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Raghubir Singh’s Modernism on the Ganges

Color is essential to Raghubir Singh’s photographs of India. As he once told Time magazine,”To see India monochromatically, is to miss it altogether.” A new retrospective of Singh’s work is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Breuer until January 2. “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs” features 85 of his photographs of India, along with work by contemporaries and fellow street photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Gedney, Helen Levitt and Lee Friedlander, and examples of the Indian miniature court paintings that also influenced his work.

Starting in the late 1960s, Singh used a handheld camera and Kodachrome color slide film to record his home country, at a time when most serious photographers were working in black and white. Born in Rajasthan into an aristocratic family, Singh began working as a photojournalist in the mid-1960s for magazines including Life and National Geographic. One benefit of these connections was access to color film, which wasn’t available in India until 1991 because of trade restrictions. Although Singh spent much of his life outside of India, living in Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York, his home country was the major subject of his work. His first book, Ganga: sacred river of India, was published in 1974 and was followed by more than a dozen others. These focused on regions of India, and on the Grand Trunk Road, an ancient route that runs from Afghanistan to Bangladesh. His last book, A Way Into India, published several years after his death in 1999, looks at the ubiquitous form of the Ambassador car, which acts as a framing device as well as a subject.

Along with an interest in color, Singh’s images often share a compositional density, the frame filled with action and movement and broken into many parts. In “Barber and Goddess Kali, Calcutta, West Bengal,” the arms of several statues divide the frame into sections. In one, a man looks skeptically at Singh’s camera, while in another, one man gives another a haircut. In “Fruit Seller and a Boy with a Child at Zaina Kadal Bridge, Jhelum River, Srinagar, Kashmir,” a make-shift wall separates the man selling oranges inside from the boy holding a child outside, offering a cut-way view and a suggestion of many lives lived in close proximity. In his formal approach, Singh described his distinctively Indian style as “on the Ganges side of modernism, rather than the Seine or East River side of it.”

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New Ideas in Photo Book Making: Dayanita Singh’s “Museum Bhavan” (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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