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Marc Riboud
Photograph David Riboud

MARC RIBOUD

Born in Lyons, 24th June 1923.
1944-45 : Member of the French Résistance
1945-1947 : studies engineering in Lyons
1953 : leaves his job as an engineer to be become a free-lance photojournalist.
1953 – 1979 : member of Magnum
Numerous travels, particularly in the Far East.
Works in black & white and colour.
Lives in Paris.

“The target of our line of sight is reality – but our framing can transform it into a dream.”










Marc Riboud : My first reaction at the very idea of this interview was to refuse to talk about photography. Why dissect and comment a process that is essentially a spontaneous reaction to a surprise? This can’t be analysed – or you would have to discuss endlessly about how different people, according to their sensitivity, react differently to a surprise. But I’m no psychologist, and anyhow talking about photography embarrasses me. On the other hand, and in an apparent contradiction to what I’ve just said, I feel more and more interested in specifying my thoughts. After all we are no machines, even though we work from behind a machine : we think before taking a photo, we think- though not much – while taking it, and we have to think about it afterwards. It may be important to put these thoughts into words, rather than to leave them as a vague, ever-changing cloud, moulding itself to our moods or to the moods of others. It may be a good thing for a photographer to be pinned down and forced to express these thoughts – and I don’t mind you pinning me down.

Frank Horvat : Let’s try and keep it down to earth. When I hear you saying, “I have to edit my photos from the last thirty-five years, in order to choose a hundred for an exhibition”, I can’t help thinking of the twenty or thirty thousand you will not choose – though you had probably been interested in whatever their subject was. Could we analyse the criteria that make you choose some rather than others?

Marc Riboud : Obviously subject matter is only one criterion among others. I have photographed thousands of interesting subjects, but they didn‚t always produce good photos.

Frank Horvat : On the other hand, can a less interesting subject make a good photo? Like the one that’s on the cover of your catalogue?

Marc Riboud : I would say that when a photographer is not interested in the subject, he can easily fall into aestheticism. Some people have criticised that particular photo, finding it out of place in my exhibition. But I see more in it than just form : you may call it a mix of distance and intimacy, which is typical of my way of working. And also a certain restraint, even though it shows a naked woman. The subject, for me, is the home of Anna Farova, a close friend. The girl is Anna’s daughter, Isabelle, and the book she is holding is Cartier-Bresson’s Photo-Poche, that I just brought her. The other book you see is Les Résonances de l'Amour, a present from Anne Philipe. The postcards on the fire place are significant as well : there’s one from Sicily, sent by Martine Franck, on which one can read “Santa Anna"‚ and another with the logo of the exhibition organised by Anna Farova in Plessy. What the photo shows is the secret garden of a woman who is important to me, a very brave woman, as she proved it during the struggle about "Charter 77”. It is true that in some ways this photo is different from my other ones, but on the other hand it has something that’s common to all, a natural approach to the subject, with no bizarre angles, no technical gimmicks, no lighting effects. It shows a certain restraint, but at the same time a visual tenderness.


Photo Marc Riboud

Frank Horvat : If I had to choose a single photo to represent your work, it could well be this one. I can see the intimacy. But what strikes me even more is a visual relation between three essential elements. If I hide the cat, by covering it with my hand…

Marc Riboud : …then the photo no longer works.

Frank Horvat : And the same is true of the nude and the statuette.

Marc Riboud : The whole has to be visually organised. One detail that keeps bothering me is that book. I placed it there because it’s a book I like, it was the only staging I did – apart from the nude, of course. In fact a publisher had requested a photo with a nude, for some project, but I didn’t have one in my files, so I asked Isabelle to pose for me. Someone remarked that my photos are never built around a single central element, like an object or a person, but that the eye is always invited to wander around. Originally this probably came from my shyness, but then it became integrated with another trait of my character, which is my love for geometry.

Frank Horvat : So you are looking for coincidences.

Marc Riboud : I don’t like that word, it makes me think of chance. Like those photographers who like to catch bizarre people walking in front of bizarre posters. What I am looking for are connections in space, between elements playing against each other, so that the whole gets to express something. A visual surprise, but within a well structured form.

