The Digital Journalist
Magnum Force
March 2005

by Peter Howe

If the producers of reality television programs ever focus their attention on photo agencies - and you know at some time they will - the hands-down winner of "Survivor" will be Magnum. Black Star may be a decade older, but no group of photographers has captured the imagination of both the public and the profession like the cooperative formed in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David 'Chim' Seymour and George Rodger. For more than half a century it has beaten the odds, both financial and philosophical, against its long-term survival, not to mention enduring the dysfunctional behavior that comes from putting any enterprise under the control of a group of high-octane, high-ego photographers (photographer cooperative being a perfect example of an oxymoron.)

1957 FRANCE. Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter & sculptor, with his children Paloma and Claude. Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. Alpes-Maritimes. Vallauris. Corrida. Left: the French poet Jean Cocteau.

Photo by René Burri / Magnum Photos
On several occasions it almost didn't make it. The closest it came to an early demise was in 1954 after the deaths of Robert Capa and Werner Bischof, which caused Cornell Capa to quit a staff job at Life in order to take over the reins and fill the vacuum left by his brother. Magnum has always been blessed with a charmed existence. Whenever there was a crisis of leadership somebody stepped forward; through its many financial disasters some project has always come to the rescue. This has been such a recurring theme during the life of the agency that a Micawber-like attitude to the future seems to have become part of its culture.

If an agency stays in business for 60-plus years, and has the good fortune to have some of the finest photographers in the world shooting for it, then it ends up with one hell of an archive. One of the ways that Magnum has navigated some of its more perilous financial shallows has been to recycle this substantial asset in different forms. The latest of these landed with a hefty thump in my mailbox recently in the shape of the book Magnum Stories, published by Phaidon Press. The theme of the book is that the term "photo story" has always been a core element of Magnum's existence, both as taxonomy and philosophy. As Chris Boot explains in his elegant and erudite introduction, "While the notion of the photographic story is central to Magnum's organizational thinking, it has also been the site of an ideological battle of the purpose of the photographers' work." He goes on to explain that Henri Cartier-Bresson never considered the term story appropriate for what he did, and only accepted the designation photojournalist if it meant "keeping a journal in photographs" rather than being a storyteller. Despite this schism, which is ongoing today, the book attempts to remain true to its title by allowing each of the photographers an eight-page segment in which to tell their stories, with the opening spread being devoted to the photographer's remarks followed by three spreads of his or her photographs.

1984 LEBANON. Young Shiite fighter with older combatants in the Shiite-controlled southern suburbs of West Beirut.

Photo by Eli Reed / Magnum Photos
The first thing that strikes you about the book is its weight - how physically heavy it is, 7.75 pounds according to my scales. The second thing that strikes you is that the reason for its size is the fact that there are so many photographers featured, 62 in fact, which seems a lot for a group that I always considered to be an exclusive elite. This is without the work of those who were members but subsequently left, and whose names alone would make an extraordinary photo agency (Sebastiao Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark, Don McCullin, James Nachtwey to recall but four.) Because the longevity of the organization has outlasted that of several of its members, Chris Boot explains in the introduction to the work of W. Eugene Smith how each photographer was selected for inclusion: "The criterion for the inclusion of a photographer within Magnum Stories is that, at the time of publication, he or she is a member of Magnum, a contributor (an affiliate status for photographers who have been members of Magnum for 25 years or more) or, in the case of deceased photographers, a former member whose photographs continue to be represented by Magnum."

The idea for the book was first floated when Boot was the Director of Magnum in New York in 1996 (my candidate for the worst job in photography, where the bosses outnumber the employees.) Despite the title, he thinks essay more aptly describes the approach taken by the majority of the photographers than the word story, because of the length and depth with which each subject is covered. It was the frustration that they all shared at having their work seen in fragments that was the motivation for producing the book in the first place, and although three spreads is not a lot, it's much more than the display most magazines give documentary photography. Furthermore, each photographer was given the choice of how many photographs should be included in this space, as well as the selection of the images. Luc Delahaye decided to have only one image each from three stories - Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Vatican City in 2004 - to fill his allotted space, fragmentary display seemingly less of an issue for him than for Elliott Erwitt, who selected 31 frames to represent his coverage of the Soviet Union in 1957. Eli Reed uses one of his pages to reproduce a contact sheet from West Beirut in 1984, but the honor for most pictures per three spreads goes to René Burri, with 46 of Picasso that becomes almost cinematic in its effect.

1952 USA. Governor Adlai Stevenson supporters.

Photo by Cornell Capa / Magnum Photos
The Erwitt story is a good example of one of the real delights of the book. In many instances the work that the photographers have chosen is of a less familiar subject than those that we usually associate with them. Although the famed Erwitt wit is to be found in several of the photographs, for instance in the picture of someone making a dreadful copy of a dreadful "approved" painting at a Moscow art gallery, there is not a dog doing strange things to be seen on any of his six pages. Similarly, the Cornell Capa section is of Adlai Stevenson's doomed presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956 rather than the better-known success of John F. Kennedy's in 1960, which also marked Stevenson's third failed attempt. Philip Jones Griffith chose to publish his coverage of the unfathomable invasion of Grenada in 1983 rather than his work during the equally unfathomable war in Vietnam for which he is so justly famous.

Another, although lesser, delight is the point pictures that break up the text pages. These are of old group photos or some of the more famous iconic images that the members have produced over the years, but the most pleasurable for me are the documents. Raymond Depardon has his first ID card identifying him as a two-star Chasseur d'Images; two pages from Philip Marlow's notebook in the Philippines in 1983 are reproduced, as is the text of a Stevenson speech that occupies one of Cornell Capa's six pages. For one who is as hopeless at the correct spelling of people's names as I am there is immense consolation to be found in the Magnum magazine logs from July 1966 which records the publication of pictures of Raquel Welsh and Che Guevada. A nobler document is W. Eugene Smith's contribution consisting of his famous Life story about a country doctor, reproduced in all its magnificent 11 pages - a total of 28 photographs.

Of course Magnum Stories is an historical document, but not just the history of the events that took place in the last half of the 20th century, and those that we face at the beginning of the 21st. It is also the history of photojournalism during this period, and in that lies not only the book's strengths and weaknesses, but also those of Magnum and of the profession itself. There is an enormous divergence of style and content in its pages that can be justifiably interpreted as either the strength of diversity or the weakness of confusion. I frankly have been mystified by the choice of some of the photographers admitted for membership in recent years, whose approach to photography is so far from the concepts of the founders, and I find their work equally mystifying. This again can be viewed either as a laudable attempt to adapt to developments both in the marketplace and in aesthetics, or a loss of identity and uncertainty.

In fact the biggest story in Magnum Stories is the story of photojournalism itself since 1947, and because that story is told through the work of some of its truly brilliant practitioners it becomes an almost Shakespearian reflection of our craft. This is not the work of the middle ground. When Magnum's photographers succeed they succeed magnificently, and when they lose their way they do it, if not magnificently, at least with a grandeur that one has to admire. It's worth the purchase price alone as a document of what we do, where we've been, and where we are now, and although its cover price is a hefty $79.95 (why don't they just say $80 and be done with it?) you can get it on Amazon for $50.37. According to my calculator this is slightly over 81 cents per photographer, which sounds like a bargain to me.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor