Singh did justice to the most layered and dense figurations of his Indian homeland.
Something apparently minor but revelatory happened when I was with Raghubir Singh in Mumbai (when it was still called Bombay) in the early 1990s. We were in a fascinating place called ‘The Crawford Market,” a vast compendium of stalls filled with local produce. Wherever you looked there were spectacular things to see. (I define “spectacle” as a sight unusually rewarding to the eye.) I was excited by all the action; Raghubir, on the contrary, seemed utterly calm.
Suddenly, the revealing thing happened. He whipped his 35mm camera up to his eyes, and snapped it, apparently without having taken stock of the scene itself. There had been no pause for judgment or framing, and no duration in the taking of the picture. The moment was over, as it seemed, before it had begun.
How often have we heard about the stealth of street photographers, their agility, the speed of their varied attentions? Raghubir was of their breed, but faster still, and I think, for good reason. He had to reconcile his need for the most precise depth of field with his use of the slowest but most fine-grained of films, Kodachrome 25. To extend his lapidary focus from the nearest plane to the farthest out, he had to narrow the aperture of the lens. To reckon with the available light, he had to compensate by lengthening the time of exposure, which endangers any image to the hazards of wobble and blur. What I had seen that day at the market was the steadiest grip, capable of holding its operations absolutely firm for a period as improbably lengthy as a sixtieth of a second. The photographer himself was blasé about this skill, which enabled him to do justice to the most layered and dense figurations of his Indian homeland.
The many practices in photography were, by contrast, invested in such schemes, reflected by their specific social utility. Group portraiture, political reportage, wedding pictures, combat photography, etc., are genres we know very well. They shuffle us around the world in mundane narrative containers, most often accompanied by textual fill-in. Certain questions were answered: who was there, for what purpose, and on what date? We also might learn about the doings that preceded or succeeded the scenes at issue, of which these pictures represent an instance, whether central or incidental.
Not so street photography! In characteristic examples of its kind, the view is populated with incidentals and the discursive context acts as mere caption, at best. There tends to be a notion of continuities active beyond the frame, as important in their absence as whatever presences are shown within it. There is no necessary appointment between the picture makers and their motifs. Street photographers enjoy wide latitude in this respect. It’s up to them, at the moment or in retrospect, to determine a picture’s worthiness of being released to a public. In other words, they themselves initially decide if the work is expressive enough of their concerns to warrant being attached to their names. No wonder that photographers with artistic ambitions were drawn to the street genre. Its openness to capricious possibilities becomes an incentive to workers unwilling to tell stories and yet be still highly engaged with the world. They are lyrical opportunists, caught up with the challenge of finding memorable nuance in the psychology of space, or in the moody atmosphere of their own feelings, or even in the tension of being stared back by their subjects. There is no story line to such observations, snatched from multiple, program-free proceedings. They are understood as things that simply happen. You could say that photographers who range this way are modernists without portfolio.
I hope I’m not being presumptuous by fitting Raghubir Singh into this idiom. True enough, he has his own named territories and stated themes, which he often introduced by writing serious historical and social essays to accompany them. None of his readers would escape the impression that he had an investigative regard for his material. He was not playing around in the hope of finding weird, floating anomalies, like his American colleagues. But he brought to his work an element that helped to change the temper of street photography to come. And by that I mean color.
In Raghubir’s case, color functions as the core illumination of his great surveys. He was able to take immediate advantage of strong, varied palettes because they were inherent in his subjects’ presentation to themselves and to the world. No matter what misery might be evident, the ensemble could still be very decorative and upbeat if permeated by religious fervor. By recognizing color’s ability to moisten a scene at the point of the spectator’s contact with it, the photographer often manages to suggest that time is extended, from the antiquity of ritual to the “now” of the present moment. The epic and the intimate cohabit in his books, each of them adorned by the peacock flutterings at their turfs.