Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Matinee: Marc Riboud's Photos Of Leeds Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

30 January 2016

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 120th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Marc Riboud's Photos Of Leeds.

This nearly nine-minute video by Phil Putnam Spencer concerns itself with just one assignment in French photographer Marc Riboud's legendary career. But it was his very first assignment.

It was to photograph the city of Leeds in England for The Picture Post. As the country's poorest urban environment, it was an assignment no one wanted.

There are two salient facts to absorb about this 1954 assignment.

The first is that Robert Capa got Riboud the job. The second is that the images were lost for 50 years.

And they are not unrelated facts.

The story started to come into focus when Janet Douglas, a Leeds history lecturer who was intrigued by some old photos of Leeds published in the local paper. They'd been discovered when an office at the newspaper had been cleaned out.

He knew nothing about Leeds. He wasn't a journalist. He was attracted by what he saw on the street.

She followed up on the article only to find out there were hundreds more that had never been printed. For a historian that was "like striking gold."

By the early 1960s the old Leeds was being bulldozed into oblivion under the steam of urban renewal. Riboud's images were all that remained of the years immediately after the war.

Janet Douglas enlisted her daughter Anna Douglas in the project. Anna just happens to be an art curator. She was well aware of the importance of Riboud's work. "In France," she says, "Marc is considered to be one of the most important living photographers, period."

She found Riboud's Leeds photos "much richer than documentation." They're art.

So how, Spencer asks, could these hundreds of images be forgotten? Spencer goes to Riboud's Paris studio to ask the man himself.

Capa got him the job, Riboud recalls, even though the magazine editor had never heard of the young photographer. A series on the best and worst English cities was almost complete except for Leeds, the "saddest city in all of England." "It's exactly what Marc needs," Capa told the editor.

Riboud was shy, hiding behind his camera, as he does in this interview with Spencer. But he surprised himself. He was fascinated by "the fact of taking pictures."

He knew nothing about Leeds. He wasn't a journalist. He was attracted by what he saw on the street.

So why did he forget these images? Why have they been lost for 50 years?

He had finished the assignment but "before the packet had hit the ground, the table, the editor said to me, 'Capa is dead.'"

It was a shock. He felt like an orphan. He blocked out the Leeds project completely.

But those images came back to life. Rescued by the Douglases, there was a 2009 exhibit to open the renovated Leeds City Museum and the Douglases published them in A Lasting Moment, a book with the same name as the exhibit.

"It's a fantastic story," Riboud concludes. You'd better believe it.

BackBack to Photo Corners