The Digital Journalist
The Imagemakers
June 2007

Magnum's reputation is not just based on extraordinary photography. What distinguishes the members of the photo agency, which was founded in 1947, is character. The legendary Magnum photographers Elliott Erwitt and Burt Glinn talk about moments of opportunity, courage, independence – and humor.

Q: Since when do you two know each other?

B: We first met in 1952 or '53, I guess.

E: In the morning, I think.

B: We got introduced and I said to somebody, 'what's so good about Erwitt?' (grins) I am actually still asking myself that.

Q: When did you join Magnum?

B: Roughly around the same time, I guess.

E: '53.

B: Magnum wasn't a very large organization then. It was ... (turns to Elliott). Oh, by the way, Marc Riboud called the other day and said he'd come across a treasure trove of letters from Henri (Cartier-Bresson, Magnum founding member) to him that he is going to edit and maybe make a book of it.

E: Really?

B: He said he didn't know if certain photographers would like to have Henri's opinion on record and I said it's okay with me (grins). Anyway ... I came to New York in '53 because the Queen was going on a world tour. I don't know whether Elliott did anything on that but I know Eve Arnold did Bermuda or Jamaica and I did one of the Caribbean Islands, too, and that's when I got to know some of the older Magnum people. And then, when Bob and Werner were killed (Robert Capa, Magnum founding member, was killed by a landmine in Indochina and Werner Bischof, a member since 1949, died nine days earlier in a car accident in Peru), we all sort of got together a lot in New York. For one of the most painful funeral services that I ever attended. Do you remember that? For Bob?

E: Yeah. 1954. May 25th. I remember that because it was my father's birthday.

B: That's when I met Chim (David Seymour, Magnum founding member) for the first time.

Elena Glinn: I think Burt was talking about '52 before. The queen was covered in '52.

B: That's right.

Q: Do you mean the boat, 'The Queen' or the Queen?

Elena: The Queen.

E: There's only one queen.

B: Oh, I don't know!

E: There's only one queen and, huh, what's his name? ... it's ...

B: Elton John.

E: ... he did "My Fair Lady." He did the costumes for that.

B: Oh ... Cecil Beaton.

E: Cecil Beaton! That's the queen.

Q: Do you remember any assignments that you worked on together?

B: In the early days we both worked a lot for Holiday magazine. We worked together on an issue on Rome. We were a very strange group of photographers there: Henri and Elliott and Slim Aarons and Arnold Newman ...

E: Actually, the usual suspects.

B: ... and I remember, the government of Italy was so pleased to have a special issue on Rome that they gave what was the Italian equivalent of the Legion of Honor to the editors of Holiday magazine. I guess we also worked together on the Krushchev tour of America.

Q: Is that when that picture with Krushchev from the back, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, was taken?

B: Yes. I was late and I couldn't get to where everybody else was, in front of Krushchev, so I came running up and I was in the back of him. And I looked up and there it was. I got two shots of that and then it disintegrated. If I'd been on time I would have gotten a very ordinary picture of Krushchev and Henry Cabot Lodge looking at this statue of Lincoln but you couldn't see the statue. The most important thing that a photographer like me can have is luck, you know. People think I planned that. They think I said, 'Nick, can you move a little to the left?'

E: Luck is being in the right place in the right time; it's as simple as that.

Q: Elliott, didn't you have a similar experience with Krushchev?

E: I happened to be in Macy's kitchen at an industrial fair in Moscow when Krushchev and Nixon came by. Among other things the American Foreign Ministry had exhibited a kitchen, a prototype which had been produced by Macy's for the American middle-class family. There was a barrier and no one was on the other side of the barrier except myself and the PR man from Macy's, who happened to be Bill Safire.

Q: The former New York Times columnist?

E: At that time he was a PR man for Macy's kitchen. Or Macy's products, I should say.

B: And he was the one who made the arrangements? So that Krushchev could be brought to this kitchen?

E: No, no, no. That was totally unplanned. They went along with the crowd. There were so many people – the most frightening crowd actually – just totally squeezed. I thought that I'd never get a picture by being in that crowd, that I would separate myself and go to a place where they might or might not show up. And they did show up there and I just happened to be – again, luck – in the right place. And so was Bill Safire. I am sure that his career had a lot to do with that picture. I sent it to him as a courtesy and he somehow got attached to the presidential campaign for Nixon and they used the picture and ... voila.

