Bruno Barbey, Magnum Photographer of Battle and Peace, Dies at 79

Bruno Barbey, a French photographer with Magnum Photos agency who produced powerful, sensitive work both in war zones and in peacetime, died on November 9th in Orbais-l’Abbaye in northeastern France. He was 79 years old.

His wife, Caroline Thiénot-Barbey, said the cause was pulmonary embolism.

Jean Gaumy, a Magnum colleague, described Mr Barbey in an email as “a formidable visual architect” whose pictures told the story of “the world’s transformation and movements”.

In May 1968, when students in Paris ignited a political movement with mass protests against universities and the government, Mr. Barbey took permanent pictures of anger in the streets: students hurled projectiles at the police; Protesters giving each other cobblestones to build barricades; armed police storm fleeing students; Protesters at night carrying Molotov cocktails on an already burning street.

“I once went with Marc Riboud and Henri Cartier-Bresson to buy helmets to protect our heads from all the stones thrown,” Barbey told The Guardian in 2014, referring to two other Magnum photographers. Mr. Cartier-Bresson was a founder of Magnum. “We quickly realized that they made it impossible to use our Leicas properly, so we threw them away.”

Three years later, Mr Barbey was in Northern Ireland photographing his sectarian conflict. On a street in Londonderry, he found several young men walking along a wall of a building carrying cricket bats as they prepared to attack British soldiers in riot gear just around the corner.

In Belfast, he came across an armed British soldier leaning against the remains of a burned-out car and talking to three boys.

Twenty years later, in 1991, he recorded the Allied operation to drive the invading Iraqi forces out of neighboring Kuwait. One photo showed half a dozen exhausted and relieved Marines driving away from the burning Burgan oil field. An escort shot showed four camels – far less urgent than the Marines – being used against the same fire.

Photography “is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world,” Barbey once said.

Bruno Barbey was born on February 13, 1941 in Berrechid, Morocco, south of Casablanca, and grew up in different parts of the country: Rabat, Salé, Marrakech and Tangier. His father Marc was a diplomat; his mother was Marie Clement-Grandcourt. From a young age he knew that, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer and aviator, he wanted to travel the world.

Bruno’s parents sent him to high school in Paris, where he was “a fool and a defeated left-handed”, he wrote in his retrospective photo book “Passages” (2015). He and his friends skipped classes to see films by Italian neorealist filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica.

Mr. Barbey entered the Ecole Des Arts et Métiers in Vevey, Switzerland in 1959 to study photography and graphics. After a year, he left the company as his courses had focused on advertising and industrial photography. He longed for the freedom to pursue a single subject for extended periods of time, as Swiss documentary photographer Robert Frank did in his groundbreaking book The Americans, published in France in 1958.

Following Frank’s example, Mr. Barbey drove through Italy in a used Volkswagen in the early 1960s and photographed his people in black and white in a neo-realistic style.

“My goal,” he wrote in “Passagen”, “was to capture the spirit of the place.”

He has captured dozens of moments in the life of a nation: a family racing along on a scooter, every person exuberant except for the pregnant mother; a group of girls whose joyful expression contrasts with that of a sad beggar who extends his hand behind him; little boys playing with realistic looking guns; and a host of other characters such as prostitutes, priests, old men, and mafiosi.

The photographs – later published as “The Italians” in 2002 – brought him to Magnum’s attention, where he worked for more than 50 years. In addition to the Paris demonstrations, he reported on conflicts in the Middle East, Nigeria, Vietnam and Cambodia and recorded life in China, Brazil, India, Japan and Spain.

During the rise of the Solidarity Union, he spent much of 1981 in Poland, conquering the Poles in a time of turmoil and agony. He collected the pictures in “Portrait of Poland” (1982).

“He drew attention to the human experience in a noble manner – with a lot of kindness,” said Gilles Peress, another Magnum photographer, in a telephone interview.

Mr Barbey, whose photographs have been exhibited many times, received the French National Order of Merit and was elected a member of the French Academy of Fine Arts at the Institut de France in 2016. He has worked as a Magnum manager at two different times.

Besides his wife, a daughter, Aurélie Barbey, survives; one son, Igor; two sisters, Loïse Barbey-Caussé and Adelaïde Barbey-Guissinger; two brothers, Dominique and Guy; and four grandchildren.

Although he left Morocco at the age of 12, Mr. Barbey kept returning, attracted by its rich colors, light and architecture. Many of his photographs showed quiet moments: a bride showing her hands adorned with a henna design; a gold-colored interior with a distant figure in a black and white striped robe that blends in with the design of the floor; red skins dry in the sun; and a person in black walking down an alleyway surrounded by pink walls.

“It is very difficult to take photos there,” said Barbey on Magnum’s website, “because photography in Islam is supposed to bring the evil eye.”

He added: “As a fox you have to be smart, well organized and respect some customs. The photographer has to learn to fit into walls. Photos must either be taken quickly and with all the associated risks, or only after long periods of infinite patience. “

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