Photographer Raghubir Singh was candid about his influences. By his own admission, his depictions of everyday life in India drew heavily on the street photography of Robert Frank, William Gedney and Henri Cartier-Bresson. (He even shadowed the latter during one of the French photographer’s extended tours of the subcontinent). But there is one crucial way in which Singh deviated from his idols: color.
While the modernist greats shot in black and white, Singh pioneered the use of color film in the 1970s. As a result, his pictures – a collection of which are now on display as part of a retrospective at New York’s Met Breuer – present a vibrant vision of his Indian homeland.
From piles of roadside fruit to the pastel saris of women huddled in monsoon rain, the images are alive with rich tones. But for Singh, the use of color was not only an aesthetic preference: it was an essential element of portraying life in his home country. As he told Time magazine in 1999, the year of his death: “To see India monochromatically, is to miss it altogether.”
“He loved that sense of a moment,” said Partha Mitter, a professor of art history at the University of Sussex and a close friend of Singh’s. “But his very deliberate use of color meant that he was not like Cartier-Bresson. His unique contribution was color photography – this is why he’ll be remembered.”
A complex portrait of India
Born to a wealthy family in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, Singh began his career as a photojournalist in the 1960s. His images featured in international magazines and newspapers including Life, National Geographic and the New York Times.
But Singh soon turned his attention to producing books, starting with 1974’s “Ganga: Sacred River of India.” Over the next 25 years, he published more than a dozen collections of photographs from across the country, each one characterized by busy scenes and complex compositions not just of city streets, but of villages, parks and other public spaces.
Although Singh spent time living in Hong Kong, London, Paris and New York, his photography focused exclusively on India. Whether capturing the bustling streets of Calcutta or the lush tropics of Kerala, his images were elegant, immediate and filled with interaction.
But while this human-centric approach is reminiscent of the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Singh’s sense of composition owes as much to traditional Indian art as modernism.
Singh credited the miniature paintings of the Mughal period as influences. The Met Breuer’s new show, titled “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs,” displays examples of the classical court pictures that inspired him, as well as works by some of Singh’s contemporaries, alongside 85 photos from across the photographer’s career.
“He was deeply steeped in Indian culture,” said Mitter, who also contributed an essay to a book about Singh that is being published alongside the exhibition. “If you looks at his photographs, with their vast array of colors, you see that he was trying to capture the explosive energy and chaos of India.
“He blended blended the foreground and the background in an amazing way – and he always tried to distance himself from the formalism of Western photography.”
“Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs” is on at The Met Breuer until Jan. 2, 2018.