Frank Horvat : In other words: the viewer should be surprised, but at the same time he should feel that what is surprising him is part of an order.

Marc Riboud : It’s as with every other form of expression. When you read Proust, you are brought from one surprise to the next, but at the same time you are carried along by his style, which is like wonderful music. Photography may be a minor art, or a marginal one, but it can be extremely exciting – because it has to fulfill the same demands.

Frank Horvat : It was considered minor, or marginal, when we became photographers, and this was possibly what saved us from one of the diseases of our time, which is the obsession with originality. No one expected us to be original. We were like on rails, in a system that seemed intended to last forever. We didn’t have to ask ourselves big questions about photography, all we had to do was to open an issue of Life and look at work by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa or Eugene Smith. This was even more true in your case: you became a photographer as you would have become a painter in the Renaissance, by being Henri’s disciple and never imagining a different direction. Though eventually this didn’t prevent you from producing a body of work different from his, unmistakeably and entirely your own. But I don’t believe that at the time you had any qualms about photography, you only wanted to be a witness to what happened in the world…

Marc Riboud : Not at all, I never wanted to be a witness. I just went into the world – or rather around the planet. You mustn’t get carried away with grand words, things are much simpler. As a matter of fact my beginnings were slow. I was intimidated by the atmosphere of Magnum, and particularly by the personalities of Cartier-Bresson, Capa and Chim, who to my eyes were the examples to be followed. I considered them far superior to myself, who didn’t have an idea about photojournalism and was unable to travel the way they did. But at the same time I had a strong instinct for independence: so the first thing I did, after being accepted into Magnum, was to leave Paris and France for two years. As a result I didn’t have much contact with other Magnum photographers. I knew a few things about their style, which wasn’t only a way of photographing, but also a way of living. As you said, the idea of setting myself apart, by what today we call a photographic identity, wouldn’t have crossed my mind – no one used that term anyway. When we met we didn’t talk about our “great photos”, but about places we had discovered, people we had come to know, we swapped phone numbers of friends or adresses of eating places, or we related some adventure. It’s true that Cartier-Bresson and a few others had a strong tendency to teach and even to moralise, and thus to exert a kind of subconscious pressure, not only about photography, but about everything else, even about how to store your camera in your bag. I had great respect for them, so I ended up being influenced, and I don’t regret it. But I was also a rebel, as I had been with my family, when I went into the Résistance or when I quit my job as an engineer.

Frank Horvat : And later on? After the Sixties? For many of us that was a period of doubt. Some Magnum photographers withdrew to their family lives and to their specialties. Some major magazines, such as Life‚ disappeared. There was no stand to witness from, and maybe also less motivation.


Photo Marc Riboud

Marc Riboud : I wouldn’t say that – and anyway I don’t like the word “witnessing”. In the Sixties, I often returned to Vietnam, not because I believed in what was called “concerned photography”, nor to be a witness, but simply to have a close look at events that so many people were talking about from a distance. It was difficult, at the time, to not feel sympathetic to the Vietnamese, who were holding out against the American bombs. Sympathy, after all, is a better approach to understanding than indifference, or than the so called objectivity, that some preach but that in fact is impossible, in photography as in any other field. As I came to understand that country better and better, I felt a stronger urge to return there, if only to follow up on the events. Just as now I like to return to the new museum in Houston, for which I have a passionate interest, to the point that I keep thinking about it and seeing it with the eyes of my mind. Places are like friends, you want to keep in contact with them, to be informed about their changes and to find out how they evolve. In the Sixties and Seventies I often went back to Vietnam, China and India. Important things were happening there, and for me it was natural to return, without any preconceived ideas about what I would find : you can’t foresee what’s going to surprise you.

Frank Horvat : Talking about preconceived ideas and surprises : you just photographed the Klaus Barbie trial, an event that closely concerns you, because you are from Lyons and you were in the Résistance. You did a portrait of him, that makes him look like a kindly old man.