Q: And they used it in a way you didn't like?

E: They couldn't use it in any way that I would have liked because I certainly would not ever be with any sympathy for Nixon. He was really bad news at that time. His record in California was appalling; I mean, he was another McCarthy.

B: Yes, he was.

Q: You caught them in a situation when Krushchev was obviously agitated and you understand Russian. What did they say?

B: They said, 'Do you have a good recipe for borscht?'

E: Close. Nixon said that Americans are rich, happy and successful and Russians are poor and eat cabbage. And Krushchev said, 'Go screw my grandmother.' He was an entertaining fellow. He had a kind of charm, you might say. I mean, he certainly didn't look cute to too many people, but the incident when he took off his shoe at the U.N. and banged it on the table to get some attention ... I thought that was kind of original. (To Burt) Don't you?

B: Krushchev saved his answer for when he was on the tour of America, in Hollywood, when they had a luncheon with all these stars in a big studio, listening to a speech by Spiro Skouras ...

E: Oh yeah, 20th Century Fox ...

B: Skouras introduced Krushchev and he said, 'You know, I am proof that anything can happen in America. I started off as an immigrant from Greece and here I am, head of this huge studio,' and Krushchev got up and said, 'I started out as a farmer in Ukraine, and here I am, the head of the country.'

Q: There is something like a Russia connection between the two of you. Your parents ...

E: My father was from Odessa. He was born Jewish but didn't care much for it. He was a socialist and a Buddhist. He didn't suffer fools and a certain kind of bourgois behavior got on his nerves. Some people said he was the most 'aggressive' Buddhist they ever met (grins). My mother was from a well-off Moscow family.

B: I would describe my mother as the only upwardly mobile member of the Communist Party. When Bergdorf Goodman had a sale she felt that she had to buy her clothes from them. When she bought clothes for me, she got them from a cataloge that came out from Best and Company, which was a young, preppy kind of store. In the Thirties she was really involved in the left-wing movement in Pittsburgh; she did all kinds of things. She raised money for Earl Browder, who was the presidential candidate for the Communist Party. I know she always raised money for loyalist Spain. I remember there were lots of parties for that. But she always voted for Roosevelt; that was her saving grace.

E: My father was a socialist – which didn't play well in Italy where we lived before the war – but he was also a rather bad businessman. He had to disappear rather suddenly because of something and went to America. My parents were already separated at the time but my mother and I followed later. We got out of Europe on the last boat before the war broke out, luckily, because otherwise we probably would have become lampshades. My mother got a job as a waitress in New York but she got fired quickly because she didn't smile enough at the guests. She was a real character. She then worked as a practical nurse and never complained. Later we lived in California. I went to Hollywood High together with other children of emigrants [sic]; one of them was Marcel Ophuls, who is still a friend. After that I briefly attended L.A. City College but I got out of L.A. as fast as I could and moved to New York.

Q: Burt, you studied literature at Harvard, right?

B: I really studied anthropology more than anything else. I figure that my getting into Harvard must have been some kind of mistake.

Q: Why?

B: Well, I was 17 years old, from a really poor high school in Pittsburgh. I remember walking around Harvard – all those buildings that looked like a movie set of an Ivy League college – and I thought this is probably the best of ambition that I am going to make for my mother. I mean, this is really like buying your clothes at Best and Company or Brooks Brothers. I won a kind of small scholarship, and that's why they let me in. I was there for one semester and then I was drafted in the Army.

Q: You both were in the Army. Where did it take you?

E: I was in New Jersey for basic training and was sent to Europe afterwards, to Karlsruhe in Germany of all places. But I managed to get transferred to France and had a good time there. I was in the Signal Corps and worked in the darkroom. I had met Robert Capa earlier in New York and right after I was discharged he invited me to join Magnum. I was lucky because half of my unit got sent to Korea and suffered many losses.

B: We were both lucky. I went to basic training here and I was scheduled to go overseas. I had gotten some shots and from the shots I got yellow jaundice which made me pretty ill and I wasn't able to go. So fortunately I missed the Battle of the Bulge, which my outfit was in and didn't do too well. I was in Europe then during the occupation.

Q: As children of communists and immigrants you both had rather remarkable careers. Over the course of your professional lives you didn't just cover political, but social events as well.

