Saturday, June 23, 2007

Magnum Photos, 60 Years

Since I have been neglecting my duties to 5B4 by spending many of my writing hours (11 pm to 2 am) attending or recovering from events during the recent Magnum 60th Anniversary Festival, I thought it appropriate to write about a small book I stumbled across during the celebrations.

Magnum Photos, 60 Years from the outside looks a bit like a day planner book with its plain white cover, gilded red page edges and black page marker ribbon. What it is in actuality is a pleasing collection of short text pieces that create a telling history of this remarkable photo agency over the past 60 years. Ironically, no photos appear anywhere in this book but considering how much has been published from Magnum members, they are not missed. We know most of the great photos by now, the story, through these short anecdotes, is now center stage.

As the first entry reads: Initiated by Robert Capa, the very first Magnum Photos meeting took place on 17 April in the restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd street in New York. With Capa were David “Chim” Seymour, William and Rita Vandivert and Maria Eisner. Henri Cartier Bresson and George Rodger were not present: The former was in California, the latter in Cyprus en route for Africa. The basic principles of the cooperative had already been laid down and the choice of name is said to reflect Capa’s love of champagne. Magnum Photos Inc. officially came into existence on May 22, with its offices at 21 East 10th street in New York and 22 Rue de Pontoise in Paris.

Down below most entries are small notations of who, in that year, became members, left the agency, was elected President, or became a Contributor. Under the entry above it is noted that Rita Vandivert was established as the first President of Magnum.

Magnum Photos has been described as many things, part eyes of world events, part dysfunctional family, it has held together as an oasis for the rights of its photographers to hold onto their images and avoid the corruption (read: greed and gluttony) of the current and past markets towards copyright issues and ownership.

Many of the entries in this book are centered around the individual projects or books that brought each member attention on a grander scale.

It was Henri Cartier-Bresson who told Josef Koudelka to show Robert Delpire his work on the gypsies. When he was living in Czechoslovakia Koudelka had learned to love gypsy music and even tried his hand at the violin. He met a gypsy poet as well as sociologists and linguists with an interest in the gypsy lifestyle, but his reasons for photographing them lie elsewhere. “I worked on the gypsies a lot. They had a way of living that put the emphasis on the essentials. I made up a rule for myself; what I don’t have, I don’t need.” Published by Delpire as Gitans: La fin du voyage in 1975, the book appeared the same year under the Aperture imprint as Gypsies.

Other entries address the changes the agency has undergone.

The entry for 1988 reads: The nomination of Englishman Martin Parr as a Magnum member generated particularly stormy debate within the agency. With their mix of causticity and humour, aggressive colours and tight framing, his documentary/vernacular photos of his compatriots, consumer society and globalised lifestyles were considered excessively parodic. For some members Parr’s admission would mean the end of Magnum Photos, while others saw it as a great opportunity to open the agency up to “more contemporary” photography. But in the end no one walked out. “I’m shaking the pillars of the temple,” Parr admitted, “and at the same time I’m proud to belong to it.” He finally became a member in 1994.

The director of this interesting history project was Julian Frydman and the texts were written by Phillippe Seclier. The design by Atalante, Paris is clean and well conceived. Being sans photographs, it is as much a typographic accomplishment as a fascinating read. Unfortunately, this book was only published for the immediate and extended Magnum “family” and is not available to a wider audience.

Note as of 10/20/2007: For those interested in buying a copy of this book, there are multiple copies available through Dashwood Books. Visit them at

Book Available Here (Magnum Degree)

Book Available Here (Magnum Stories)


Anonymous said...

Well, that is just great. Magnum & Extended family only. Rub our faces in it why don't you. Why review a book that nobody can get?

Good & interesting review nonetheless...

Jeremy said...

So did you slip a few into your pockets? Will they appear on eBay?

Only kidding, an interesting read,thanks,

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your comment...I think.

I talk about a lot of books that are not available. This wasn't a face rub...I'm pretty sure many of these books will make it to some people if they search for it.

Did you like reading about those little Robert Frank catalogs? Most of those you probably will not find either. This Magnum book would be much easier to get a hold of.


Anonymous said...


Like I mentioned to anonymous, they will probably make it to ebay or book sellers. I wouldn't pay more than say $30-40 dollars for it if you found one. Dealers (or ebayers) will see this as a collectable. I only received one because I work occassionally printing for one of the photographers. My advice, befriend a Magnum intern and see if they could turn one up for you.


narikin said...

am I the only person here who is not a huge fan of Magnum, and finds all this coverage tedious?

as it stands today, there's a lot of lazy, average-at-best photojournalism in there, a lack of real photographic vision, and way too much images-making-by-numbers.
It also seems very self satisfied as an organisation, and publishes far too many books celebrating: itself!

Magnum was a product of its time - an attempt to carve out a space controlled by photographers for them to create their own work and market it to magazines and periodicals etc, without middle-men.

Times move on and the scenery changed, such that we now have new space, new creative territory for photographers to operate in, with galleries and books as principal outlets, and magazines secondary.

Magnum has tried to shift its frame of reference to belatedly accommodate this, but like all heavy ships, a change of course is very difficult. it has partly succeeded with book publication (though so many self congratulatory books, its become a smug 'brand'), but fared far less well in marketing itself as 'art', as every two-penny project gets the Magnum medal of honor and is released to a fanfare of trumpets, seemingly without any real discrimination or critique.

Szarkowski saw through it, which is why he had little interest in it as an organisation, and nothing in common with its aims. (though he did embrace a couple of its notable individuals)

Quite frankly none of this would matter if the work by the members was undeniably great, but sadly one can count on the fingers of one hand the really good work that comes out of Magnum today.

Anonymous said...

Although I have a few very close friends in Magnum, I would agree with Paul. They are a group of skilled professionals with a few visionaries in the mix. If you hire one of them you will get a professional job, but not much more. As Robert Frank once said "Photography is not a group activity."
I found it interesting that for their 60th anniversary they were billing themselves as "documentay" rather than "photojournalism" - rebranding if you will.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you mostly. I only take exception at being labelled a HUGE fan of Magnum. They are an interesting organization. Like any organization it has a range of talent, there is good work and work that is not so good.

Anonymous said...

Double EE,

I'm sure Stuart Franklin wrote that essay about "documentary" because he read my piece about the shortcomings of "photo-journalism" here at 5B4.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope all the Magnum photographers are reading 5B4 (except Josef, who does not know how to use a computer - but he is good with a camera!).

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I think Stuart Franklin wrote that piece for the Magnum Festival booklet long before your photo-journalsim piece - don't you think?

Anonymous said...

That was a stab towards humor on my part. Apparently it was a stab in the dark.


But someone should ask him...

Anonymous said...

I would like to sell my house and all its contents to own one of these wonderful books!