Photo Marc Riboud

Marc Riboud : Yes. An old, courteous, gentle and reserved person. “What a gentleman!” exclaimed Cornell Capa when he saw the photos. You would invite him to your home or hire him to teach your children! Yet he was one of the worst and most sadistic torturers. It was surprising to see him like that, two metres away from me. During that trial, I also photographed another person, the only surviving witness of the Izieu roundup. His name is Julien Favet, he was a farm labourer and never learnt how to read nor write. He looks frightening, with his red eye that seems ready to fall out of his face and his deformed mouth, you could be scared of him. I spent two hours at his home and came to realise that he was a man of extraordinarily pure feelings, with a great desire for justice and an obsession about truth, right down to details like the stone he was sitting on when he saw Barbie first. He remembers everything as if it were yesterday, with that photographic memory of people whose mind is unencumbered. The contrast between those two beings has been a fascinating visual experience.

Frank Horvat : But what link do you see between your photograph and what you believe to be reality? Aren’t you disturbed by that contradiction? After all, your assignment was to show some reality!

Marc Riboud : Not at all. The idea of photography as evidence is pure bullshit. A photo is no more proof of any reality than what you may hear being said by someone in a bus. We only record details, small fragments of the world. This cannot allow any judgement, even if the sum of these details may convey a point of view.

Frank Horvat : I’m not convinced. I remember a photo taken by Elliott Erwitt in 1960, when Nixon was running against Kennedy. It showed Nixon on a trip to Moscow, raising his fist in Kruchtchev’s face, probably in the heat of some discussion. Viewed out of context, it seemed to prove that Nixon was the man who could stand up to the Soviets, and this was how it was presented and how it nearly made Nixon win the race. At Magnum they were kicking themselves, particularly Elliott. I could quote other examples, even from your own photos. You showed the Cultural Revolution in China…


Photo Marc Riboud

Marc Riboud : I never did. I wasn’t even there during the Cultural Revolution, only before and after. It is true that some photos I took before were published during the Revolution, and what you probably mean is that they showed China with sympathy. But if you look at them today – Claude Roy, who is an expert on China, made the remark – you will notice that they show the hardness of the regime. And anyhow, a detail in a photo doesn’t prove a general reality. If I took a photo of a naked Chinese woman, it only proves that out of a billion people, one woman allowed herself to be photographed naked, in the Fine Arts School in Beijing in 1957. Obviously, if this detail is overused by the press, it may distort the image of a country – and we should avoid this kind of misuse.

Frank Horvat : Let’s come back to Klaus Barbie. You were face to face with him. You knew who he was. You were listening to the evidence of his atrocities. What you saw in your viewfinder was a kindly old man. What did you think?

Marc Riboud : Nothing. I didn’t even realise he looked kind. It was only much later, when editing the photos, that I discovered things. At the time, my problem was all the pushing and shoving, there were seven or eight photographers, I was just like the rest, I had to shoot both in black and white and in colour, close-ups and general views. Knowing that I wouldn’t be allowed more than ten minutes, I needed six or seven loaded cameras, but I only owned four. So I borrowed two extra ones, except that I was given the latest models, that I didn’t really know how to use. So I made some mistake while loading, and it was only after a few shots that I realised that the films didn’t wind. So I went off into a corner and wound them back, trying to keep calm, while my competitors were taking shot after shot. It all happened very quickly, I didn’t have time to worry about aesthetics or morals. It was only when leaving the court that I realised that this man who seemed so gentle, that I had seen from so close, was the one who had killed or ordered to kill, 44 years ago, some of my best friends and closest relatives.

Frank Horvat : Maybe it was the lack of thinking time that saved you. I recall an opposite example, Arnold Newman’s portrait of Krupp, taken with a very distorting wide-angle lens. Newman pretends that the distortion was intentional and meant to show the diabolical nature of the person. In my opinion, this doesn’t work and only diminishes the photo’s credibility.

Marc Riboud : I think you should simply present what you discover. The ideal would be to return to the vision you had when you were a child: only children can really see, without any preconceived ideas.

Frank Horvat : So we could say that by simply recording what you saw, you ended up producing a coherent body of work.

