Magnum, Fifty years at the frontline, Russell Miller

Summary as written on [a well know book-selling website]

Since Magnum was founded in 1947, its members have been on hand to bear witness on the front line of world history. From Robert Capa’s stark photograph of a Loyalist soldier being shot in the head during the Spanish Civil War to Eve Arnold’s astonishingly intimate portraits of well-known faces – from Joan Crawford to Malcolm X – Magnum has changed how we perceive our political leaders, social crises, and the communities next door.
Magnum’s photographers are some of the most talented, brave, and resourceful in the world: the founders, Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Rodger, and Henri Cartier-Bresson; and recruits, including Eve Arnold, Bruce Davidson, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Inge Morath, James Nachtwey, Eugene Richards, and Sebastiao Salgado. Magnum follows them on assignment, facing bodyguards and visa troubles and taking to the risk-filled trenches of several wars for the perfect shot. Full of wonderful stories and heroic feats, Magnum is an essential volume for anyone interested in photography or photojournalism.

 

Summary if I had written it

The first fifty years of Magnum is the story of a very dysfunctional family. A bunch of very talented individuals who have nothing much in common except talent for photography and a complete unwillingness to be told what to do. A tale, or rather tales, of daring deeds, brilliant ideas and petty fights, punctuated by some of the most important photos of the second half of the 20th century.

 

Review

The idea behind Magnum is fairly straightforward: photographers, and in particular photoreporters, should be free to choose their subject and how they want to treat it and should retain the rights to their photos. It sounds obvious now but it wasn’t the case before 1946. The idea of a photographers’ cooperative had been in Capa’s mind since the 1930s but he only got round to founding it in 1946/47. If the idea behind is great, there is an initial flaw in the setting up of Magnum, that is putting the photographers completely in charge. Photographers are not businessmen, and therefore since its creation, Magnum has suffered regularly from financial trouble (the book covers the first 50 years, I would hope that since the agency is still around, they have finally found a way to solve their perennial money issue).

Miller’s book is an uncompromising portrait of the dysfunctional family that Magnum is. One anecdote in the book summarises the atmosphere of Magnum very well: when Cartier-Bresson was chairman of the annual meeting, the minutes apparently read « the chairman is asked not to do watercolours during the meeting ». From a sociological point of view Magnum is the equivalent of the peasants’ commune in Holy Grail and as such shouldn’t have lasted more than a year or two. But 70 years later, Magnum is still there, and Miller’s book gives us some answer: yes they couldn’t manage a balance sheet to save their lives; yes they’re full of themselves and spend their time quarrelling, but in the end the people there are not just « good » photographers, they’re brilliant ones and they all value their independence too much to let Magnum sink.

After a first thematic chapter that sets the environment (Miller’s account of the 1997 Annual meeting, with its little fights and slammed doors, a typical meeting as we soon discover), the book is organised chronologically, starting with a brief summary of the founders’ (Capa, Chim, Rodger and Cartier-Bresson) lives. It makes for fascinating reading as the story of Magnum’s first 50 years is also the story of the second half of the 20th century, with all its wars and social changes.

It’s an uncompromising portrait, but a very touching one too. No matter how awful these photographers seem to be to each other and to the staff working in the agency, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be fascinating to work for one of the bureaux for a year, just to see it from the inside (I do think that after a year, you’d need another one to get your health back).

As I said earlier, given how it is organised, Magnum shouldn’t have lasted 50 years, not to mention 70. That they did is a testament to the greatness of the basic idea behind it: photographers’ independence. And I think that’s what makes this portrait so touching too. Independence is a much touted word nowadays, but very few people can afford to live by this principle (to the sound of « you’ve got to serve somebody » by Dylan), and it creates a lot of problems when talking about the media. To read about 50 or so inveterate, old-fashioned photographers who value their independence above money is refreshing.

My only regret at the end is that I couldn’t find a book that takes over and covers 1997-2016. To be written one day I hope!

 

A warmly recommended read for anyone interested in photojournalism (ok, confession time: as a teen, I wanted to be a war photograph).

 

Date of publication: 1999

ISBN: 978-0802136534

 

The Battle for Spain, Anthony Beevor

Summary (from a well known online reseller)

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War’s outbreak, Antony Beevor has written a completely updated and revised account of one of the most bitter and hard-fought wars of the twentieth century. With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war-its causes, course, and consequences.

 

Summary if I had written it

A thorough study of the Spanish Civil War, destroying any pre-conceived romantic ideas you may have held on the topic.

 

Review

The Spanish Civil War is the poor cousin of our history classes. Stuck between the Great Depression and World War II, it is usually summarized in a few words, along the lines of « fascist uprising against a left-wing government; training ground for German and Italian weapons » and illustrated with either Picasso’s Guernica or Capa’s Fallen soldier.

