Magnum Photos History of Magnum

1950s and Now

Within five years of its founding, Magnum had also added to its roster talented young photographers such as Eve Arnold, Burt Glinn, Erich Hartmann, Erich Lessing, Marc Riboud, Dennis Stock and Kryn Taconis. Riboud soon followed Cartier-Bresson with his own pioneering work in China, the first of many trips in what has become a lifelong interest. Arnold took a memorable series of pictures of the Black Muslims and of Marilyn Monroe. Taconis covered the Algerian war for independence. Soon others such as Rene Burri, Cornell Capa (Robert's younger brother), Elliott Erwitt and Inge Morath would join. The agency was growing. But there was a feeling that it was heading in some wrong directions. In a memorable 1962 memo addressed to "All Photographers" Cartier-Bresson, attempted to remind the photographers of their place in the world:

“I wish to remind everyone that Magnum was created to allow us, and in fact to oblige us, to bring testimony on our world and contemporaries according to our own abilities and interpretations. I won't go into details here of who, what, when, why and where, but I feel a hard touch of sclerosis descending upon us. It might be from the conditioning of the milieu in which we live but this is no excuse. When events of significance are taking place, when it doesn't involve a great deal of money and when one is nearby, one must stay photographically in contact with the realities taking place in front of our lenses and not hesitate to sacrifice material comfort and security. This return to our sources would keep our heads and our lenses above the artificial life, which so often surrounds us. I am shocked to see to what extent so many of us are conditioned - almost exclusively by the desires of the clients..."

Many Magnum photographers have succeeded brilliantly at transcending "the artificial life" and exploring life's realities subsequent to Cartier-Bresson's memo, as well as before. Bruce Davidson's "East 100th Street" is an extraordinary formal meditation on the lives of people living on an impoverished New York City block, and Philip Jones Griffiths's 1971 book, "Vietnam Inc.", is a brilliantly sardonic, even ferocious, look at the policy of the United States in Vietnam.

FRANCE. Paris. 1950. Magnum Meeting. ©Magnum Photos 

In the 1970s, magazines increased their use of photojournalism and many Magnum members excelled, finding that they had pages and pages of photographs published. But the paradox was that as magazine editors grew both more attached to photographs and more visually sophisticated they also began to use photography in a more decorative, illustrative way. Photographers would be told specifically how to set up a cover shot, lighting and color became the focus, and many of the more serious images did not fit the upscale ambitions of publishers acting to attract a more affluent readership.

So while photographers were having success publishing photographs in magazines, such as Susan Meiselas's photographs of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, or Gilles Peress's photographs of Northern Ireland and the upheaval in Iran, many Magnum photographers were increasingly turning to books and exhibitions to express themselves. Meiselas's "Nicaragua", Peress's "Telex: Iran", Salgado's "L'Homme en Detresse" were attempts to give a more sophisticated and visionary explication of world events. As Magnum's photographers began to experiment with text and with book and exhibition design, their photographic language began to evolve as well. For many the direct testimony that Magnum's founders believed in no longer was sufficient in a media-saturated world where photography was increasingly used to illustrate the points of view of editors and art directors, of politicians and movie stars, at the expense of the photographers.

USA. New York. 1972. ©Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos 

Raymond Depardon worked on a pioneering effort with the French daily newspaper Liberation to report on New York City by providing a single picture every day for the newspaper's foreign-affairs page with a diary-like text that described the people he met, what he was reading, his very personal feelings; Peress's book, "Telex: Iran", included the telexes he received from Magnum's staff as a way of highlighting his quasi-mercenary, foreign role along with photographs that raised questions more than providing authoritative responses as to what was happening.

Eugene Richards's books combined the intimate and the public in raw exposes of the suffering of the impoverished, the sick, the addicted; Harry Gruyaert and Alex Webb's work in Morocco and the Caribbean, respectively, reveled more in the self-conscious exoticism of the observer rather than trying to reveal the societies' underpinnings.

FRANCE. Paris. 1990 ©Rene Burri/Magnum Photos 

For today's younger generation of photographers there is much less of a sense that simply reporting on an injustice is sufficient, and there is a much more complex awareness as to what is or is not possible to explain. Right now, "If your pictures aren't good enough you may be too close rather than not close enough,” as Capa put it long ago. In today's "information age", if the reader can be enjoined to enter the quest for meaning, then one has succeeded. With all of Magnum's prickly personalities, with all the difficulties inherent in attempting to see differently, it is a wonder for many that the agency has managed to survive almost sixty years. Very few cooperatives are noted for their longevity. Magnum, in its idiosyncrasy, its inability to stand still, has been a remarkable exception. As Cartier-Bresson put it in one of his blistering memos to the other photographers, "Vive la revolution permanente."