Marc Riboud : I recently spent a whole summer gathering my photos from the last 35 years and editing them for an exhibition. It was an interesting exercise. I didn’t look for any link between the ones I chose, neither by subject matter nor by style. I only asked myself : “Does this one stand out?” I also asked various people, such as my son David, Josef Koudelka, my wife Catherine and others. Little by little a common denominator emerged, which can easily be explained : some painters only had access to certain colours, or to certain surfaces to paint on. This handicap may have been the starting point of a direction, which eventually became a style. My handicap was shyness. I was frightened of speaking to my father and I am still intimidated by people I don’t know. It’s my nature. But sometimes we are driven to do the very opposite to our nature. In my case, photography has brought me to meet great personalities like Churchill, Bertrand Russell, Ho Chi Minh, or Castro. The style of my photography may come from the conflict between my natural shyness and my determination to overcome it.

Frank Horvat : Were you ever physically scared, in some of the dangerous situations where you found yourself?

Marc Riboud : Undoubtedly. But we are attracted by danger, as we are by beautiful women. It may be physiological. In 1968, when the Vietnamese launched the Têt offensive, I was in Hong Kong. I had a wife and two young children, but I immediately rushed to Saigon and Hué. One day, at the Da Nang military airport, there was a press call for a flight to Khe San, which at the time, as you may remember, was besieged. What a temptation to jump into that plane! My cameras were ready, I was in good shape, why not go? Eventually it didn’t work out…

Frank Horvat : And now, all those places and events, Vietnam, the liberation of Algeria, the landscapes of China, the Klaus Barbie trial, Anna Farova’s home, have in some way become part of you. As if photography was a way to take possession of the world, to feel at home wherever you are, be it Saigon or Houston or Lyons.

Marc Riboud : By no means! I never felt at home in Saigon! I'ld rather say that I feel just as much out of place in Saigon than in Lyons. But I’m curious about everything that’s foreign to me, and all the more as it’s more foreign. The people I photograph seem to me very different from myself. There was a fashion, for a while, of becoming a miner to photograph miners, or a muslim to photograph muslims, etc. I don’t believe in this, because if you become like the other, the surprise is gone. You better remain yourself and let yourself be surprised.

Frank Horvat : I would like to come back to the witnessing : if a visitor from Mars – or from the year three thousand – turned up and asked me what happened on earth around the middle of the twentieth century, I would show him the work of Cartier-Bresson. If he asked me what happened next, I would show him your work. Just as Henri, you felt it was your duty to be wherever an important event was taking place. That’s why you, more than anyone else, appear to me as his disciple. And that’s why I said “witnessing”.

Marc Riboud : Photographers shouldn’t talk too much about it. And to begin with they shouldn’t think of themselves as witnesses, only because they walk around with a camera. Forget about witnessing. Say to yourself that photography is a little everyday job. Stick to your curiosity, live it as a passion, nourish it by giving up as many ties as possible with your home place, because ties make you worry, and when you worry you don’t see so well – which is why children see better than grown-ups and why illiterate people have a better visual memory. I don’t think about witnessing. I like to photograph people, but I may feel just as interested in misty mountains or in still lives – as long as they allow some visual combination. Though I prefer moving subjects, because photography is mainly about capturing one instant rather than another, catching it when it’s ripe, freezing the movement at the right time. Like the right note in music, or the right balance in architecture. The pleasure is all the greater when the challenge is tougher, for instance when the elements to be assembled are more varied, more mobile or less predictable.That’s what I look for and why I prefer China to Australia: simply because in China things seem to move a little more.

Frank Horvat : So you would rather say “get it right"‚ than "witness”. But to get it right, you have to know what’s right.

Marc Riboud : No doubt. We must establish our criteria, like a frame we build little by little. But once it’s built, we may discover new openings beyond it. If there was only the frame, we would soon slide into aestheticism. Luckily, life doesn’t allow frames to last, reality is a visual chaos, a cluster of shapes continuousy mixed and superimposed, a muddle that we must prune in order to find an order that is understandable to others and that can be separated from the rest. To choose is our way to take a bearing, to find out where we are. We cannot create forms, as painters and sculptors do, but our purpose is the same : to simplify what we see, in order to make it understandable.

Frank Horvat : Then could we also say “recognize”?

Marc Riboud : Yes. To recognize in reference to an established scale, that we adjust to our own needs and that we accept as a discipline.

