In my mind, Marc Riboud is a mountain. Not just any mountain, but Huangshan, a vast mountain range in eastern China, between Wuhan and Shanghai. I met with Riboud in 1990 at his Parisian apartment, near the Luxembourg Gardens, to talk about this divine landscape. His book Huang Shan, published by Arthaud with an introduction by François Cheng, had just been published; it blew my mind.
That one could pack so much beauty into shot after shot without losing it just boggled the mind. Riboud’s breath was palpable in every image: he was certainly a good walker, but on Huangshan you need to climb endless stairs and, on top of that, you mustn’t get swept away by this hypnotic landscape and forget you are earthbound. At the very beginning of our conversation, Marc Riboud explained how much he had to acclimatize his body even before he let his eyes adjust. “Your feet are in the mud, your shoes chafe, the camera is fogging up… At high altitude hot air,” he concluded, evoking his chats with his guide-interpreter Sun Guofu, a young graduate of the University of Foreign Languages in Beijing.
Talking to Marc Riboud was an adventure in itself. Like a soccer player warming up, he would dart left and right before (eventually) returning to his starting point, without the ball. He was a rover, a man possessed of great curiosity, with a thousand anecdotes up his sleeve, and his eyes shining with a thousand stars (I counted them). Digressing was his pastime, which could sometimes get on his interlocutors’ nerves; invariably, though, they would succumb to his charm, because listening to him tell a story was a privilege: he spoke like a grandfatherly prankster, conjuring up a photographic archipelago.
He had known Henri Cartier-Bresson well (he remembered the day he drove him to the Gare de Lyon in his old Peugeot 203); as well as George Rodger (who had bought him a Land Rover for his journey East, to India, in 1955, and then Mao’s China, in 1957). Both HCB and Rodger were both pioneers at Magnum, which was the ideal agency. Or an agency ideal. Marc Riboud was part of it as early as 1953, the year he captured the painter on the Eiffel Tower, one of his most choreographic photographs, a celestial solo: an unforgettable ballet for a cigarette and a paintbrush, an image so well known, so often reproduced that we feel like we were born into the arms of this high-altitude funambulist.
Thirty years later, in 1983, having reported from Africa, Algeria, and Vietnam, Riboud began climbing the Huangshan. One of his black-and-white photographs is included in the go-to Photofile edition (Thames&Hudson). It shows thick mist pierced here and there by granite peaks and pine trees, a paradise for painters, poets, and … photographers.
Some fifty years ago, this inspiring location, had already brought one of the most famous Chinese photographers, Lang Jingshan (1892–1995), to his knees. The author of Majestic Solitude (1934), Jingshan said, on the occasion of his exhibition at the FNAC Brussels in 1990: “When a Chinese man hikes in the mountains, he accumulates impressions, images, and, upon return, composes an ideal picture of his journey from the elements of reality he had found touching. He reconstitutes a perfect landscape. […] It is a landscape so beautiful, so subtle that one has the impression of being immersed in the imagination of a Chinese painter. I had to avoid the following pitfalls at all costs: the monotonous and the postcard, that is to say the photographic effect. That is why I tried to purify. And only the mist could help me to erase, to simplify.”
“Every self-respecting artist must travel inwards at least once in his life,” said Marc Riboud. He traveled above all “to meet other people.” On the photographer’s website, his Chinese guide Sun Guofu recounts the numerous questions Riboud asked those he met along the way about “the yellow mountain”: he talked to “small tea merchants, mushroom vendors, sedan chair porters.” Less weird than he appeared—he sometimes liked to pose as an absent-minded enigma—Riboud was at heart a conscientious reporter. He was interested in the broader context of his work, whether in Algeria or Ghana, which he discovered in 1960. His book, Ghana, was published in 1964 by the Lausanne-based publisher Rencontre, in a series edited by Charles-Henri Favrod. Jane Rouch contributed a lively, poignant commentary. Ghana is one of my favorite books because it shows, on the one hand, how words can dovetail with photographs, and vice versa, without getting in each other’s way; on the other hand, it is an example of how a photojournalist can consciously participate in the reality of a country, in this case Ghana, three years after its independence.
Riboud was a conscientious reporter and, I would add, a kind human being. I don’t know if young reporters nowadays aspire to kindness. It remains to be seen. For Riboud’s (1923–2016) generation, bearing witness was important. As was the idea of sharing—whether through his new reports or exhibitions.
As it happens, Riboud has been in the news lately. In Le Havre, in addition to photos included in the exhibition Jours heureux d’après-guerre [Happy Postwar Days], some portraits of Clémence, the daughter of Marc and Catherine Chaine Riboud, are on display. In Lyon, at the gallery Le Réverbère, Riboud’s Japan (1958) is exhibited alongside more recent work by Géraldine Lay.
Several fast-paced scenes date to Japanese rock years, like the photo of this pretty Japanese woman asleep on a Tokyo–Enoshima train making a stop at some train station. Or these boys nonchalantly reclining at a tattoo parlor. Or yet these anonymous passersby outside the Julien Sorel café in Tokyo, one staring at the man photographing him: one Marc Riboud.
“Jours heureux d’après-guerre” and “Clémence” curated by Lorrène Durret, Sylvie Hugues, Mathilde Terraube, La Maison du Regard, Le Havre until December 10, 2022
“Marc Riboud, de la mélancolie à la joie”, Arcturus gallery, 65 rue de Seine – Paris 6e, until December 10.
Publication: Catherine Chaine Riboud, with photos by Marc Riboud, J’aime avoir peur avec toi (Seuil)
Le Japon en duo, Le Réverbère Gallery, Lyon until December 31, 2022
Learn more about Lang Jingshan
Cover picture: Fonds Marc Riboud au MNAAG © Marc Riboud