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The Company of Giants
It sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke: There was this Englishman, Frenchman, Hungarian and Pole who got together to form a photographers' cooperative. The punch line is that 60 years after George Rodger, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David Seymour founded Magnum it's still going strong, and continues to function today in very much the way that its creators envisaged.
Its birth in 1947 occurred during a period of cautious optimism, with hope for the future tempered by experience of the recent past. The catastrophic and genocidal Second World War was over following the unconditional surrenders of Germany and Japan; the United Nations, established in 1945, already promised to be a more effective organization than the League of Nations that it replaced; reconstruction of the war-shattered nations had begun, funded by the brilliant Marshall Plan devised in 1947; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949 as a cooperative response by the European and American allies to the perceived threat of Russia and the Soviet Union.
Magnum was a product of its times. Each of the founding photographers had seen the cataclysm of war up close and personal. Rodger, who had to walk 300 miles through the forests of Burma to escape the Japanese, was the first photographer to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and the first to photograph its piles of corpses; Cartier-Bresson, a corporal in the French Army, was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940 and remained a prisoner of war until his third escape attempt in 1943, spending the rest of the war working underground with false papers; Capa had already established himself as a combat photographer prior to the Second World War, especially during the Spanish Civil War, and continued to add to his reputation by landing with the first wave of invading troops on Omaha Beach in Normandy; David Seymour, known as Chim, had also covered the Spanish conflict, and was in the United States when Germany invaded his native Poland. He joined an intelligence unit of the U.S. Army and became a naturalized American citizen the same year that the Nazis killed both of his parents.
It was against this background that the four came together to form a photographer-owned cooperative that would guarantee them independence from the demands of the magazines, and permit them to work on projects for as long as they felt necessary. It wasn't just the shared experience of warfare that influenced the founders. For two of them, arguably the two most forceful personalities, it was also the experience of art. Cartier-Bresson was passionate about art from an early age, was trained as a painter, and returned to the medium in his last years. He was an admirer of and influenced by the Surrealist movement, which would impact his work throughout his life. Capa, on the other hand, was a journalist, but he had lived in Paris during the 1930s, where he was surrounded by poets, painters, and writers, many of who were his friends and with whom he would engage in long, philosophical discussions. The two of them established an art/documentary dynamic that exists within Magnum to this day, and which influenced much of the photojournalism of the last half of the 20th century. It was the insistence of Magnum's founders on the importance of authorship in documentary work as opposed to mere reporting that guided not only subsequent members of the agency, but many who would never be part of it. Cartier-Bresson summed up this fruitful collision of the inner and outer worlds in an interview he gave to the newspaper Le Monde:
"Capa said to me: 'Don't keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, mon cher. Don't fidget. Get moving!' This advice enlarged my field of vision."
It is a well-established fact that the term "photographer cooperative" is one of the more spectacular oxymorons, and the odds are against an organization surviving for 60 years when owned and run by some of the larger-than-life personalities that have peopled Magnum during this time. In fact you could put together an extraordinary photo agency from those who have left its ranks. They include photographers like Charles Harbutt, Mary Ellen Mark, Sebastiao Salgado, James Nachtwey, Don McCullin, and one who is as close to becoming a Magnum recidivist as anyone, Eugene Richards. He joined and left the agency twice, and in an interview for this article he recalled what it was like to be both a probationary "nominee," and a full member of Magnum.
"The process of being a nominee is hideous, as everybody will attest. You're quite intimidated, at least I was, and rightly so. You'd be in these meetings, and the personalities at Magnum were very large. You'd get Philip [Jones Griffiths] and Bruce Davidson who were just ferocious in company with each other, and you'd sit there wondering what was wrong with you because you couldn't really participate in that kind of dialog. People would be screaming at each other and you'd stand there with your jaw open. These are your photographic heroes, and here they are yelling at each other, and you go, 'I can't believe this.'"
But he also said that the pressure of being in the company of such luminaries had the effect of driving him to do better.
"Here I am across from these guys and I can't make an asshole of myself, so you do get up off your own bed of little problems and start working harder."
This is a point taken up by one who hasn't left, but has remained a member for 31 years, Susan Meiselas. She spoke of some former members.
"If you look at those photographers, you have to think about the work they did when they were within Magnum and what they've done since then. Much of their strong creative lives that they're very well known for coincided with that period inside Magnum."
There is a word that keeps cropping up whenever you talk to people about Magnum or read the literature that has been written about the agency, and that is community. If you go to http://agency.magnumphotos.com/about/about.aspx, there is a quote from Cartier-Bresson: "Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually." The idea of creating a community out of some fearsomely individual personalities involved in a peripatetic profession, and sustaining this for 60 years is pretty far-fetched, and yet it seems to be real. Gene Richards tells a story about his baptism by fire into full membership of Magnum.