B: One of the stories that Elliott and I worked on together was about the Shah [of Iran]. We called it 'The Shah's Bar Mitzvah.' I believe it was the 2,000th anniversary of Darius the Great or the Persian Empire. The Shah was supposed to be a direct descendent, which is why in Shiraz ...

E: Persepolis ...

B: ... they had this big function for which they had invited all the crowned heads of Europe. America was represented by Spiro Agnew.

Q: Nixon's vice president who had to resign because of his involvement in bribery and tax fraud?

E: Yeah, (grins) a real crook.

B: And they had built a tent city that was run by Paris hairdressers.

E: The hairdressers shared their tents equally with the heads of state because the hairdressers and the makeup artists were obviously as important as they.

B: I remember Haile Selassi was there and we tried to get pictures of him in his long underpants or whatever he was wearing ...

E: (laughs) ... and Spiro Agnew!

B: ... and Queen Juliana from the Netherlands. We all got shuttled around in buses – the crowned heads as well – and security was very high. Every time you got on a bus you had to identify yourself to the security people who didn't speak English. You'd say, 'Glinn, Burton' and then you got an identification number. I was wondering what Queen Juliana would say, 'Juliana, Queen, Netherlands' or what? So after the umpteenth time when it had gotten to be a real bore and when they asked for my last name I said, 'Quatorze, Louis.' They let me in without a problem. Elliott was the photographer who was later allowed to photograph the formal dinner, and the people who were running the press were worried that we were going to disgrace them so they asked Elliott, 'Do you know how to address the Shah?' and you said, 'Hi, Shah.'

E: (grins): No ... 'YesShah, noShah' (hums the tune of "Yessir, That's My Baby").

B: Well, we didn't address him much.

Q: You were both Magnum presidents, Burt in the early Seventies and once again in the late Eighties, and Elliott during the late Sixties. What was it like then?

E: It was a lot easier then than it is now. Because now you have to know a lot of things. For instance, I can hardly handle e-mail, but now it's all this stuff that is totally foreign to me.

B: I remember when Elliott was president I was always impressed by the fact that he never let any kind of lack of technology get in his way. We got handwritten letters he wrote in airports. I wish I'd saved a few of them. It was not like now when you would probably get somebody in the office to type them for you.

Q: But aside from technological questions ...

B: The hardest thing happens to be that you have to try to make real decisions about important things that people that you know are involved in, and sometimes your friends are on the wrong side. Or you may think they are.

E: Certain fundamental things. In my reign I had, for example, the unpleasant task of firing our bureau chief. My biggest achievement (laughs) – my biggest effort, I should say – was to try to keep Henri Cartier-Bresson from quitting.

Q: Were you successful?

E: Yeah, using all kinds of tricks.

Q: Such as?

E: Well I don't know if this is for publication ... (grins).

Q: Didn't you in 1968 help Koudelka (Magnum member since 1974) out of Prague?

E: That had nothing to do with being president.

B: That had to do with being Erwitt.

E: It had to do with being in the right place in the right time and knowing Eugene Ostroff, who had gone to Czechoslovakia and mentioned something about what he had seen.

B: You got the negatives out.

E: Yeah, and then we got him out and managed to get him ... what you call it? ... asylum. In England because I happened to be there. At that time you could travel outside of Czechoslovakia with only $5 in hard currency. That was it. We had sold – I should say Lee Jones (Head of Magnum Editorial) had sold – his pictures of the events of '68 for $20,000 dollars which was monumental at the time. So he had plenty of money outside. Anyway, I wrote a letter inviting him on some kind of a cultural thing and he came to London and stayed at David Hurn's place. He came for a couple of weeks and stayed, I think, eight years. David Hurn is a very generous fellow. My friend from Newsweek with whom I was in Moscow, Bud Korengold, knew people at the Home Office, so we got him asylum, and that's it.

Q: So would you say that Magnum is not only about providing technology and offices for the photographers but ...

E: It's a brotherhood.

B: It's recognizing that Koudelka is a remarkable person as well as a remarkable photographer and that there was some tenuous kind of feeling that he belonged with us. And if we could help him that would be great.

E: And also that he had a great document that we were absolutely delighted to sell.

Q: Would you say that that kind of spirit is living on today, after 60 years?

