Robert Capa

Magnum at Sixty

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

DC
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?

IJ
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.

DC
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?

IJ
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.

MP
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.

SW
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.

DC
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.

OC
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.

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

MP
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.

OC
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.

SW
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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DC
But what interests me is the fact that a group of people with very disparate ambitions, with very different views of what photography is, would all want to be part of this collective even to the point of disagreeing wildly with the people already there.

MP
I should clarify one thing: all major decisions in Magnum are decided by a two thirds majority vote, all decisions are made on that constitutional point. When someone becomes a member of Magnum they have to have that two thirds vote and even the one third who didn’t vote for them still have to support that decision because it’s a cooperative decision. That is essential to our well-being as well, this rule that cannot be broken, it provides us with a clarity of purpose.


DC

In some ways, Martin, your own appointment to the organisation was quite contentious. I remember at the time I felt that it was an odd choice of yours to want to be involved.

MP
I first joined Magnum in 1988 and then became a full member in 1994. I wanted to become involved because I liked the idea of the cooperative and, being a sort of populist, I liked the notion of putting my work out in all the possible avenues available to photography and Magnum delivered that. Previously I’d been working more or less in isolation. I wanted to work in magazines and Magnum really opened the door for me. Magnum appeared to me to be a way forward for me as a photographer.

DC
Were you surprised that they welcomed you?

MP
I didn’t realise at the time what a controversial new member I would become. It’s no secret that my joining split the organisation – I scraped in by one vote to make that essential two thirds majority.

DC
Would you see yourself as a watershed in terms of a shift in direction for Magnum? That was a moment that was commented on quite widely at the time. Your admission to the agency was seen to represent a shift of opinion and subsequently a much younger and disparate membership has unfolded.

MP
I think there’s some truth in that. If you look at the agency today, in conjunction with those photographers who are still doing journalistic things we have the photographers who are doing more subjective or interpretative things, addressing the day to day. You have these larger format pictures by people like Mark Power; you have these strange sex scenes by Dagata; but this is still Magnum photography. The broadness of our church has widened substantially over the years and I think that very much reflects the different approaches that are current within documentary. It’s very significant that someone like Alec Soth, who was well established, should decide that he wanted to join Magnum. He didn’t need that – he’s represented by Gagosian, his print shows sell out, the guy is at the top of the tree – yet he still wants to be involved in Magnum. The fact that he’s interested does indicate that the agency is shifting and changing in a very interesting way.

OC
But before Magnum had this cohesiveness because it had this cohesive style. There were different types of photographer within the church but there was a greater union: most were black and white and it was mostly 35mm and quite free.

SW
The key thing is the agency has got much bigger, there are much more members. Any ideas get more dissipated when you go from twenty six in the 1980’s to the current membership of more than eighty.

DC
So the organisation is growing isn’t it? The rate at which it’s growing is speeding up?

MP
Yes, but we have to renew. Part of the objective of the cooperative is that we renew and the ways in which we renew and the ways in which we are changing are, I believe, very interesting. It’s one of the things that makes Magnum very positive. Every time someone becomes a member the organisation changes and shifts, so it’s a constantly shifting idea. The new photographers we take on, by definition of the different approaches they represent, mean that we are expanding. I think that what we are trying to do is to isolate new talent within a vague documentary mode and to try and bring them on, to encourage them, to get people while they are young and really help develop their careers and so help to make us all stronger.

IJ

I think that in one sense the Magnum idea has always been to identify photographers with talent. That’s been an underlying idea, that this is peer group choice regarding which photographers have talent and I think it has worked to a large extent, but maybe less so now that it used to. But it is still one of the only organisation that sets out to discriminate and make value judgments about photography in that way.

DC
But there remains something fundamentally interesting in some of the divergences that you get within Magnum that are related to some sense of the historical Magnum and the modern Magnum. At some point there has been a kind of change and whether it was Martin’s admission to the agency or whether it was a more gradual process I think that has undeniably happened. It’s always tended to be put down to changes in the market that Magnum services – the media, magazines and newspapers. Traditionally it’s been seen as rooted in the shift from so called ‘serious journalism’ to lifestyle and things like that. But doesn’t it also have something to do with a gradual lack of consensus concerning the humanist tradition that Magnum was initially based on? I’m not suggesting that there was some sort of fracturing of the core Magnum belief, but that the world in which Magnum worked in perhaps lost faith in that idea and to a certain extent Magnum couldn’t adequately respond to that.

IJ
There was nothing to respond to. We lost any sense of history from maybe the 1970s onwards, the idea of a collective history, the sense that you could go out and take a picture that was symptomatic of the times, that vanished at some point. That’s one of the interesting things about studying history; speculating as to the moment that history ceased to be a controlling and dominating force. What you have got subsequently is a kind of ‘hard case let’s go’ style which is very well exemplified in current Magnum photographers – a highly expressive black and white style. So you’re making up for the lack of a historical sense by a kind of blow hard overcoming of the present moment simply by the virtue or the power of your personality.

