Born to an aristocratic family in Jaipur on Oct. 22, 1942, Raghubir Singh received his first camera, a gift from his brother, at the age of 14.
That marked the beginning of his lifelong fascination with photography, which would eventually lead to a career spent living in Hong Kong, Paris, and New York. As a photojournalist, he contributed to the New York Times Magazine, Time, and National Geographic, among others. But right up to his death in 1999, and despite all his travels, Singh’s most important subject was his native India.
Until Jan. 02, 2018, the Met Breuer, part of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is hosting a retrospective of Singh’s work, featuring 85 of his photographs shot in the country, alongside examples of the colourful Mughal-era court paintings that he was inspired by.
At a time when colour photography was dismissed as unserious by many professional photographers, Singh embraced it to capture the many different realities of modern India, recording vivid street scenes from almost every corner of the country. Taking inspiration from legendary European photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Atgèt, as well as American street photographers like William Gedney and Lee Friedlander, Singh went on to define an Indian version of photographic modernism, and his images revealed a whole new way of looking at and understanding the country.
“Among Singh’s great achievements was the creation of an unparalleled pictorial atlas of the cultural life of India at the end of the twentieth century,” curator Mia Fineman writes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. “Using a handheld camera and colour slide film, he recorded the nation’s dense milieu in complex, friezelike compositions, teeming with incident, divided and multiplied by reflections, and pulsating with opulent colour,” she adds.
Here’s a selection of the photographs on display: