How Magnum recorded the discord in Mao's China
Magnum Photobook: The Catalogue Raisonne looks back at a 1960s trip through the Cultural Revolution
“You should go to China and have look,” the legendary photographer and co-founder of Magnum Photos, Henri Cartier-Bresson, told his young compatriot in the organisation Marc Riboud in 1953. "It is a totally different world from ours.”
And so it was in 1957 that Riboud entered China, among the first Western photographers to visit the country. His second visit was in 1965, a time of great upheaval. Chairman Mao was on the verge of launching the ruinous and repressive Cultural Revolution, which proceeded under what were known as the “Three Banners”: the agricultural communes, the industrial expansion of the “Great Leap Forward,” and the organisation of daily life by the Communist Party. These also formed the basis of Riboud’s photobook, The Three Banners Of China. Excerpts from this are included in Fred Ritchin and Carole Naggar’s Magnum Photobook: The Catalogue Raisonné, a magnificent collection of the world famous agency’s best longform photo-essays and the stories behind them.
Riboud spent four months in China, crossing 12 of its 18 provinces, travelling some 12,500 miles in total. He photographed schools and colleges, factories and workshops as well as ordinary people in the course of their increasingly regimented everyday lives. The cover of the collection, featured here, hints at the gap between propaganda and reality; a weatherbeaten peasant, engrossed perhaps in his own private concerns, walks beneath a poster depicting two animated model citizens facing in the opposite direction, staring gladly into the Great Beyond.
Further images from Riboud’s photobook develop this sense of contrast. An image of children sitting beneath a state-produced image of smiling, multiracial youngsters clutching balloons reminds of Margaret Bourke-White’s famous 1937 photo There’s No Place Like America Today. Unlike their idealised counterparts on the poster, these kids present an array of emotions, most of them less positive, ranging from boredom to silent gloom.
Riboud’s photo story was printed in Look magazine over a cover and 18 pages – the largest story it had ever featured – then later as a book. He did not browbeat his readers; any point he made about modern China was implied in the telling details of his photographs.