Raghubir Singh

The Met Breuer
945 Madison Avenue
October 11, 2017–January 2, 2018

Raghubir Singh, Monsoon Rains, Monghyr, Bihar, 1967, C-print, 9 1/2 x 14".

Raghubir Singh’s first camera was a gift from an older brother, who brought it back from a trip to Hong Kong. Singh, fourteen at the time, used the camera to join the photography club at his Jesuit high school in Jaipur. He took pictures constantly and developed them in a rudimentary black-and-white darkroom. On one of his parents’ bookshelves, he found a book of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work in India and pored over it intently.

Singh went to college to study history but dropped out. He needed to find a job. It was only after he applied to nearly every tea company in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and was rejected by all of them that he turned to photography as a career. Starting in the 1960s, he worked as a photojournalist—magazines offered him decent pay and unlimited access to Kodachrome slide film—and then settled into a rhythm of self-directed projects, which found their fullest expression in books (Singh published thirteen in his lifetime, with a fourteenth released posthumously). He died instantly of a massive heart attack in 1999, just fifty-six.

This most comprehensive retrospective of Singh’s photography to date, “Modernism on the Ganges,” tells the story of his life and work through eighty-five of his pictures. Singh held close to the influences of Cartier-Bresson and the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, a lifelong friend. But while they stuck to a black-and-white vision of the world, Singh drew upon eighteenth-century Rajput miniatures and the more colloquial twentieth-century tradition of hand-coloring studio portraiture. The show delicately punctuates its loosely chronological narrative with comparative images, tracing out Singh’s sources of inspiration, the work of his peers, and younger photographers whom he mentored. It allows for an incredible accumulation of detail, building in complexity toward a surprisingly nimble argument about color, photography, modernism, and a porous world.

— Kaelen Wilson-Goldie