Frank Horvat : What I meant was : in reference to a body of experience, which makes up Marc Riboud’s personality. I keep thinking of your photo at Anna Favora’s. You told me that, for the cover of your catalogue, you had hesitated between that photo and the “painter on the Eiffel Tower”. The painter is “right” too, but in reference to a certain idea of Paris at the time, it’s an image that makes me think of Prévert as much as of Riboud. Whereas the photo of Isabelle Farova is “right” in reference to what has accumulated in you over the years. This reminds me of a sentence I heard you say : “The fruits of autumn are the sweetest.” To me this sentence seems a good summing up of what you are now.


Photo Marc Riboud

Marc Riboud : I must tell you that I don’t really feel in the autumn of my life, in fact I’m in better shape than twenty years ago. The two most important days in my career were the one I entered Magnum and the one I left. Since I have been independent, I have more time for photography, while still being open to other influences. I don’t know if my personality has changed, but I believe that I have found a better way of expressing itself. I more often experience those moments of grace, when your eyes see with a multiplied intensity, when you discover what you wouldn’t have even noticed at other times and what other people don’t notice, when the beauty of a face makes you tremble with emotion. That’s another aspect of photography : knowing how to recognize those moments, how to get back to that line of vision that Henri Cartier-Bresson so rightly talks about.

Frank Horvat : So you would say that the “line of vision” is something inside us, that we somehow project onto reality. And the decisive moment is when this line hits the target.

Marc Riboud : The line of vision, when it comes down to it, is our dreaming. We should relearn to see as we did in our childhood, with the same pleasure in discovery, the same surprise at everything around us. But this dreaming must be performed with strictness. Dreaming and strictness are not in contradiction, they are but different aspects of the same activity. As with music : no other form of expression is constructed with such mathematical precision, and yet it grips our senses and our guts. Technique and sensitivity go together, one cannot exist without the other

Frank Horvat : Or rather: when one exists without the other, it’s not art. Henri said : “Place your eye, your head and your heart into the same line of vision”. You say : “Aim at reality, through the eyes of a child, with the strictness of a technique”. Is it the same metaphor?

Marc Riboud : Let’s keep down to earth. What was I doing yesterday, with my Leica, in front of the pyramid that is being built at the Louvre? I was searching for the right composition, for the right balance within the rectangle of my viewfinder, for some order among these thousands of oblique metallic elements, pointing into many directions, changing with every step I took and with every adjustment by the workers. For me, this search was a visual and sensual pleasure. From time to time, the forms would fit with my conscious or subconscious parameters, like an echo between myself and the subject matter. The target of our line of sight is reality – but our framing can transform it into a dream.


Photo Marc Riboud

Frank Horvat : But would you say your metaphor is the same as Henri’s? Or do you mean something else?

Marc Riboud : Henri has had a few excellent formulas, that could hardly be improved. But he never talks about his passion, which in fact is his fundamental motivation. His body of work can’t be compared to that of any other photographer, it’s not that he took a few more photos than the next after him – he took ten or twenty times as many. Since his twenties he has been driven by the determination to go out every morning, be it in Paris or in Calcutta or anywere, to be present at whatever was happening. He didn’t let a single day pass without photographing some students' demonstration, some gardeners' strike, some gallery opening, some trade unions' meeting, or simply to visit a painter friend and take his portrait. When he talks about photography, he describes the discipline he imposes on himself, the geometry he quoted in one of his titles: “No one is allowed in here, except geometers.” But if Henri’s photos had only this formal perfection, they would be hollow. It’s his passionate interest for the world that gives them depth and richness – but about this he never talks. He is the only photographer whose work is a real testimonial of our time, even tough – or precisely because – he didn’t intend to be a witness.

Frank Horvat : Do you feel as if you are following in his footsteps?

Marc Riboud : I don’t think that question holds any interest. Cartier-Bresson influenced me, as he has influenced hundreds of people, and not just photographers. Life’s circumstances placed me close to him, but I wouldn’t place my work beside his, neither by quality, nor by quantity, nor by direction. I feel different, I have often rebelled against some of his ideas and I see no reason to analyse differences or similarities.

Frank Horvat : Don’t you feel a bit like the older son?

