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Rochester: House of Pictures
November 6, 2012
by Magnum Group
Postcards from America: Chapters 1, 2 & 3
Magnum Print Room, London EC1V 3RS
Opens 14 November 2012

The Rochester Portfolio, Archive Box and Catalogue Launch
Magnum Gallery Stand, Paris Photo, Grand Palais, Paris, 14 November 2012

Taking Back the Agenda

As the traditional support systems for producing photo documentary projects - such as canvassing editorial commissions - are in decline, a different method of working is now emerging. This often combines internet platforms, print sales and even self financing publications. Rather than being daunted by these shifts, within Magnum a loose group of photographers have started working together to explore the many platforms currently available.

The first expedition into these new territories was initiated by Alec Soth, Jim Goldberg, and Susan Meiselas, as a result of a Magnum photographers’ retreat where different ideas were bounced around and discussed, back in early 2011.

In a project entitled “Postcards from America”, five photographers and a writer spent two weeks in May 2011 driving an RV from Austin, Texas, to Oakland, California, stopping off and exploring the towns they passed through. Images were posted on Tumblr and help was enlisted via the net to guide photographers around when they arrived in a strange town. A pop-up show was arranged as a climax, and eventually a remarkable boxed publication was produced. This contained a selection of different zines, small books and even posters.

For the next large-scale “Postcards from America” event – after Jim and Alessandra Sanguinetti had brought the RV back East on a trip through Utah – we decided to stay in one location as this would afford a better opportunity to connect with the area and dig beneath the surface. Central to this idea was the making of an archive of 1000 images, with each photographer contributing 100 pictures. Machine-printed, unsigned 10/8 inch prints will be housed in a beautiful, hand made box. This will be made in an edition of five. By pre-selling two of the boxes, promising a small set of prints to a supporter, and working collaboratively with local arts and educational institutions, we were able independently to fund the production of this project.

When a documentary project is undertaken, the normal aim is a tight edit of a set of photographs for exhibition. This means that many images with great documentary value are excluded. By enlarging the selection, the resulting living archive has more value and meaning for the community, especially in years to come. Not only does such an archive work locally, but it also gives a very potent snapshot of an American city, which of course has a wider significance.

We decided to shoot in Rochester, a city with a huge photographic legacy, led by the struggling Kodak. The city is also the home of Visual Studies Workshop, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and George Eastman House. All three of these institutions jumped at the chance to collaborate with our project. VSW was delighted to host the emerging pop up exhibition, in which photos were pinned up as they were taken. RIT gave each photographer four students to work alongside him or her. There was a team leader, co-ordinating the research, a driver, and a student in charge of production, processing files or films. RIT also contributed to the budget as all ten photographers did a talk to a packed auditorium at the university, and two photographers did individual lectures. The students learned a great deal from the exercise as they witnessed the pleasures and frustrations of shooting on a very intense project with highly motivated photographers. George Eastman House found the funds to commit to an archive box, meaning an archive of the project will remain in Rochester, and also hosted a book signing and panel discussion with the photographers.

The excitement and buzz of the whole project were electrifying. We all stayed in the same huge mansion opposite George Eastman House and evenings were spent (if not out shooting) comparing notes and processing files. We all met many different people and communities within the city and they willingly engaged with the photographers. Many attended the pop up show, to view or receive copies of the resulting photos. We also did a free studio event in them main market, on the first weekend, and the sitters picked up their photos a week later. We posted images on Tumblr and built up a good online audience as the project progressed.

In addition to the archive box, we have prepared a limited edition folio and a self-published “magazine” (the one you are now reading). These will be launched at Paris Photo 2012 and the funds raised will then be split between Magnum and the contributing photographers.

For the photographers, perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of the whole project was the fact that we retained complete control of our methods of working, where we went and what we photographed. We also controlled the many platforms that will allow the work to be disseminated to our different audiences.

This is an essential achievement, as often with a project of this scale we would have to find different partners and sponsors who would inevitably want to have a say in what is shot and how it is displayed. So as “Postcards from America” moves on to its next shooting venue, we will build on what has worked well and continue the search for exciting ways to work as documentary photographers.

One thing is for certain though: We will not be beholden to anyone but ourselves as we savour the huge variety of photographic styles that Magnum can offer and the many different ways to build and engage with our audiences.