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Celebrating Marc Riboud: Six Decades of Watching Intently

7 years ago

Marc Riboud, the accalaimed photographer whose work crossed more than six decades, has died aged 93. In 2009 he was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, part of the Sony World Photography Awards.

Here in full and never previously published online, is the essay his close friend and journalist, Alain Genestar, wrote to accompany the prize. 


It was for the first issue of Polka magazine. Marc riboud was among the five photographers invited: Sebastaio Salgado, Reza, Gérard Rancinan, Jean-Marie Périer and Marc himself, all brought together in Polka by passion and friendship. As a gift to celebrate the birth of our magazine, Marc brought his most beautiful photographs of China, 50 years’ worth, a life of Chinese shadows and lights. To write the text which accompanied these photos,I met with Marc at his home, in Paris, way up on rue Monsieur Le Prince. We had a lengthy discussion in his kitchen, right at the end of the corridor, about his voyages, his craft, his photographs and also about his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson, who told Marc at the very beginning of his professional life, “How fortunate you are to be a born surveyor: it is so rare”. It was exciting to listen to him speak, his sentences cut with silences, his hesitations, the occasional blank spaces in his memory. So exciting that, since then, our conversation has never ceased. Marc and I have become friends. 

Thus I have the good fortune to be the pal of one of the greatest photographers of the past 84 years. The age of this eternally young man, occasionally, but not often enough, I go to see him in his spacious apartment for breakfast, always in the kitchen, with him and Catherine, his wife. My daughter Adélie shares our meal and our conversations. She works beside him every morning and, like me, she learns by watching him in his office at his desk. To watch Marc “manipulate” his photos, holding them back-to-front above his head to see the shapes and the lines through the paper, is to begin to understand that photography, as he practices it, is the sum of exacting and rigorous demands, an extreme tension that artists know when they seek, in the darkest depths within themselves, that inspiration which releases the magical and painful instant of creation. 

I’ve had occasion to write on the subject of Marc that he was a strolling photographer. That expression is both facile and false. Marc doesn’t stroll, in the sense that a stroll supposes distraction and relaxation: he watches intently, he spies, he searches, he tracks the perfect frame, there where the curves, the lines, the angles, the squares fit together naturally, either violently one clashing against another, or harmoniously side by side, to form the impeccable image… which retains its integrity even upside down. And, inevitably, this quest is exhausting, obsessional. That’s what I think of each time I watch him fiddling with his photos, twisting them, lifting them into the air in a ballet of black and white papers which flutter like flags, shaken by the movements of his trembling hands. 

Adélie, writing in an article on him – it’s a family habit – used these words:  “Marc Riboud likes to recall that the eye, like the other senses, has its pleasures.  A false note clashes in the ears, bitterness irritates the palate: the eye is equally sensitive to false images. To restore good order, one must shift, pull back, advance, tackle, lower one’s guard”. 

What could a man add to his daughter’s pretty words? Nothing. Unless to copy the title of her paper: the Surveyor’s eye. And to add what she thinks but didn’t dare say: that Marc is such a marvellous artist that he is pleased to let it be believed that his art is within the grasp of anyone. The perfect shape of elegance.

- Alain Genestar



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