The Indian Street Photographer Who Captured The Vivid Colours of India In A B&W Era
Apart from self-portraits, street-photography is probably the most quintessential artform of capturing photos that test the abilities of a photographer. It's a genre that has celebrated many masters like Henri-Cartier Bresson, Vivian Maier, Eisenstaedt, Alex Webb and Bernice Abbott. It became recognized as genre of its own in the 1930s. Since then it has turned into a movement of art that captures the spirit and motion of human life.
During the 50s when most serious photographers used black and white in their work for the essential drama it brings to the photos, a young college dropout from an aristocratic Rajput family began his journey as what would would later be one of the most iconic Indian street photographers in the history of the medium, changing the way colour is perceived for decades to come.
Raghubir Singh, the legendary street photographer started his career when he moved to Calcutta with a 35 mm gifted to him by his brother. He was eventually introduced to the artists working in the city at the time, one of whom was the pioneer filmmaker Satyajit Ray. This circle greatly influenced Raghubir's work especially the realism in Ray's films. The filmmaker also designed the cover for Raghubir's first book and wrote an introduction for another. Raghubir's photos were captivating from the beginning and by the 60s, Life Magazine had already published 8 pages of his photographs about the student unrest at the time.
Raghubir had discovered Bresson's book, Beautiful Jaipur as a kid which actually sparked his interest in photography. He adapted Bresson's documentary-style photos of India but chose small-format colour as his medium instead.
“The true Indian artist cannot ignore the blessing of color that is written into the Indian idea of darshan - sacred sight - which we know since childhood. This idea is a way of seeing that encompasses the sensuality of touch and feel, human contact and intimacy. Black does not fit into the idea of darshan," he said in an interview with Time Magazine.
Raghubir published his first book, Ganges in 1974 after travelling along the river-range. He also moved to Hong Kong in the 70s, and overtime lived in Paris, London and New York always returning to India for taking photographs and creating his portfolio. His style was influenced by the Mughal and Rajasthani miniature paintings and he continuously learnt new western techniques, fusing them with the Indian aesthetics. In his lifespan, Raghubir published 14 books some of which are Bombay, Kerala and Rajasthan; the last one being A Way Into India which was published posthumously in 2002.
Raghubir worked as a photojournalist for Time Magazine, The New York Times and National Geographic. Through his assignments, the photographer developed a relationship with these magazines that got him continuous access to Kodachrome film which due to import restrictions was impossible to get in India. Mark Raso's 2017 film, Kodachrome captures the end of that spectacular era that came to be when Kodak discontinued manufacturing the film in 2010.
Raghubir Singh defined modernism in Indian photography through colour when the norm was otherwise, and gave it a home in his vast body of work. Shooting transparencies (slide film) and often using flash despite the natural light, Raghubir created an aesthetic template of India that no other photographer has since been able to do. He encapsulated that era in hues that visual artists now call 'retro' or 'film colours'. There are presets on photography softwares now that try to imitate what he originally created using the elements, his skills and his exceptional perception of space and time.
The photographer captured ordinary people of India in such a way that a western eye would for sure call it exotic, but to Raghubir this was just home. He painted people in his gaze which was informed by a beauty and rhythm not everyone could see. His compositions were the most sublime; with the movement of people's daily life and the dynamism of busy streets but never chaos. And colour was the soul of his work — vivid and vibrant but never overpowering; just the right degree, with an arresting presence that would make the perfect visual symphony. The more you spend time looking at his photographs; you can't help but, the more you wonder if the man had a superhuman ability to navigate some sacred geometry carrying cues for the perfect moment; the moment that would be only his to capture and ours to be relived, visually, repeatedly in awe, for years to come.