbusier’s design on the viewer, others derive their viewing pleasure through Riboud’s acute observation: a young Turkish boy stands overlooking the harbor, the inverted V of his legs contrasting with the pattern of the balustrade or the Chinese street scene captured through the multiple window frames of an old railway carriage. There is even an image of a worker on a Japanese TV tower that references his famous photo of a balletic painter on the Eifel Tower!
This was a working trip. Riboud was developing his film along the way and sending his stories back to Magnum. Vitrines display grease-penciled contact sheets with the accompanying correspondence and captions as well as some of the original published stories (even his battered Leica M3 is included). And so there are the obligatory photos of heads of state and other notables on display along with what now appears as an intriguing mix of “local” images that record what no longer exists (the Buddha statues at Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban) and that which still persists to this day (women in burkhas).
However, it is the images of common people that draw my eye, whether it was a young Afghan boy in a “weapons factory” closely inspecting the skeletal framework of a revolver or the downcast head of a Chinese bureaucrat amid a gaggle of telephones. The final photos from the road trip feel the most familiar as they document the Westernization of Japan, both in dress and in nightlife (as well as presaging the stereotype of the Japanese tourist in a photo of a camera club outing).
It is an exhaustive display - close to a hundred photos occupying the entire fourth floor of the museum. While it does an admirable job of presenting Riboud’s work from this long journey, there is so much ground to cover that it feels like a tasting menu and not a full course meal. To delve deeper into his work I’ll have to explore his published books.