Something apparently minor but revelatory happened when I was with Raghubir Singh in Mumbai (when it was still called Bombay) in the early 1990s. We were in a fascinating place called ‘The Crawford Market,” a vast compendium of stalls filled with local produce. Wherever you looked there were spectacular things to see. (I define “spectacle” as a sight unusually rewarding to the eye.) I was excited by all the action; Raghubir, on the contrary, seemed utterly calm.
Suddenly, the revealing thing happened. He whipped his 35mm camera up to his eyes, and snapped it, apparently without having taken stock of the scene itself. There had been no pause for judgment or framing, and no duration in the taking of the picture. The moment was over, as it seemed, before it had begun.
How often have we heard about the stealth of street photographers, their agility, the speed of their varied attentions? Raghubir was of their breed, but faster still, and I think, for good reason. He had to reconcile his need for the most precise depth of field with his use of the slowest but most fine-grained of films, Kodachrome 25. To extend his lapidary focus from the nearest plane to the farthest out, he had to narrow the aperture of the lens. To reckon with the available light, he had to compensate by lengthening the time of exposure, which endangers any image to the hazards of wobble and blur. What I had seen that day at the market was the steadiest grip, capable of holding its operations absolutely firm for a period as improbably lengthy as a sixtieth of a second. The photographer himself was blasé about this skill, which enabled him to do justice to the most layered and dense figurations of his Indian homeland.
Speaking of them, at some other point, I remember asking him if he were ever fatigued by the inexhaustible exoticism of his subjects. Not at all he replied. What would be exotic for him would be some small town in Ohio or Iowa. This remark nicely put me in my place, relative to his. The dictionary defines “exotic” as “of foreign origin or character, not native, introduced from abroad but not fully naturalized or acclimated.” “Exotic” requires some psychic distance, some feeling of “otherness,” perceived by the viewer. The adjective often implies a source of attraction but not necessarily of approval, depending on those involved.
I can’t help quoting Susan Sontag on this subject: “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” This remark stems from the 1970s, when some writers took an adversarial approach to what they assumed to be the colonizing drive of Western photographic culture. Superior technology — so goes the argument — induces a stereotypical overview of unfamiliar lives, leaving them in false, submissive categories. When I suggested to Raghubir, in an interview, that his publishers were packaging his work as appropriate for tourist appetites, he replied that such a notion “has nothing to do with me. I mean, I grew up in India. My basic education has been in India […] I would be out of my mind to see [my work] as travel photography. I think the notion of travel photography […] means passing through.”
But to be a tourist in one’s own reality, as Sontag suggests, is a statement that goes too far in its implication of a self-deceiving mindset on a superficial journey to visit itself. On the contrary, this kind of trip might just unmask the familiar by revelation of the exotic that lies within.
Also, I have never thought that the term “tourist photography” was derogatory — we have museums that literally tour us through investigations of our past and present, and even sponsor trips to foreign lands. Photography incarnates that impulse to travel, documents and legitimates it as an agent of our existential wonder, by virtue of its great pictorial capacity. I view Raghubir’s career as knowingly in the service of that wonder —and as a creative extension of it — relayed out to his own background.
Interestingly, as his art got underway in the 1960s and ‘70s, a new documentary impulse was energizing American photography. He had significant contacts with it, personally and professionally. But even before he became acquainted with some of its innovational figures — Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand — he’d been working on assignment for National Geographic, and had been influenced by Life magazine telephoto reportage. These were useful outlets for him to learn his craft, as well as idioms worth rejecting on behalf of his art.
In order to explore Indian lives, he could employ Life’s monumental pictorialism and mix it with the expansiveness of the new documentarians. Nor should we forget that Raghubir, a student of photographic history, admired Henri Cartier Bresson and was sympathetic to the Magnum Agency’s blend of aesthetic self-consciousness and journalistic responsibility. Charged up with this mélange of genres, he set out on a path that would lead him to become the visual poet laureate of the subcontinent.
This happened within the nominal mode of street photography, an aspect of which has not been well understood. Since the invention of the camera, scholars have long taken note of the dialogue between painters and photographers. These cultural workers most evidently converged at that moment in time dominated by the movement called Realism. Photography appealed to realist sensibility by virtue of its seeming ownership of material appearances. Of course painting had the higher status in this conversation, since it could rely on its prestige as freely created vision, whereas photography offered only a mechanical copy of outer worlds. Useful as this was in the acquisition of knowledge, the copy was considered inferior or at best only a handmaiden to imaginative art.