Marc Riboud : It depends. Now the relation between us is more like a dialogue than like a one-way influence. Of course, Henri tends to act as a teacher and a moraliser, and even as a terribly demanding one. He likes to affect people’s lives, he gets intolerant when those around him don’t follow the rules that he considers unbreakable. If I feel differently – and not only in relation to Henri – it’s in as far as I believe that photography should also be a pleasure. From a purely technical standpoint, for example, using different lenses (which he disapproves of) doesn’t only give access to different possibilities, but also to different pleasures, while still respecting the same geometry. So why deprive yourself?

Frank Horvat : You say “pleasure"‚ you said "sensuality” before. This brings us to one of your characteristic contradictions – because what characterises us are our contradictions, more than our qualities or failings. On the one hand you appear to be a rather shy, no doubt restrained, maybe a little repressed person…

Marc Riboud : Shy and restrained, yes. But what do you mean by “repressed”?

Frank Horvat : Someone who suffered constraints in his up-bringing.

Marc Riboud : This may be true. But I wouldn’t define myself a repressed person. I would rather say that by reaction…

Frank Horvat : Exactly! It’s possibly your repressed sensuality which produces what you call visual tenderness‚ and which could also be seen as the contradiction between your desire to touch and your need to keep a distance.

Marc Riboud : We probably always want to escape from ourselves, as if to become the opposite of the person we believe we are.

Frank Horvat : And so I wonder if your current maturity – “autumn’s fruits are the sweetest” – may not allow you to express this sensuality more than you did to in the past.

Marc Riboud : I felt a sort of new beginning when I met Catherine, the woman I love and with whom I have two children. She gave me inner peace and freed me from many worries. Now I can go out in the mornings without carrying a black cloud of problems in my head. Besides, having distanced myself from Magnum has given me more freedom.

Frank Horvat : But I was talking about sensuality…

Marc Riboud : Sensuality comes with freedom from constraint. I have now freed myself, to an extent, from influences that conditioned my life as a photographer…

Frank Horvat : I’ll ask my question more directly : photography has often been a pretext – good or bad, hypocritical or not – to express photographers' erotic fantasies, from Lewis Caroll’s to Helmut Newton’s. You have never been down that path – not anymore than Henri, and possibly for the same reasons…

Marc Riboud : I don’t know. I like watching beautiful women, beautiful bodies, I’m attracted by sensuality. But I have rarely photographed people for whom I have strong emotional reactions – in the same way as I avoid photographing deformity or anything morbid. It’s true that many photographers are attracted by these subjects, if you pick any page of a magazine the fishmonger wraps the fish in, you can be sure you’ll find photos of sex or violence. I have avoided both.

Frank Horvat : And yet, if these subjects are so often photographed, it’s not only because the media are capitalizing on our emotions. But also because sex and violence exist and concern us. They are a part of our world, no less important than mountains in China.

Marc Riboud : There are different ways of presenting what’s important. The advertising shot you took for a champagne brand, where you only show a naked shoulder, seems more sensual to me than any photograph of spread legs. In the same way, the experience of violence can be conveyed by photographing day to day relations between human beings, without having to show corpses!

Frank Horvat : That’s exactly what I mean! You have seen a lot of violence, but you have managed to show it implicitly, in your discreet, modest and distant way. Why didn’t you do the same with eroticism?

Marc Riboud : It’s easy to explain. To photograph a naked woman, you either have to pay one to get undressed, or to photograph the woman you love. Both make me feel uneasy. Though I would be delighted to wander about in a forest full of young, beautiful and naked women. If you can tell me of such a place, I’ll rush there. But what exactly do you mean by eroticism? The sexual act isn’t usually performed in front of other people, to photograph one I would have to stage it – except that I don’t know how to stage. If, while walking around, I came across an erotic scene, then possibly… But then my shyness would hold me back, as when I’m faced with suffering. If I see someone suffering in a hospital bed, I don’t reach out for my camera – and particularly not if that person is close to me. Any erotic situation I watched would either be between people who don’t know they are being observed, or between people close to me. In either case, there would be a line I couldn’t cross, I would feel as if I were committing rape. All the erotic photos I’ve seen, and where I could sense some kind of emotion, were staged. And staging is an art by itself, I wouldn’t know how to stage a photo in which the emotion seemed genuine.

