Like the shows that have been mounted over the past few years by Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Joel Sternfeld, and William Eggleston, this smartly edited Raghubir Singh retrospective is designed to stake a claim in the early history of color photography for one of its pioneers. Singh (1942–1999), who began contributing editorial photos to Life and The New York Times while still in his twenties, published the first of his 14 books in 1974, beating Eggleston’s landmark Guide by two years. But it wasn’t until the late ’80s that those books were published in the U.S., and even then Singh had the same difficulty getting anything but in-group recognition that most other color photographers faced before Andreas Gursky made color work both cool and hot.
Singh isn’t likely to enjoy the sort of art-world boom that many of his contemporaries have experienced recently, if only because there’s nothing remotely cool about his work. He remains a photographer’s photographer, close in spirit to Henri Cartier-Bresson (who was an early influence) and Garry Winogrand, but so uniquely, definitively Indian that it would be hard to imagine him working anywhere else. Among the 45 pictures here are a few from the ’70s and ’80s, but the bulk were made in the decade before his death, and many of them are from a project that used India’s ubiquitous Ambassador automobile as both metaphor and, quite literally, framing device. The car’s windshield, rearview mirror, open door, and popped trunk outline, interrupt, and reflect many of his most inventive and absorbing images. John Baldessari writes that the windows “partition his photographs like a Mondrian,” but any neat linearity is constantly undercut by the car’s sweeping curves and the marvelous chaos of Indian street life. Yet no matter how spontaneous and serendipitous, Singh’s work always feels precisely calibrated—just right—as if he knew his subject so intimately that he had only to focus his attention and everything would fall into utterly unexpected place.