Bruno Barbey is a walking atlas, having globe-trotted with camera for half a century. When tackling the personal projects he balances with his work for Magnum Photos as a photojournalist, he favors countries with ancient cultures that are victim to the inexorable waves of modernization he sees as eroding precious legacies — China, India, Myanmar, Turkey. Born in Morocco, raised and schooled from age 12 in Switzerland and France (he is in fact Swiss-French), Barbey began his career as a photographer in order to lead the nomadic life he had dreamed of as a teenager when his idol was the pilot-author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (best known for Le Petit Prince). He himself had trained as a pilot and parachutist, which may have prepared him somewhat, at least in nerve, for the many conflicts he would later cover. As a bored art student in Lausanne, enamored with the black-and-white Italian neorealist cinema of the period, he decided to buy a secondhand VW and drive around Italy shooting anything that caught his eye. He presented the resulting series to the French publisher who had just discovered Robert Frank, and his career path was secured when his The Italians followed Frank’s seminal The Americans.
Growing up amidst the vibrant hues of Morocco, which he has since shot many times, Barbey had a well-honed sensitivity to color and it became a big part of his innovations as a photographer. “The color and light of Morocco is unique,” says Barbey.
It’s not a coincidence that when Matisse spent time in Tangiers in 1906, he said he had to change his palette and his vision. And the watercolors Delacroix did there in 1832 became the source for many of his major paintings. Photographers, filmmakers, and painters go there for aesthetics, but because I was raised there and know the culture it makes a difference in what I choose to put in my books.
When he joined Magnum in 1966, co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson strongly favored black-and-white, in part because magazines did not reproduce color well then (although he himself would do superb color coverage of China, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere), so most of the Magnum pros stuck with it in that era. But Barbey went to Brazil and couldn’t resist shooting that country’s own distinctive color. So from the start he did both, eventually with equal virtuosity.
Barbey is dismissive of “the scoop” as a photographer’s primary goal, yet he has somehow managed to capture many of the world’s historic events, on five continents — including the Six-Day War in 1967, the 1969 Peace March in Washington, the Vietnam War in 1971, Cambodia in 1973, Poland during Solidarność, Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the Gulf War, and most recently the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks. He says he is not a war photographer, yet he ranks highly among those who are. (He served as president of Magnum International for several years, and has taught workshops around the world.) He is unapologetic about bringing his own political, or one might call them humane, convictions to the job. He did so as an idealistic student covering the 1968 Paris uprising, and in 1971 he caused a scandal (relished by the French intellectuals who had become vociferously pro-Palestine) when Jean Genet wrote captions critical of Israel to accompany Barbey’s sympathetic series on Palestinian refugees. “I don’t think you can stay neutral in these situations,” says Barbey.
Though Barbey often shoots highly important subjects, he aims for images that rise above the deluge of coverage to achieve the status of icons, or at least are compelling to look at as stand-alone pictures. He does not see much distinction between photojournalism and art, as far as what makes an enduring image. Many of Barbey’s pictures for Magnum have withstood the test of time in defining the places, people, and events he was assigned to cover, in ways that shape history’s rear view of the 20th century. To do so, Barbey takes his time, often spending months in a region that he wishes to shoot. When traveling around Poland with his filmmaker wife in 1978, he opted for a camper van over hotels, and delayed publication of his photos, in order to elude government officials and thus prolong their journey around the country. “It was really a page of history that was written in front of our eyes … Can you imagine, a pope elected from a Communist country! I remember even an intellectual Communist party member opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate.” Barbey has witnessed many pages of history, and his vast body of work illumines them.
Passages, Bruno Barbey (Editions de La Martinière). Barbey’s retrospective exhibition at Maison Européene de la Photographie in Paris runs through January 17.
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