The Clarity of Marc Riboud

New York, Times Square

What do you do when you realize you haven’t become the person you once hoped to be? What can you do? What should you do?

Age complicates the answers. If you are young and unencumbered with life’s baggage, you can – and should – make the changes that will take you where you want to be. If you are older, or even simply old, your options are fewer. You have obligations, many of them, financial and emotional. You have exchanged innocence and belief for experience and doubt. The road ahead is short, the time for a mid-course correction was long ago.

What can you do? What should you do?

These questions are in my head as I step out of the Rubin Museum onto West 17th Street during a recent visit to New York. A harsh, pre-winter wind fails to penetrate the sobriety of the moment, one focused on the exhibition I had just seen – more than 100 photographs made in post-World War II Asia by the pioneering Magnum photojournalist Marc Riboud.

With a Leica loaded with black-and-white film, Riboud inserted himself into the transition points of China, Japan, India and other countries during periods of often tumultuous political and cultural change. His work is direct, honest and, at times, both intimate and grand – everything good photojournalism should be.

Of course, I’d seen Riboud’s photographs before and even studied them in college, but collected together and filling room after room in the museum, the scale and the scope of his accomplishment was impressive and inspirational.

It also – selfishly – saddened me. This is the photography I yearn for and this remains the photography that eludes me. I am working on it, but I am not focused enough. My effort is scatter-shot, diffused by lack of direction.

A friend, a photographer I love and admire, urges me to find a story and tell it. I had dinner with her in New York and over steaming bowls of chewy udon she repeated her advice. Coincidentally, the next day, at the Riboud exhibition, I come across a letter written by Henri Cartier-Bresson to a 33-year-old Riboud in 1956, when the younger man was struggling with his photography.

“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story,” wrote Cartier-Bresson, who then counseled Riboud to look for the “means” of telling a story, to find the pieces and put them together one by one until the larger narrative is complete. (A larger excerpt is below.)

I have no illusions of becoming Marc Riboud. In fact, at this point of my life I have no illusions of anything. Still, I treasure clarity for it can lead to conviction.

What can I do? What should I do?

(When in New York, I walk – a lot. The photos below are snaps from a couple of Manhattan walkabouts.)

“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story. I’ll quote what Max Jacobs says about literature in a letter to a friend: ‘Look for the “means,” a work of art is a gathering of means to achieve an effect. Artists are not penitents displaying their sins, they are creators working towards a goal, they have a skill and a story gets made like a suit, with cutting and patterns. Whatever of ourselves we put into it, fine, but it’s necessary to learn how it’s made: what a situation is, how to bring it along, how to resolve it.”
— Letter from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Marc Riboud, March 19, 1956.

10 Things: New York in Winter

Upper West Side of New York seen from snowy Central Park

Lessons from a recent trip to Manhattan:

1. Martinis taste better in a crowd.

2. False alarms come in twos.

3. Digging through the closet in California for the winter clothes, including the heavy wool pea coat I’d bought in a vintage shop on Haight Street but never had the chance to use, is more fun than actually wearing them in New York.

4. When it’s 20 and the wind chill is minus God-knows-what, the weather wimp in me wins.

5. Slush sucks.

6. There’s a lot of yellow snow in Central Park.

7. It’s easier to find a table in a coffee shop on the Lower East Side than on the Upper West Side. Discuss.

8. I still love the subway.

9. New York friends make me feel more alive.

10. The best protection against frostbite is a return ticket to San Francisco.

Central Park in New York in the snow

New York Walkabout

Softball game in Central Park

One day. One lens. One great city. That’s a combination to live by — especially when it gives me the opportunity to resurrect one of my photographic roots: street photography, which I’ve always taken to mean as nothing fancier than walking around with a camera and shooting whatever comes my way.

My wife and I need a regular New York fix — museums, meat, martinis and, for me, a Manhattan walkabout. I indulged in the latter (after too much of the former) on a Sunday afternoon. Starting at the southern tip of Manhattan, I strolled Battery Park amid a glut of other tourists, circumnavigated the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, walked up to Wall Street to Trinity Church and then caught an uptown train to Midtown for a B&H break, and finally onto Central Park.

I only took two lenses to New York –a 50 1.4 for nighttime and 17-35 2.8 for everything else. This is part of a discipline I’m trying to adhere to of carrying less and looking more. I had only the wide zoom for the walkabout and, I’ll think you agree, it served me well. (Full gallery here.)

I loved the freedom of almost no gear and the demands it placed on me to move and adjust. Instead of bringing the picture to me, as a big fat bag of lenses can do, I had to go the picture. I also had speed. For those of you who jump to the gallery, look at the wedding shot. It was a turn and shoot, over in a 25oth moment. One lens, ready to go, makes that possible.

These days, as I chase assignments, try to learn technical skills others learned long ago, and spend hours at the computer doing high-rezzes and cataloging, it’s easy to forget the joy simple photography brings — the frame being filled, the captured moment, the image preserved. These were the thrills that drew me to photography originally.

A photo walkabout on a sunny New York Sunday does wonders to refresh the eye, lighten the head and remind me, again and again, of the wonders of photography.

Click here the images (and a few choice New York quotes). I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I did making them.