I had never heard of Raghubir Singh until only last week, when Joanna mentioned his retrospective at the Met Breuer was what we were going to see for the class. This piqued my curiosity, in that the photographer was prominent enough to have a posthumous retrospective at the Met, yet I didn’t know him or his work at all.
On entering the show I noticed two things immediately: colors and composition. I am not quite sure if colors like those we see in Singh’s photographs exist anymore (in photography). This surely goes for a select group of vintage dye transfer prints; but true even for those chromogenic prints that were reproduced recently. I was particularly taken by so many different tones of red: vivid, saturated, subdued, dark. There was something about the way red was captured and printed that made the photographs on display not only unique, but a subtle feast for the eye.
Singh’s complex composition, which frames multiple actions unfolding simultaneously across the pictorial space, immediately made me think of the work of photographer Alex Webb. Yet, given the time that those photographs were made, I couldn’t quite tell whether this was the result of stylistic influence or more or less contemporaneous development.
South Asia in general is a difficult place to portray, be it in writing or with images. The complex legacy of colonialism means that many – or the most – visual or rhetorical tropes available for us to represent the sub-continent are inevitably entrapped in the semiotic structure of Orientalism (e.g. Said 1978). It is for sure a complicated task to evaluate the ways in which Singh’s oeuvre intersects with this othering structure of representation, given that he is a native of the culture he photographed, but he photographed it for the outlets of Western media institutions such as Time magazine. The very notion of modernism, which is mentioned in the title given to this exhibition, is itself a highly problematic Western construct. It situates a particular formal quality of artistic expression in the narrative of linear, teleological progression. I discuss this not as criticism aimed at Singh, but a general background against which work like his needs to be situated today (but understood in the context of his time).
Overall, however, the work I was most drawn to in the show was not made by Raghubir Singh. It was 15 etchings (1996) by the British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor, whose work, according to the curatorial text, Singh had greatly admired. The etchings do not have clearly demarcated figurative subjects; instead, each etching appeared to deal with subtlety of formal transition, in the shades of muted red and yellow, or permeable shapes of black, grey and white.
Since the text inevitably talked more about Singh and his relationship with Kapoor, it was a little unclear whether Kapoor meant those 15 etchings as a single body of work; or each etching was produced independently. In the sea of vivid photographs, whose content usually have strong and hard-edged shapes, encountering Kapoor’s etchings felt like a moment of formal respite. I feel that the fact I was most attracted to this work in the context of sumptuous photographs speaks volumes about where my practice is currently heading.