Robert Capa

Magnum at Sixty

Members only article

In 2007 the Magnum photo agency celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, Martin Parr, Sophie Wright, Oliver Chanarin, Ian Jeffrey and David Chandler took a critical look at the agency's history, along with its potential future directions.

MP Martin Parr, Photographer, Magnum member and Vice President of Magnum London
SW Sophie Wright, Cultural and Print Room Director at Magnum London
IJ Ian Jeffery, Art Historian
OC Oliver Chanarin, one half of the photographic partnership Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
DC David Chandler, Forum Chair

In his introduction to the 2005 publication, Magnum Stories, Chris Boot book talks about ‘the myth of Magnum’; the notion that Magnum is as an idea as much as it is a photography agency. I think people inevitably have different perceptions of the nature of that myth, so I’d like to begin by asking what it is you think that Magnum represents?

Its roots are in popular front organisational patterns of the 1930s. Cartier Bresson was originally employed by Rickards, which was a major left wing magazine in the 1930s edited by Judy Avagon, then in the 1940s, immediately after the war, around 1945-6, he was in something called the Photo Alliance in France which fell apart due to corruption on behalf of the administrative staff. It was after that that he became one of the founders of Magnum, so it was originally a cooperative in the style of the Photo Alliance or Popular Front governments of the mid 1930s.

Do you think that idea of the collective or cooperative has been sustained? Is that still representative of Magnum now or does that idea owe more to its history?

I think it probably still has enough members who remember that era – older Parisian Magnumists – who must be aware of that background. Cartier Bresson clearly had a strong influence on this for a long time. So, yes, I think it has maintained that democratic Popular Front cooperative image, that sense of people on an equal footing, with equal standing. It seems to have maintained that up to the present.

I definitely think that the cooperative idea is totally key. When I was interested in joining it was this idea that attracted me more than anything else. Magnum was set up to try and protect the rights of photographers against copyright infringements, it was created as an agency whereby photographers within that agency could live on the proceeds of those rights. That founding idea is as necessary now as it was sixty years ago because, although the way in which rights are being attacked is different, with things like the internet and Conde Nast, the notion of defending the copyright and not allowing a Magnum photographer to do a job unless we have full control over the copyright is just as vital now as it was then – that raison d’etre has remained consistent.

The agency has always represented a real range of ideas and individuals within its structure. I think that as it’s grown and its historical context has changed it has had to adapt to fit the current climates. It’s inherent in the foundation of the agency that this cooperative idea is sustained but now, with more than seventy members worldwide, including Estates, and offices in Paris, London, New York and Tokyo, it’s a very different beast from what it was in the days of its founding in 1947.

The idea of it as a collective with everyone contributing and having certain rights is one thing, but there’s also an idea that Magnum represents an approach, a particular sort of photography, and that seems to me less clear now than it once was.

I think historically it was created to produce a very specific kind of photography – basically information or news images from the front line and obviously that’s changed. I also think there’s something fundamentally lonely about being a photographer, unless you work with someone else, and I think photographers crave a sense of getting together and discussing and having some kind of exchange.

Yet in a sense I think the agency has always been driven by tensions, quite fundamental oppositions at times.

It’s essential to our well being. From the outset there was a dispute between art and journalism – art being represented by Cartier Bresson and journalism by Robert Capa – and that has been maintained to this very day. Yet I regard this not as a minus point but as a plus – we need to have these debates. The way in which photography is perceived is itself shifting – we know that the art world has started to embrace photography and this has a beneficial effect for Magnum as well. But this fundamental friction is not only key to our survival – the debates we have within Magnum are also the debates that occur within the photography community as a whole. There is always that ambiguity and dichotomy and contradiction between these artistic and journalistic tendencies.

And not just within the community but within individual photographers. In my practice there’s a real struggle between making work which communicates issues and information and something which is much more personal and prosaic and reflective, which is about me and my relationship to the world.

Henri Cartier Bresson was a Surrealist before he was a Magnum photographer, Rene Burri was taught composition, color and design at the School for Arts and Crafts in Zurich by a member of the Bauhaus. There’s always been an artistic element feeding into Magnum as well as its journalistic side.

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Published in Photoworks issue 9, 2007
Commissioned by Photoworks

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