South Asian Photo 101 is a set of blog post designed to explore all the basics one needs to know to have a general understanding of photography in South Asia from artist to art galleries and festivals.
Portrait of Raghubir Singh by Ram Rahman
Getting to Know Raghubir Singh
Raghubir Singh is one of India’s most well-known and prolific photographers of the 20th century. He was born in October, 1942 in Jaipur, Rajasthan. The capital of the state. He pasted in April of 1999 in New York. His primary mode of photography was color street photography and he is known as one of the “pioneers of color photography” (Raghubir Singh, Sepia Eye,http://sepiaeye.com/raghubir-singh, accessed 5/22/17). From the 1960’s though the 1990’s his photographs show the growing changes in Indian society throughout the country.
Singh is most notable known for the amount of books he has published. He published 14 books, starting with Ganges in 1974 and ending with A Way into India which was published posthumously in 2002. Almost all of his books focused on either states or cities including the states of Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu and the cities of Bombay and Calcutta. I personally own Bombay, Rajasthan, Colors of Change and A Way into India. Rajasthan holds special meaning for me now since I have spent so much time in the state.
In addition to his publishing, he also showed his work globally in 1983. His work continues to be exhibited today. He has even exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art in my hometown Dallas, Texas. Furthermore, his work is in the collections of museums around the world including The Museum of Photography in Tel-Hai, Israel, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Tokyo among others.
I am drawn to Singh’s photographs because I started out as a street photographer and continue to practice the genre today. After visiting India I came to appreciate his photographs because they capture the changing landscapes of India in the late 20th century. Looking through his monograph Rajasthan which was published in 1981 and then walking through the streets of any city in Rajasthan you can see the vast changes that have occurred. However, in some places the past does persist.
Singh’s photographs are complex compositions filled with visual information. The photograph above is a great example of this. The space in the photograph is flattened because he photographed through a wall of mirrors and the space behind is darkened. The mirrors give the viewer information from in front of and behind Singh. It really stresses the chaos of modern Bombay.
The photographs are less visually cluttered so his mastery of composition can be seen. Furthermore, in the top photograph on the left he has used stop action to suspend one of the boys mid-air. The way the boy is hanging in space it looks like he is going to land on the steps. This creates some concern within the frame. For the Western viewer the photograph is exotic because of the old architecture being covered by the water, a common scene in South Asia.
Singh’s mastery of composition can also be seen in the photograph on the lower left. In the right foreground of the photograph is a cow standing behind a light post. The cow faces the right side of the frame. On the other side of the frame in the middle ground is a statue of a goddess. This statue is turned slightly to the left and the goddesses gaze looks down towards the bottom left corner of the frame which leads the eye to the items drying on the slope below her. This draws the eye to the path which brings them to the middle of the photograph. Behind a frame in the background figures are in the water and a boat is behind them. The boat brings the eye to the horizon line just above. This leads to the cow and her gaze leads the eye out of the frame.
Anyone who is interested in street photography or photography from India must study Raghubir Singh photography. Many things about street photography, composition and the use of color photography can be learned from exploring his photographs. If you are in India, you can practice your skills by visiting one of the cities he photographed and try to find one of the locations where he shot.