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In 1951, Henri Cartier-Bresson and ten other members of the Magnum photo agency fanned out to fourteen countries to meet and photograph a generation of young people coming into adulthood in a war-scarred but freshly hopeful world.
Magnum, founded four years earlier, was a product of this new era. Its founders had witnessed the war — Cartier-Bresson escaped a German P.O.W. camp; Robert Capa photographed D-Day in Normandy — and wanted to work on their own terms. They formed a cooperative so as to devise their own projects, control ownership of their images, and publish them, in magazines or, eventually, in books and gallery prints, for a decent wage.
“Generation X,” the 1951 project, was an example. It ran, serialized, in magazines such as America’s Holiday and France’s Point de Vue–Images du Monde. A few of its images, including a classic Cartier-Bresson shot of a young female bus ticket inspector striding across a dreary intersection on a damp day in London, the mood bright but bleak, appear at the start of “Magnum Manifesto,” a tightly edited retrospective of the agency’s history at the ICP Museum and the centerpiece of the agency’s seventieth-birthday celebrations, taking place this season at multiple locations in the city.
Photography has changed, yet Magnum endures. “By every rule of reason and economy, this thing should never have been started,” Capa wrote his colleagues in 1952. Instead, the agency has survived financial stress, debates over values and craft, and ego conflict, growing its all-time roster to ninety-two, with forty-nine active members and seven recent “nominees,” the first step in the induction process. The agency’s collection has grown to over a million images, of which some 500,000 are available in its online archive. Some of the world’s most celebrated news photos are by Magnum members — for instance Bruno Barbey’s images of the May 1968 student rebellion in Paris, or Stewart Franklin’s “Tank Man” image from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests — but so are important documents of social movements, subcultures, daily life around the world, even fashion and celebrities. (One famous subset of the Magnum oeuvre, Cartier-Bresson’s photographs from India, taken from 1948, when he provided stirring coverage of the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, to 1987, is on view at the Rubin Museum.)
In its scope and immensity, the Magnum archive offers, arguably, a reasonable visual history of the world since 1947, or at least a solid point of departure. The curators of the ICP exhibition — Clément Chéroux, of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Clara Bouveresse, author of a history of Magnum — have built the show around the argument that at each phase of its own history, Magnum echoed the global zeitgeist. Resisting the temptation to mount an encyclopedic retrospective or compile greatest hits, they edited instead, narrowing the focus to some thirty projects by individual photographers or groups, divided into three time periods, each with a reference text that they feel captures the mood and concerns of the time. For each period, a separate wall of photographs gives a constellational sense of Magnum’s work as a collective endeavor and allows most of the agency’s roster to be represented.
The show’s first section, covering the agency’s first two decades, is titled “Human Rights and Wrongs,” and features projects in which photographers shot a world rebuilding from the cataclysm of war around values of universalism, equality, and dignity. “Generation X” is a heartfelt example; among the other series excerpted here are the compassionate photographs of street children in Chile that brought Sergio Larraín his renown, Leonard Freed’s images of the civil rights movement, Eve Arnold’s work with migrant potato pickers on Long Island, and stunning images of the life of a child on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, made in 1952 by Constantine Manos, himself only eighteen at the time.
The second part is baggier, perhaps befitting the period 1969–89, when universalism began to yield to affirmations of difference. The selection, titled “An Inventory of Differences” — borrowing from an obscure 1975 lecture by French historian Paul Veyne — includes Susan Meiselas’s intimate series on carnival strippers and Raymond Depardon’s bleak images from Italian psychiatric hospitals, but what’s most interesting here is the evolution in methods. Meiselas and Jim Goldberg, in his tragic series on T.J., an addict in San Francisco, give their subjects agency in selecting or annotating the photos. Meanwhile the Picture Bandit, a contraption that photographer Charles Harbutt built in 1969, rigged a casino machine to a projector so that it showed, on each pull, three random images from a Magnum series on “America in Crisis.” Restored with the original photographs, the machine reflects self-questioning about the value and peril of taking images out of context. (There’s a jackpot setting — three identical images of a Richard Nixon mask marked with a dollar sign appear.)
Later, two facing walls, one with video displays of photobooks from the 1970s and ’80s by Magnum members, the other showing corporate reports with commissioned images — Erich Hartmann for Bank of New York, Bruce Davidson for RCA, Burt Glinn for Bristol-Myers, Depardon for Havas — illustrate changes in the profession, with both the art and business worlds offering new prospects. Not all Magnum members approved of corporate work; according to the curators, some weren’t keen to see it included in this show.
The third section runs from the fall of the Berlin Wall, as shot by Mark Power, to now, with Alessandra Sanguinetti’s work in Nice after last July’s truck attack: She shows the pitch-dark, deserted beachfront promenade the next night, and makes portraits of the terrorist’s neighbors, each holding a sheet of paper recording their feelings. This section’s title is “Stories About Endings,” keyed to Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History?” It works well enough, but again the larger story is the conceptual progress.
The “Rochester Project,” which appears near the show’s end, is a Magnum group endeavor from 2012 that provides a fitting contrast to “Generation X” six decades earlier. This time ten Magnum photographers — including some of today’s great names, such as Meiselas, Paolo Pellegrin, and Alex Webb — converged on one place: Rochester, New York. The motivation was no longer hopeful, but elegiac. The city exemplified industrial decline, with extra photographic significance: Kodak, the pride of Rochester, had just entered bankruptcy, cementing digital’s triumph. Accordingly, the work was different. The photographers mixed analog and digital techniques, but the human approach, too, had been rearranged. The team set up a photo studio in the farmers’ market. They invited students and local residents to add their own pictures. The result — captured in a volume in the “Postcards From America” series — signaled changes in photography not just as formal art, but also as community practice.
Would Capa, killed by a landmine in Vietnam in 1954 — or for that matter Cartier-Bresson, who died in 2004, aged 95 — recognize Magnum today? A video montage, drawn from Chéroux and Bouveresse’s dive into the agency’s letters and memos, gives a tantalizing taste of its debates over values and purpose. “Magnum is a myth and a hoax,” announces Antoine d’Agata, for instance. He nonetheless remains a member. There’s more in this vein in the beautiful but expensive book that accompanies the show.
Only in the book, too, is the glaring problem of diversity noted. Magnum has only had twelve women members, and fewer in the show, as several are recent nominees, not full members. And while it is an international group, it remains overwhelmingly white-European and -American. Competing cooperatives have emerged, such as VII, founded in 2001, and NOOR Images, founded in 2007, which are more gender-balanced, more diverse, and younger; still more niche outfits have sprung up. No single group, of course, can rectify photojournalism’s bias toward a white, male, straight, colonial gaze. At seventy, Magnum has some of the blind spots of an aging revolutionary; “Magnum Manifesto” is, nevertheless, a powerful reminder of its vast achievements.
“Magnum Manifesto” is at the ICP Museum through September 3; icp.org. “Henri Cartier-Bresson in India” is at the Rubin Museum through September 4; rubinmuseum.org. For a full list of “Magnum at 70” events, visit magnumphotos.com.