Marc Riboud, Photography’s Everyman

By John Cogan ARPS

I had intended to write a light-hearted account of some photoshoot or other but events in the wider world conspire to make such an enterprise seem petty, unnecessary even.  The event I refer to?  It is the death on Tuesday last of the Magnum photographer Marc Riboud.

Marc Riboud was one of those masters of the craft of photography who was never really given the recognition he deserved.  He was born in Saint-Genis-Laval on June 24th 1923.  During the war he joined the French Resistance and after the war studied engineering at the Ecolé central de Lyon from 1945 to 1948.  It was not until 1951 when, on a photographic holiday, he chose to earn his living with a camera.

He moved to Paris in 1951 where he honed his craft.  The images from an assignment to photograph workers on the Eiffel Tower attracted the attention of two of Magnum’s founders: Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.  He was invited to join Magnum of which he became a full member in 1954.  In the early years of the 1950s possession of a French passport was viewed favourably by certain countries, especially the China of Mao Zedong.  Marc became one of the first Europeans to go to China and, whilst there, he was able to photograph Mao and Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic, a post he held from 1949 until his death in 1976.  Later, Marc was able to secure access to North Vietnam at a time when the US Air Force was conducting a bombing campaign against the North.  He photographed Ho Chi Minh just before the latter’s death in 1969; the last pictures ever taken of the Vietnamese leader.

From the extensive body of his work Riboud will probably be best remembered for his photograph of the seventeen year old Jan Rose Kasmir as she tried to present a flower to a line of American soldiers during the 1967 Anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington DC.  Of all the photographs of my youth this has been one of the most iconic and significant.  There is another, the one of a painter called Zazou whom Riboud photographed balancing precariously on girders as he painted a section of the Eiffel Tower.  Riboud said, afterwards, that he felt very sick and dizzy every time Zazou bent down to charge his paint brush.  There is something of the silent film comedy, a Buster Keeton moment, about the image.

Marc Riboud was a very shy man from a privileged family (his father was a banker) who found it difficult to talk with people.  His father had given him a Kodak camera when Marc was 14 with the words: “If you don’t know how to talk, perhaps you will know how to look!”  When war came in 1939, Riboud senior committed suicide fearing a repeat of his experiences from 1914 to 1918.  When old enough, Marc and his brothers joined the Vercors Maquis.  Ironically, when Klaus Barbie was tried many years later it was Marc who covered the trial.  Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon”, had been responsible for the deaths of many of Riboud’s friends and fellow Resistors.

Robert Capa took the young Riboud under his wing, taking him to England with the advice that a year there would give him a chance to learn English and meet some nice English girl.  However, it was a failure.  Marc Riboud was still too shy to talk to anyone and therefore did not meet a girl nor did he learn much English.  He did, however, complete an assignment for Picture Post.  Picture Post was working on a major series photographing the cities of the UK.  Only Leeds was left to do.  In Capa’s immortal words Leeds was the dullest city in England and Riboud came from Lyon, the dullest city in France so who could be a better choice for such an assignment?

Returning to London from Leeds, Riboud visited Capa in his room at the Dorchester Hotel.  Capa was in the bath and while they spoke the telephone rang.  Capa answered it.  It was an assignment in Japan.  From there Capa went to Indo China (now Vietnam) to cover one of the last operations by the French forces before they left.  This was 1954 and a few weeks later Riboud was told Capa had been killed.

Talking with someone who knew him from the 1960s onwards, it became clear that Marc Riboud was a “Good Guy!”  When Ian Berry joined Magnum he was initially living in Paris where Marc Riboud was Vice President.  They became friends and it was Ian that Marc turned for help with editing a sequence of photographs of China.  Making a phone call at 2:00am Riboud asked Berry to help him select images for submission.  One particular image of an elderly Chinese woman was available in both landscape and portrait format.  Ian’s choice was for the horizontal: it was “beautifully shaped” he says.  However, Marc Riboud asked Ian to consider the vertical image and pointed to the woman’s feet.  They had been bound from birth and exhibited the classic signs of ancient China.  “That’s the one that will be printed!” he said and was proved right.

With great humanity and humility Marc Riboud proved the best of guides helping the young Ian Berry to refine his journalistic and visual skills.  In his book “Sous les Pavés…” (2008, Paris) Riboud captured dramatic street demonstrations in all its forms; from the 1968 student riots in Paris to happy Parisians celebrating the French victory in the 1998 World Cup.  Each image is a synthesis of the situation, often made close to the action, allowing people and events to coalesce into a dynamic resolution such as the elderly lady standing in the middle of the detritus-littered road watching as the students walk away; her chic appearance contrasting powerfully with the surrounding chaos.

Though there are many in the amateur (and even professional) photographic community who may look quizzical when his name is mentioned, his talent for the definitive image has the subliminal power to influence all our work.  Never claiming to be a story-teller, preferring to build up a collection of images that represented events, Marc Riboud was a gentle giant of great integrity.  During the East Bengal War of 1971 Marc Riboud and several others chose to leave a situation where the Liberation Army were about to execute several pro-Pakistani captives.  Marc’s argument was that the men would not be killed if there was no one there to photograph the scene.  He felt the presence of the Western press would encourage the violence.  By taking that moral stance he suffered the opprobrium of other journalists (including the Observer’s Tony McGrath and the Daily Express’s William Lovelace) who regarded it as their duty to record the scene.  Ironically, the AP photographers Horst Faas and Michael Laurent pooled their images and jointly won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize.  To the end, Marc believed he had made the right decision.

With the passing of Marc Riboud we have lost yet another link with that great, early tradition of reportage.  Without such skill and quality of photographic journalism we are diminished.  His legacy is a large body of work that we could (and should) explore hoping that by such exposure we can enhance our own practice.

Whilst Marc Riboud was 93 when he died, by contrast the young Syrian photographer, Shamel from Aleppo, died at the end of last week during an air strike.  His daughter was killed in another airstrike a year ago.  His house was bombed on 23rd August.  His wife was taken to the ER where she gave birth to their fourth child.  She died on 2nd September.  Shamel left behind three children.

John Cogan 05/09/2016

Pictured:  Girl with Flower by Mark Riboud and Mark Riboud by Bruno Barbie

USA. Washington DC. 1967. An American young girl, Jan Rose KASMIR, confronts the American National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam march. This march helped to turn public opinion against the US war in Vietnam.

USA. Washington DC. 1967. An American young girl, Jan Rose KASMIR, confronts the American National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam march. This march helped to turn public opinion against the US war in Vietnam.

Marc RIBOUD- French photographer.

Marc RIBOUD- French photographer.

Both images are reproduced through the generosity of Ruth Hoffman of Magnum Photos

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