"I miss the very same things that I criticized, the brawls and the meetings. I also miss going into a roomful of your fellows, giving a hug, exchanging words. The moment I'll always remember with Magnum was when I became a full member. I'd never been out of the country, and I went to Paris to be named member. During the meeting, John Loengard, who was at the end of his tenure at LIFE, called up and asked for someone to go to Beirut. Seeing all these 'balls to the walls' men and women, I was sure they were going to put their hands up, so I stuck up mine and it was the only one that went up. What can I say? Sometimes you do things that aren't too smart. I had no cameras, no nothing, but I think I was so high from becoming a member. So my first time out of the country I went to a war. Susan Meiselas took me aside and rightly said, "You've never done this and you really don't have to do this; nobody expects you to do this." Then Josef Koudelka poured champagne all over me. That's the sense of community, when it's there, and it's there more often than not when choosing new photographers. During that time when everyone sits around and looks at work and debates, then the place is very much alive. It's not about me or them, or the finances, it's about photography, and those times when it happens, Magnum is just phenomenal."
The other word that keeps cropping up is independence, something that motivated the founders and which continues to be a precious commodity to this day. Of course, some people aspire to independence, and others have had independence forced on them, and to a certain extent both situations apply to Magnum. Not only has the agency survived for 60 years, and probably only Black Star has been around longer, but it has also endured the most traumatic period that this profession has ever seen. Born in the heyday of the picture magazine it has seen a dramatic decline in assignments, almost to the point of oblivion, and has had to adapt to the challenges of revolutionary technology in both picture taking and the marketplace. Over the years it has been received wisdom that Magnum is no good at business, and that it struggles from one financial crisis to another. How good could it be? After all, it's owned by photographers who can veto any decisions that their staff makes. But on the other hand, it has survived longer than any of its competition, represents the work of 78 photographers, and has offices in Paris, New York, London and Tokyo, none of which points to bad business practices. The more you look into it the more illusory the idea that the agency is commercially inept becomes. Nowadays, in the barren world of photo assignments, it is seen as a good idea to be working for NGOs; Magnum photographers have been doing that for 30 years. Print sales are also seen as a valuable source of revenue; Magnum established a print department in the early 1980s. Susan Meiselas expounds on the business philosophy of the agency:
"I think Magnum is continuing to come up with ways of getting work out that people believe in doing. We're not looking at the decline in assignment culture, and feeling as if there's nothing to do. People are continuing to do work, but maybe they're doing more teaching workshops, or maybe they're having more print sales now. It's a diverse strategy, which to me is what Magnum figured out long ago. It was never a single source of income; it was always the duality between stock sales and other kinds of channels. When you think about looking at Magnum in comparison to a Sipa, a Gamma or a Sygma, they were all only about news or feature work; they didn't have secondary income. We had a print sales division in the early '80s. It's not a new development; it's maybe a stronger dimension now because there's more of a market, but it's not something that didn't exist before."
Joining Magnum has never been solely about money. Membership has prestige; it is an acknowledgement that you have achieved a certain status in your profession, and it is, as Gene Richards said, an impetus to do better, to constantly prove to yourself and your fellow members that you are worthy of being in such company. In one of his books the British author Len Deighton has a character who describes St. Petersburg, at the time Leningrad, as "the Venice of the North." To which his hero responds, "I never heard Venice referred to as the Leningrad of the South." The same applies to Magnum. At least once a decade you hear of the formation of an agency that is described as the Magnum of the Nineties, or Magnum for the Digital Age. The fact is that Magnum is all of the above, and remains the standard by which other similar ventures are judged. And although one of the services it now offers to its members is Estate Planning, there are still more young photographers lining up to join the agency than will ever be admitted. As of writing this there are 140 portfolios awaiting review in New York and a further 120 in Paris, all from people hopeful that they will be the next Larry Towell, whose path to membership was also through the submission of work.
What the future holds for Magnum depends largely on forces over which it has little control, and although this was always true, it is probably more the case now than when LIFE, Look, Picture Post, Paris Match, and any other number of publications were clamoring for the production of its photographers. The marketplace may determine how the delicate balance between art and documentation evolves, and one can only hope that an organization that has remained remarkably true to its founders' vision remembers their curiosity about the newly liberated world in which they found themselves. Although he is no longer a part of the agency, Gene Richards is still very attached to it. (He said, "The place makes me very emotional, it really does.") He expressed his hope for its future:
"I hope it holds for as long as it can to that tenuous place of being an agency for photojournalism. The idea of Magnum began as a radical idea; it was a radical idea to focus on the horrors of the time it was formulated; this questioning of the world, bringing all these great people and having them survive together, great big personalities like Capa and Bresson [sic], having them deal with each other and like each other, and put up with each other was a radical idea. It seems to me now that ironically the radical idea is a kind of photojournalism. It's outside of the norm, it's outside of what people want from us now, it's outside of the marketplace. Without that there's no reason to have a Magnum; it'll be one more generalized agency. It'll exist; I think it'll always exist, but if it loses that core aggressiveness in looking at the world as it is, it will lose its relevance."
Whatever the future holds for this unique organization, June is the month to celebrate the survival of an absurd idea that refused to go away, and that by its survival benefited not only the world of photography but the world itself. To give the last word to the master, Henri Cartier-Bresson describes our craft thus:
"To take a photograph is to hold one's breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy."
May the mastering of images by Magnum's photographers continue to give them and us joy.
© Peter Howe
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