E: Oh, you do this sort of thing not only for people that you want to have in Magnum. For instance: I don't like to see photographers anymore who want to show me their pictures because it takes time and I'm very busy. But recently I broke down; some Russian came to see me after bugging me for weeks. This guy came over, and I'm glad that he bugged me, because he is just a wonderful photographer. I had no idea. He would never be in Magnum, not currently. But he is a wonderful photographer and I did what I could. I called The New York Times people I knew, I called a couple of galleries and so forth and made some appointments for him. It's normal. I mean, when you see somebody you think is worthy, you do it.

B: That's the ethos of Magnum.

Q: Is Magnum the longest living Cooperative of that kind ever?

E: Seems to be.

Q: What do you think is that secret?

B: I think the secret is the kind of glue that came out of the Founding Four.

E: Absolutely.

B: The kind of glue, you know, you feel, when you are really putting something on the line. You feel that ... you think about Chim, about Capa, about Henri and George Rodgers ...

E: That's kind of an abstraction now for a lot of the young people.

B: Yes, it is an abstraction. That's why we're hanging on.

Q: But if it's an abstraction, it still seems to work.

E: Yeah, I think the fundamental thing is about independence, copyright, those things, and not working for anyone as an employee. I think that's the basic.

B: I think we are very lucky to have Mark Lubell (Magnum office director, New York) who is thinking in ways that we can function on that basis in a much wider world. We've come to a kind of fork in the road in photography. Since about 15, 20 years ... the Europeans spend a lot of effort in cultivating the cultural market in Europe.

E: The journalistic business, however, is pretty well over. Compared to what it used to be because there is simply no place for it. And especially for freelancers. There might be some place for people who are on salary. But that's the marketplace. The marketplace rules what we do. Some people succumb to the marketplace in a way that they shouldn't. Now we have some people – very few – who use Photoshop, which is absolutely unimaginable.

Q: In Magnum?

E: In Magnum. We have a rule now that it has to be indicated. But they are there, and they are artistical.

B: 'Artistical'? (laughs)

E: (Grins) It's my mother's coinage. Yes, we have artistical people, which is a big problem.

B: And they take pictures that are full of 'truthiness.'

E: (Laughs) Artistical truthiness! Very good.

Q: As Magnum members, what do you think is your influence on those developments?

E: Minor.

B: Recently they had a whole section of photographs of the year, I believe, in Time magazine and I noticed that at least two of the photographers that I had felt we should have paid attention to had applied for Magnum membership, and they were turned down with 'they're just journalists.'

E: Listen, we turned down some pretty amazing people. We turned down Robert Frank – before he was famous, of course. We turned him down, including Henri, because we felt that he could be difficult.

Q: You are still in Magnum, so there must be something, people in Magnum that you feel connected with.

E: Of course!

B: You can't just judge ... The first thing you got to look at is: are they good photographers? But you should also judge them on the fact, what kind of human beings they are?

E: Right.

B: It's close-knit and you got to at least have somebody that has a kind of feeling about life and people.

E: Well, I mean, if you just want to condense it: There are people who are great photographers but totally egocentric. Just people who do not belong in a team. Such a person should be working on his own.

Q: If you compare someone like that to Capa ...

E: Oh, Capa was bigger than life.

B: Whoever came in contact with Bob, he didn't say, 'Gee, this is a great photographer,' he would say, 'This is a real human being.' There was a lot going on in him.

E: Not only that. The basic fundamental difference between these two kinds of photographers is that one is totally self-centered, totally selfish, and the other one is self-centered but EXTREMELY generous at the same time. It's an odd combination but there you are.

Q: Do you think that Magnum has a future if you look at the current membership?

B: Absolutely.

E: After 60 years we're still around. We must be doing something right.

Q: One last question: If you would have to chose your favorite photograph of the other, which picture would you decide on?

B: (Grins) I can't think of a good picture Elliott's ever taken.

E: (Grins) I don't know how to answer that. My opinion changes constantly. I like them all.

Q: And if you would have to choose one of your own pictures, one that has something personal, something of yourself in it?

B: As far as I'm concerned, the Krushchev picture. It tells what the story was for that week very well and it's hard to be pretentious about it, which is another good thing. You can't say, 'oh yeah, I knew it was coming.'

Q: Elliott?

E: The black kid with the gun to his head.

View the Magnum 60 Years Gallery

© Pia Frankenberg

This interview, previously published in Germany, was conducted by Pia Frankenberg, a film producer, director, writer – and Mrs. Elliott Erwitt.