The inevitable next step in the weakening interaction between the two media came with the advent of modernism. Painting’s retreat from, or dismissal of, material appearances became one of its cardinal traits. And let’s not overlook another casualty produced in general by modern art: its demotion of story content in painting, even representational painting, later marginalized by abstraction. Viewers were prompted to search for internal conceptual meanings rather than for illustrational clues to behavior in likely schemes of cause and effect.
The many practices in photography were, by contrast, invested in such schemes, reflected by their specific social utility. Group portraiture, political reportage, wedding pictures, combat photography, etc., are genres we know very well. They shuffle us around the world in mundane narrative containers, most often accompanied by textual fill-in. Certain questions were answered: who was there, for what purpose, and on what date? We also might learn about the doings that preceded or succeeded the scenes at issue, of which these pictures represent an instance, whether central or incidental.
Not so street photography! In characteristic examples of its kind, the view is populated with incidentals and the discursive context acts as mere caption, at best. There tends to be a notion of continuities active beyond the frame, as important in their absence as whatever presences are shown within it. There is no necessary appointment between the picture makers and their motifs. Street photographers enjoy wide latitude in this respect. It’s up to them, at the moment or in retrospect, to determine a picture’s worthiness of being released to a public. In other words, they themselves initially decide if the work is expressive enough of their concerns to warrant being attached to their names. No wonder that photographers with artistic ambitions were drawn to the street genre. Its openness to capricious possibilities becomes an incentive to workers unwilling to tell stories and yet be still highly engaged with the world. They are lyrical opportunists, caught up with the challenge of finding memorable nuance in the psychology of space, or in the moody atmosphere of their own feelings, or even in the tension of being stared back by their subjects. There is no story line to such observations, snatched from multiple, program-free proceedings. They are understood as things that simply happen. You could say that photographers who range this way are modernists without portfolio.
I hope I’m not being presumptuous by fitting Raghubir Singh into this idiom. True enough, he has his own named territories and stated themes, which he often introduced by writing serious historical and social essays to accompany them. None of his readers would escape the impression that he had an investigative regard for his material. He was not playing around in the hope of finding weird, floating anomalies, like his American colleagues. But he brought to his work an element that helped to change the temper of street photography to come. And by that I mean color.
There was once a period when you could cite grievances that certain photos were “about” color, although never would you hear that a photograph was about black-and-white. We now look back upon black-and-white photography as a pictorial report of situations and relationships that occurred in the irrevocable past. This retrospection is not caused by decreased use of the medium but rather because its gray scheme contracts sensory recall, like memory does, fading across time. A kind of melancholy arises from this encounter, often suitable to evidently sad situations. Thus, when I first saw the color pictures of the American Depression by FSA photographers Russell Lee and Jack Delano, I was shocked by their charming, pastel tints: in cases like these, color can very well have its own narrative impact that transgresses received notions of emotional proprietary.
In Raghubir’s case, color functions as the core illumination of his great surveys. He was able to take immediate advantage of strong, varied palettes because they were inherent in his subjects’ presentation to themselves and to the world. No matter what misery might be evident, the ensemble could still be very decorative and upbeat if permeated by religious fervor. By recognizing color’s ability to moisten a scene at the point of the spectator’s contact with it, the photographer often manages to suggest that time is extended, from the antiquity of ritual to the “now” of the present moment. The epic and the intimate cohabit in his books, each of them adorned by the peacock flutterings at their turfs.
The exultation of these Indian sagas reminded me of a high point in my own experience: years ago, I used to jog through Southern Manhattan, playing a tape of a great romantic symphony in on my Walkman cassette player. How to synchronize the elated entrance of the soprano in the last movement with the highpoint of my exercise: the apex of the runway on the Brooklyn Bridge? In hindsight, I should have realized that this reach for the sublime was anticipated by the sound of a little click in a Bombay market.
This essay has been adapted from remarks prepared for a symposium on Raghubir Singh presented by The South Asia Institute on October 16, 2017, at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan), where the retrospective exhibition Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs will continue through January 2, 2018. The two other panelists were Ram Rahman and Glenn Lowry.