I had of course heard of the International Brigades, but saw them as thousands of « gallant young democrats » joining an international crusade against fascism. I was vaguely aware of the presence of an anarchist movement but had no idea of its strength. And finally, I only became aware of the extent of communist control over the loyalist/Republican troops when reading Capa’s biography and his misgivings about it.

Beevor’s account is very detailed, a bit too much for my taste when it comes to battles description, and all aspects of the war are covered.

Quite a few of my illusions were shattered in the process:

  • international brigades men were not allowed to leave Spain,
  • anarchists were probably the most democratic of all the loyalist parties,
  • Republican forces did not lose just because the insurgents were helped by Germany but also because their commanding officers were useless,
  • the number of deaths is on a scale I had not even imagined.

The book is also very useful to understand current affairs, in particular Catalan and Basque nationalism. Without knowing what these regions suffered, it is hard to understand why they are so vocal about their particularism.

The (in)action of foreign countries is well-explained. The short-sightedness of Britain, also well-known, remains baffling. And although it is only the subject of a few paragraphs, the behavior of France towards the Republican prisoners is sickening. It is a strange feeling to discover that the little village where I spent my first summer holidays held a prisoner camps in 1939. Of course, this treatment of war refugees also has strange echoes nowadays. Looks like French welcome culture is as strong now as it was then.

Although frankly indigent at times, it is a very interesting study and I would recommend it to anyone with a fondness for military history. But maybe, Orwell’s Hommage to Catalonia would have been an easier read.

Robert Capa, by Richard Whelan

Yes, I know, not the most original book for me…

 

Summary as written on the book

The legendary war photographer Robert Capa carried into his personal life the same remarkable vitality that characterizes his pictures. Driven from his native Hungary by political oppression, he was first recognized for photographing the Spanish Civil War. In 1938 he was in China recording the Japanese invasion. During World War II he was in London, North Africa, and Italy, and then in France covering D-Day on Omaha Beach, the liberation of Paris, and the Battle of the Bulge. When the new nation of Israel was founded in 1948 he was there. In 1954 he was in Vietnam, taking photographs until the moment he was killed.

Away from battle, Capa gather about him such famous people as Ernest Hemingway and his wife (the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn), Gary Cooper, Irwin Shaw, and Gene Kelly. Whelan shows Capa photographing the street life of Paris, crisscrossing America on assignment from Life, in Russia with John Steinbeck, in Italy with John Huston, on the Riviera with Picasso, and with Ingrid Bergman.

 

Summary if I had written it

A thorough account of the life and art of Robert Capa, from his childhood and early political engagement in Budapest, to his early years in Paris, his meeting with Gerda Taro and finally to him becoming « the greatest war photographer in the world ».

The life of a talented man who from the moment he lost his great love at the age of 23 realised that his life as a war photograph would only bring him loneliness and constant wanderings.

 

Review

Capa’s life has all the ingredients of a Hollywood story: the poor Jewish emigrant stealing food in Paris cafés in the 1930s who becomes the « greatest war photographer in the world », creates the first independent agency run by photographers for photographers (Magnum), hangs around famous people like Hemingway and dates Ingrid Bergman. Whelan also drew heavily from testimonies from Capa’s brother (Cornell) for this very well research biography. In short, it had all the ingredients to be a eulogy and not a proper biography.

However, Whelan is good enough to avoid this pitfall. His portrait of Capa is positive, mainly because Capa was a loveable man, but he does not hide the failings and contradictions of the man. Whelan is also ruthless in exposing the lies or the embellishments behind Slightly out of focus.

Whelan’s treatment of the Capa-Taro affair is very touching. There is not too much sentimentality, but he is very clear on the impact she had on him and on his career and rather dramatically, the impact her death had on Capa’s life. The feeling I got was that it was Taro’s death that made him realise that life as a war photographer was dangerous and that if he let anyone too close to him (i.e. as close as he had been to Taro) he could one day cause them terrible pain. Taro’s death made Capa a lonely wanderer who put on a brave and smiling face on for the entire world to see.

The story behind the creation of Magnum and how far the idea came back (1938 more or less) was also fascinating. With Capa as its head it’s a miracle Magnum survived its first years.

The book has, in my view, two downsides:

  • the fact that Whelan (who died in 2007) didn’t have the time to update it following the (re) discovery of the Mexican suitcase*
  • it lacks pictures. Descriptions of famous or powerful pictures are very well written but sometimes they’re not enough. Many times I found myself reaching for my ‘definitive Capa’ (ed Phaidon) to see exactly which photo was being discussed. Which is fine if you’re reading on your sofa. Not so if you’re on the train as it’s not possible to carry the Phaidon book along (its weights a ton)

But these two downsides aside, it’s a really good book and I understand why it’s considered as the definitive Capa biography (somehow I don’t feel like reading Kershaw’s Blood and champagne. I find the title too bling, too sensational. I may be doing it a disservice.).

 

 

ISBN 978-0803297609

*Originally published in 1985, some 20 years before the discovery of the Mexican suitcase.