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.



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



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