Frank Horvat : So staging is another line you wouldn’t cross…

Marc Riboud : I'ld rather say that I couldn’t. But I also believe that the role of photography is to record what’s there, not to stage.

Frank Horvat : And yet when you do a portrait, you may tell the model, “Move to the window, turn round that way, pick up that book”. Isn’t that staging?

Marc Riboud : I don’t make them pretend to be anything but their own character, in their own environment.

Frank Horvat : So when you have a certain idea about people, you may ask them to take up a posture corresponding to that idea. But how far can this go? Let’s take the example of the falling militia-man, in Capa’s photo. Some people say it was staged.

Marc Riboud : That’s false! Robert Capa wouldn’t cheat!

Frank Horvat : I agree. But allow me to express the theory – if it had been staged, it would only have presented the reality of war, as Capa had indeed observed it. What’s wrong with that?

Marc Riboud : I wouldn’t even called it staging – but cheating.

Frank Horvat : Let’s take another case : the famous photo by Eugene Smith, of the death watch in the Spanish village. To obtain that light, Smith had to place his flashes very carefully, which he couldn’t do without directing those people.

Marc Riboud : It’s true that Eugene was very concerned with lighting. But his intervention was to express the emotion he felt. He didn’t cheat!

Frank Horvat : So let’s suppose Capa had indeed observed a militia-man dying that way, and wished to reconstruct the emotion he felt…

Marc Riboud : No, no and no. In the first place, he didn’t direct his camera at that man because he saw him falling. He wanted to photograph someone jumping over a trench, and it was at that moment the man was hit. Had he wanted to recreate the scene, he couldn’t have made him fall that way.

Frank Horvat : I wonder if we are not confusing an ethical problem – “Was he cheating?” – with an aesthetic one – “Does the photo work?”

Marc Riboud : As far as I’m concerned, I find that reality is so rich in emotions of all sorts, that I don’t see why I’d bother to tell someone, “Show an emotion” – especially as I know that the emotion wouldn’t seem genuine and that my photo wouldn’t be so good…

Frank Horvat : It’s true that if you had wanted to stage the photo of the American girl putting a flower into the barrel of that gun, you would never have found such a face and such an expression. But you did ask Isabelle Farova to undress, and you didn’t get a bad photo.


Photo Marc Riboud

Marc Riboud : It’s the cat that makes it a good photo, and I didn’t tell it to take up that position. The session lasted for about an hour, and there was only one moment when that happened. I wouldn’t call it staging, I didn’t cheat.

Frank Horvat : I persist in believing that you mix morals and aesthetics, but from the standpoint of your own efficiency you may be right. A photographer can stage a situation, stand back and wait until something real happens within that set-up – as was the case with the cat. But as far as you are concerned you would rather avoid this approach, because getting into the habit of staging would deprive you of the distance you mentioned, which to you is essential.

Marc Riboud : In fact I have no choice between the two approaches. I work the way I work because I am who I am.

Frank Horvat : That is certainly true. I found this photo, that I had never seen before, lying on your table. I find it amazing, even though the subject is quite ordinary : some football players and some spectators. But if a martian asked me what life on earth is like, this could be the first photo I would show him. You have managed to look at ordinary life with the eye of a martian (or of a child) by just presenting a few hundred heads in one half of a rectangle, and four players in the other – and by this simple composition you say a lot about our world.


Photo Marc Riboud

Marc Riboud : I was struck by this sea of faces, all so well lined up – British fans were very disciplined at the time, they all wore ties and caps, no one would raise an arm. It was one of my first photos in London, in 1953 or 1954, Robert Capa had sent me there to learn some English. Cornell, Robert’s brother, was photographing that same match, for Life. He had managed to get behind one of the goals, I was impressed by all his badges and tele-lenses, and telling myself I could never cope the way he did. I had simply bought a ticket, like everyone else, and was sitting in the upper stands, with a 135mm lens on my Leica. Not because of any preconceived project, but simply because I was too shy to come closer.

Paris, july 1987

Translated into English by Julia Mclaren