DC
Is that substituting a wider history for some sort of personal experience, is it sort of existential in that way?

IJ
Yes I would say it is existential in that it’s now no longer possible to photograph a war, say. Of course many war photographers may disagree with me, but wars today seem incomprehensible, they’re asymmetrical, they have no sense of winning or losing, they may subside but they never seem to come to an end, so there’s no main theatre of events as Magnum used to have. It did have with the Korean War, Indochina, Vietnam and so on.

DC
One of the main arguments put forward to explain Magnum’s changing role, at least as far as news events are concerned, is that the idea of reporting events as they happened has shifted because the media has changed and television has supplanted the role that Magnum was aspiring to have right at the beginning. If that is the case, I wonder if there is now a clear role for Magnum in terms of news coverage and the reporting of history to which Ian was referring?

SW
I think it ties in with the whole cultural aspect of what Magnum is doing and the way that has become more important. Magnum has always had a longer term engagement with things. Perhaps prior to television it was able to keep on top of news and current events, but it was never constructed simply to take on that role, it was constructed to allow a photographer to follow their own personal project and to build up bodies of work over a period of time.

DC
But it is true that photographers now are not so much pursuing this journalistic idea, the idea of commenting on the news as it happens, they’ve taken on a more reflective role?

OC
As an outsider and not part of Magnum, Magnum in the past to me had always represented this kind of benchmark, the only place to get to if you were a photojournalist. Not only that but, it had always seemed like Magnum had a monopoly on truth – the style of the black and white photograph, the idea of the guy on the plane or the train with one roll of film capturing the thing and bringing it back and it was true – that was always my idea of what Magnum was. It had this incredible kind of mythology. But the world has changed and nobody believes in the idea of a singular truth any more. There are so many multiple perspectives – a war can be covered by Al Jazeera or by CNN, by somebody who’s embedded in it or somebody who isn’t embedded in it. The world is just more complex now and I think that the mythology of what Magnum represents has had to change in accordance with that, in accordance with the fact that our reading of the world is so much more varied.

MP
Although there are still photographers within Magnum who go out and chase conflict, who visit the front lines and photograph in that way. We call these ‘The Baghdad Boys’; the likes of Poulo Pellegrin, Alex Majoli, Chris Anderson, Thomas Dworzak. It’s a loose association of people who are continuing the more traditional aspects of Magnum’s approach of photographing in conflict zones.

DC
But the role of photographers in war zones has inevitably changed because of the way access and the media are controlled now. What is there role in those situations? It must be different to what it was in Vietnam.

MP
The difference is they have to shoot digitally; they’re wiring the pictures back from the war zone immediately to try and get into Time or Newsweek. Previously people would shoot on film and maybe six weeks later see a story emerge in The Sunday Times Magazine, or indeed in Time or Newsweek. So the way they operate has changed. But now, through books and the likes, they have the cultural output that the more traditional photojournalist being employed by, say, The Washington Post may not have. They can immediately take those pictures and push them into the cultural market place as well as fulfilling the needs of the magazines.

IJ

I think most of this new breed of war photography simply replicates what one sees on television already so is in many ways redundant.

OC
Yes, most of these images feel so familiar to me – they are not original images so I cannot really understand why they have been taken. I would be interested to know if you look through the Magnum archive, how many images are repeated? For example a Palestinian boy throwing a stone at an Israeli solder – how many of those pictures are there in the archive? What I would expect from a photographer today going into this kind of environment is something more self-conscious about his role there as a photographer, something that was more analytical about the representation of war. This stuff seems to be simply documenting it in an incredibly unselfconscious way.

IJ
The best war photographs I have seen in recent years were De La Haye pictures of people in Bosnia, Kosovo, somewhere like that, looking at a map and seemingly lost in a forest. They were incredibly reflective depictions of war. But I think these current photographs look spectacular and are editorially-led.

SW
Working in the Cultural Department and through exhibitions and the likes, I do find contemporary photojournalism created on magazine assignment harder to place in public galleries. Historical photojournalistic work is easier because of the time that has passed and the way that allows for recontextualisation. Also it is what Magnum is famous for.

DC
It is interesting that you should talk about those sorts of historical show because I think the Magnum archive is definitely becoming more important or much more integral to the way in which Magnum conducts itself. New work is being made but a very substantial proportion of the income comes from this sort of legacy of work. In a sense, there is an idea that Magnum has almost outgrown itself in that respect, it’s almost a museum now, it’s increasingly seeing its history as a kind of support structure if you like. Would that not be one way for Magnum to go? To acknowledge its historical importance as a public organisation with a museum, with a permanent gallery, with changing exhibitions of its past history?

SW
A lot of things have been implemented and are being implemented which are acknowledging this. Each office now has a foundation, so we have recognised the fact that education might well become something which is more important. It would be wonderful at some point in the future – and I think this may have been discussed at the AGM – if there was a Magnum institution, somewhere that could hold the archives.

DC
Is the global spread of the agency, in terms of its offices, a kind of hindrance to that? Does it need to identify one location where it can set up this foundation or museum or whatever it becomes?

