Photo Shanghai: Marc Riboud’s photography A wealth of historic images of China

From the 1950s on, the acclaimed French Magnum photographer Marc Riboud visited China nearly every year to document how the Chinese population came out of the Great Leap Forward to forge an economic boom, showing the incredible changes in the country and amongst its inhabitants. His photographs travelled to PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai 2016, 9-11 September, recounting Riboud’s travels and the singular moments he experienced in this fascinating country. Arts Program Director and Curator Lorène Durret worked hand in hand with Riboud for seven years. She shares with us insights on Riboud’s experiences photographing China.

Riboud’s work highlights different moments in Chinese life over a span of years, from the 1950’s all the way to the 1990’s. Can you give us an overview of these projects and explain the personal connection he had to China?

In the book “The Three banners of China” (1966), Marc Riboud wrote: “The best, and possibly the only, way of discovering China is to look at it.” Since his first stay in China in 1957, Marc Riboud – who never learnt how to speak Chinese – had always been dragged to go back, to witness and to show us the considerable changes of this country for long inaccessible for Westerners.

Several images date back to the 1950’s, right after Riboud was ‘recruited’ by Cartier-Bresson and Capa to be part of Magnum and ahead of the the political revolution by Mao Tse-tung. Did these moments inspire his photography and work? How?

When Marc Riboud first went to China, he had already been at Magnum Photos for a few years. After a journey on the road from Istanbul to Calcutta (using an old Land Rover that he bought from George Rodger), he wanted to carry on and enter China, which had not been photographed by a Western photographer since Henri Cartier-Bresson, who witnessed the fall of the Kuomintang in 1948. After months of waiting and with the help of writer Han Suyin and of the count Ostrorog, who had been a diplomat in Beijing in the 20s, he obtained the precious visa.

The photographs taken during this first stay of four months in China are marked with the sense of composition and the thorough attention towards people that characterize Marc Riboud’s work, ever since his famous photograph of the “Painter on the Eiffel tower” (1953). But, looking at the contact sheets, we can also see an insatiable curiosity and a particular sharpness in the way Marc Riboud depicted the life of the men and women he was observing, in the cities or in the fields, the political encounters, the development of new industries… A curiosity that never faded since he went back to China regularly until 2010.

Marc Riboud did several tours to China over the years, how did he perceive China’s evolution and progress?

As a photographer, Marc Riboud was fascinated by the quick changes one could observe in a country that went from communist rule to an unprecedented economic boom. In his book “In China” (1996) Marc Riboud wrote: “If photographs can show us the world, especially as it changes, it is nonetheless difficult to make a portrait of China that is moving so rapidly. The image is likely to be blurred and even contradictory. In the many streets and villages I strolled through, a glimpse was often refuted by the next one, yesterday’s by today’s.”

Most of his images depict the driving force of China, the working class from factories. Was this a common theme he wanted to document over the years?

When Marc Riboud first went to China in 1957, the development of factories was still quite recent but with the clear goal of transforming China into a major industrial power. In the 50s, the Soviet Union helped to provide supplies, heavy equipment and experts. On a photograph taken by Marc Riboud in the control room of a blast furnace, in Anshan, one can read: “Let us develop the revolutionary spirit in order to attain the summit of technology.” Many youngsters were recruited and trained and, as we can also remark on the photographs, men and women occupied similar jobs and responsibilities. But what makes the subject of the working class in industry especially relevant is that this constant recruiting, and the aim of young peasants for better wages in factories, resulted in a severe food shortage, what will be one of the consequences of the Great Leap Forward.

What Leica equipment did he use, more specifically for these projects?

Marc Riboud was a very shy boy. Surrounded by adults, elder brothers and sisters, he remained silent, observing and listening. On the day of his 14th birthday his father – who had travelled around the world in 1910, a story that fascinated the young Marc – offered him his small Vest Pocket Kodak, saying: « If you do not know how to speak maybe you will know how to look. » An enlightened amateur, his father had also bought a Leica M3, which Marc Riboud inherited when his father died in 1939.

The first photographs taken by Marc Riboud in Europe and during his journey through Middle East and Asia in the 50s were taken with this Leica M3 that he still owns, now all scratched. Later he used an M6, and was often carrying two cameras, one for black & white and one for colour, favoured by the magazines.

Can you please share Riboud’s thoughts when documenting the premise of the Cultural Revolution in China? What was it like and how did he immerse himself into the middle of this political and social upheaval?

France recognized China in 1964, and since his first journey Marc Riboud had wanted to go back: “I wanted to try and see more, and to see more clearly”, so he naturally asked for a visa, that he obtained one year later. He knew that the country had changed since 1957, transforming China and the world’s opinion about it.

In 1965, Marc Riboud departed for a four-month stay, with the journalist K. S. Karol. As previously, he was usually accompanied by an interpreter (a ‘guardian angel’ as he called it) but, at this time when dialogue was limited, most information was obtained by looking. In his book “The Three banners of China” (1966) Marc Riboud said: “A walk through the streets of Peking, across the rice paddies of Kwangsi, or the loess terraces of Shensi, able to record visually the unstudied gesture, the unguarded expression, was worth more than a dozen ‘explanations’ ”. Though taken one year before the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, we can notice on Marc Riboud’s photographs the students sent to achieve manual works in the fields, and propaganda through revolutionary-style spectacles or the endless production of official portraits.

Tell us more about his last visits to China, around the 1990’s. What was his perception of the subjects photographed years back (in the 50’s) but now part of a more modern society?

Marc Riboud came back regularly to China in the 90s, and especially photographed Shenzhen which, out of a little harbour in the 70s, became a symbol of China’s economic boom as one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. In these photographs of the 90s we can see the many new high buildings, a trendy couple in Beijing, a McDonald’s fast food… which were what Marc Riboud observed when wandering around, the same way as he used to do forty years before. He explained in an interview (Le Cercle des arts, 1997) how difficult it was to photograph this new China, so Westernized, but also how interesting it was because of these sudden changes. In these photographs you can see ‘modernity’… but at the same time the tiredness of workers on construction sites, of employees leaving offices, the exhaustion of women fallen asleep on the table of a baker’s shop, etc.

How did he envision the future of documentary/journalistic and street photography?

Marc Riboud was always ready to welcome and give advice to young photographers and saw with enthusiasm the new technologies. Though he did not switch to digital himself – but sometimes dropped his Leica for a disposable camera – he was always interested in how we use computers to work on images and circulate them. The way of photographing changed, the technique might be easier, but the commitment photographers need to have in order to report is the same, though there is a rush now and it is hard to immerse oneself in a country for months like Marc Riboud used to do when he was a young photographer.

Thank you, Lorène. 

With this exhibition at PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai, Leica honored the memory of Marc Riboud. He passed away on 30 August at the age of 93, while this blog interview was being completed.

To know more about Marc Riboud, please visit his official website. To know more about PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai, please visit the official website.

The exhibition of Marc Riboud in the Leica Galerie at “Photofairs Shanghai” came to life thanks to the support of Memorieslab. The high-end art printing laboratory offers premium printing and art services worldwide. For further information: http://www.memorieslab.com@memorieslab

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