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Raghubir Singh in New York

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday October 18, 2017

There has not been a showing of Raghubir Singh’s work in New York for nearly ten years—the last being a small, gem-like presentation at the Hermes Gallery, located on the top floor of the Madison Avenue store. But last week, The Met Breuer opened a major exhibition of photographs by the Indian photographer born in 1942 whose prolific career was cut short when he died in 1999 at the age of fifty-eight. And next week, Howard Greenberg Gallery will open an exhibition of 28 of his photographs from Bombay, the subject of his 1994 book published by Aperture.

A self-taught photographer, Singh learned by prowling the streets of Calcutta while he was still in high school, imitating images by Western photographers that he saw in Life magazine. One of his heroes was Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose black-and-white photographs of India during the independence movement of 1948-49 were a great influence.

 

Raghubir Singh, Ganapati Immersion, Chowpatty, Bombay, Maharashtra, 1989. ©2017 Succession Raghubir Singh. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the mid-1960s, Singh accompanied the master on his travels in Jaipur, noting his working process and taking up the Leica 35 mm camera for himself. By the late 1960s Singh was working as a photojournalist for major Western publications, including the New York Times and National Geographic, which supplied him with color film, not available in India at the time.

While he appreciated Cartier-Bresson's “decisive moment,” and the somber, formal quality of his black-and-white images, over time, Singh came to realize that his life’s work was to capture the cacophony that is India—alive with clutter, dust and debris—and raucous color. But not before he had created the sublimely balanced and often faintly colored images of Benares (India’s most sacred pilgrimage site) in 1985, some of which are punctuated by strongly colored figures caught in the moment of doing something surprising. These images, several of which were published in Aperture V. 105, in 1986, have had a notable influence on photographers subsequently taking up color photography in South Asia and the Far East.

 

Man Diving, Ganges Floods, Benares, Uttar Pradesh, 1985. ©2017 Succession Raghubir Singh. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Over time Singh began to forge the unique style for which he is known today, in which the main subject of the image is nearly consumed by the surrounding visual mayhem. They capture, for example, the experience of being in Mumbai or Bengal, where one must peer through a scene crowded with people, vehicles, doors hanging open, and the occasional Brahmin bull to glimpse the subject that drew one there in the first place—a monument, a circus performer, perhaps a temple. Singh’s mature photographs have the marvelous capacity of enveloping the viewer in their colorful chaos.


 

Victoria Terminus, Bombay, Maharashira, 1991. © 2017 Succession Raghubir Singh. Courtesy The Meteroplitan Museum of Art

In his photographs from Bombay, Singh captures the country’s economic capital at a moment of transition, before it became the global powerhouse it is today. In many of these images, mirrors and reflections contribute elements of ambiguity and a sense of movement, which the writer V.S. Naipaul speaks of in the Introduction of the book: “You cannot take it all in at once. You have to let your eye move from centre to centre, so there is constant movement in the picture. I find this quality in [his] work. It is one of its virtues. The other thing I thought is that, with pictures like these one almost doesn’t need words.”

Following its presentation through January 2, 2018 at The Met Breuer, Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (March 3-June 3, 2018) and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (July 21-October 21, 2018) Info

Raghubir Singh: Bombay opens Thursday, October 26 at Howard Greenberg Gallery, with a reception from 6 to 8 pm. 41 East 57th Street, NY, NY Info

 

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