Marc Riboud has sadly passed away on the 30th august 2016, at the age of 93.
One of the truly great photographers of the 20th Century, he travelled the world, particularly in those giant lands of the eastern communist bloc, the Soviet Union and Red China. It would be wrong to think of him as a news photographer or a war photographer, although he was certainly present at many historic moments. He is primarily a fine art man. His eye for composition and geometry leap out at you from his pictures, (Cartier-Bresson called him a born surveyor). It comes as no surprise to learn that he studied as a mechanical engineer.
Much of his work is instantly familiar. Some works became famous, legendary. Zazou painting the Eiffel Tower is shocking, beautiful, brilliantly composed, graceful, humorous, all at once. The painter himself like a balletic Buster Keaton suspended in an iron triangle in the ether above Paris. Another unforgettable iconic image was the young girl putting flowers in to the rifle barrels of the soldiers at the 1967 march on the Pentagon.
He spent several months in the U.S.S.R. and visited China many times over a thirty year period. He also documented the Viet Nam war from both sides of the conflict. Although he did cover overtly political events like the trial of Klaus Barbie and the Watergate hearings, he was really more interested in capturing the intensity of everyday human life. His work in China brilliantly shows this essential quality of his work.
My own small moment of contact with Marc Riboud came about when as a member of Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra, we were looking for an image for the cover of our CD album, ‘The Bicycle Lesson’. Leafing through a portfolio of his 1960’s Chinese work, we came upon a subtle but arresting shot taken in a back street of Peking in the mid ’60s. I wrote to him to ask how he would feel about a slightly off-kilter absurd orchestra using his beautiful image on their new album. I also sent him some recordings. He was very gracious in his reply, diplomatically didn’t comment on the music, and said we could use his work as we wished, for free. He didn’t even complain when we took the sacrilegious step of cropping the image to fit the CD format. What a guy.
As a kind of a post script to this, I later looked for that little back street on one of my travels in (what was now called ) Beijing. I was unable to find it. Many of the charming old ‘hutong’ of the Chinese capital have been demolished to make way for high rise tower blocks. The future. Fortunately we at least still have the massive back catalogue of Marc Riboud’s work to inform, educate and beguile us.