MP
Each office has a separate archive so we are potentially negotiating to deposit these or sell them so they could become a research-based facility. We are certainly setting up foundations in London and New York, Paris has yet to be initiated, and they would be a potential place to exhibit, to collect and save the archives and estates of photographers. So, yes, there is thinking in that direction. As Sophie says, we are also going to increase our educational input. For example, we are having a workshop here in October which is the first time we’ve had a Magnum lead workshop. We are also considering restructuring our business, in terms of thinking globally and not just about four offices, thinking in terms of more interrelation between the offices and more global initiatives because in this day and age that’s how you have to think.

DC
A lot of this seems to suggest you are acknowledging a public responsibility or acknowledging the importance of your own history and the importance of public access to that. One of the things that I have experienced is that access to Magnum and Magnum material can often be quite difficult. The cost is quite prohibitive and I think that because of that it perhaps runs the risk of writing itself out of a history it should be very much part of.

MP
Any person can register and have access to the full Magnum website. One of the big debates we are having at the moment is whether we should take our watermarks off the pictures on our site. We are debating whether the copyright can still be protected but people can have full and better access and can use these pictures educationally or whatever. But a certain degree of the organisation’s job is to generate income for the photographers.

DC
Of course the need to generate income is partly what defines the organisation, but if there were a way in which it could have a more public, more charitable face it could potentially receive charitable income and that could change.

SW
Again, the foundation is part of that, but we are embracing aspects of that in other ways already. We are presently working with Autograph to create a new body of work on slavery. The project is called Disposable People and the funding for these new commissions has come through Autograph who are registered as a charity and have been able to get Arts Council funding and so on. There’s no money going to the office at all for this, all the money has gone to the artists to create the work and they are not receiving a fee. The exhibition is going to be organised at the Hayward Gallery in April next year. So we are taking part in those kind of things and conscious that it’s the kind of thing we should be doing, but you should also remember that Magnum is not a hugely profitable business.

MP
We are perceived that way but we make a loss nearly every year. At the same time, of course we are aware of these responsibilities, yet precisely how this manifests itself is yet to be discovered, because it is only now that we are thinking about the fact that we have this accumulation of sixty years of pictures and to consider what it is we should do with them. The physical archive is no longer required for our day to day business because now we have the internet once the image has been scanned the actual old hard print becomes redundant. Of course they can be sold on the art market, but many of them are plastic prints and so they are of little value. We are looking at the possibilities of shifting the archives into some place where they could be housed and kept together and become a publicly accessed facility. However, these things don’t happen overnight, especially when you have a business run by sixty people – things get very complicated. You always have to remember that we are slow and fast at the same time because the members run the business and that is a fundamental problem at the same time that it’s essential to our identity.

DC
Do you see that changing?

MP
No, how could it? The whole point of the cooperative is that we own and control our output, so that the moment we change it, and many people would like to have a share of that equity, we nullify our whole raison d’etre, the very reason we were founded. That has to be preserved at all costs.

SW
Although the articulations of management within that have changed in terms of the photographers. Martin is now assigned to print sales across the offices, so we are trying to streamline the decision making processes.

MP
I am also currently Vice-President of the London office so I work very closely with Dominique Green, the Managing Director here, and if she has an issue or something she wants to discuss I am her first port of call. If there’s something I then need to discuss I will email all the photographers and get their feedback. We also have our quarterly meetings where we articulate these issues and ideas and problems and talk about our strategy regarding how we should be run as a business.

DC
How would you like to see Magnum shape up in the future Ian?

IJ
It should keep its commitment to new work because without that it’s nothing. The only reason for looking at photography is to discover new talent, new talent is what’s particularly interesting. Somebody who’s got a certain style somebody who’s got a way of doing things, and Magnum is one of the few organisations with the power to do that. It should keep on doing that because otherwise people will simply get lost. If it saves one or two serious photographers from oblivion every year then that would be a major achievement because there are no support mechanisms elsewhere to do that. Museums aren’t going to do that, other agencies aren’t going to do that.

DC
Are there any examples of people who you think have been saved from oblivion?

IJ
I think Carl de Keyzer, the Belgian photographer, Harry Gruyaert, De La Haye Koudelka. It’s given people like that – singular talents – the opportunity to expand. Its primary function is to unearth and give talent an opportunity and even if it does that with a few people it’s warranted its expenditure and its effort because nobody else is going to do it. I think that was the perception of Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa and Seymour when it was set up and that still applies today.

DC
And Ollie what would you like to see Magnum doing?

OC
I feel very affirmed by this conversation. I think Magnum has changed so much. We are in a digital age and you can now access Magnum and enter into debates with Magnum photographers through the website so I think it is in a way becoming competitive again in the photographic community. I feel it’s become more inclusive and the boundaries between Magnum and the world outside are more porous perhaps and that’s a good thing, something that I hope will to continue to happen.
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Published in Photoworks issue 9, 2007
Commissioned by Photoworks

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