Magnum Manifesto review: Idealism behind 70 years of photojournalism

Exploring the struggle at the agency Cartier-Bresson called ‘a photographic utopia’

Sat, Oct 21, 2017, 06:00

   
 

Book Title:
Magnum Manifesto

ISBN-13:
978-0500544556

Author:
Edited by Clément Chéroux with Clara Bouveresse

Publisher:
Thames & Hudson

Guideline Price:
£45.00

In 1947 a group of four photographers established the Magnum co-operative with emancipatory intent: to short-circuit the magazine editors – whose commissioning powers extended to cropping and captioning photographs – and become proprietors of their own work by selling directly to clients.

The raison d’être was more than economic. Asserting photographers’ rights was part of a post-second World War universalist zeitgeist – the newly-formed United Nations was about to adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Magnum’s founding luminaries, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, were committed to an ideal – the belief that their art form could convey truths about history and the human condition.

Now celebrating its 70th anniversary, Magnum struggles to maintain its humanist esprit de corps and Magnum Manifesto charts the tensions that have beset the co-operative from its earliest years. The concern of one of the founders, George Rodger, that it was becoming a mere commercial agency, declaring in 1959 that he felt “despair at what Magnum has developed into” was shared by Cartier-Bresson. By then there were some 20 members (presently, just over 90) but joining the club was, and remains, tricky. A candidate’s portfolio is subject to judgement by existing members before nominee status is granted and it is only then that a photographer can apply to become an associate. A final vote is required before membership is confirmed.

The strict membership procedure protects the Magnum brand, the epitome of top-drawer photography, and this book bears witness to its quality with a generous array of images spanning the past seven decades.

While the selection is not as good as the one put together three years ago in Reading Magnum (University of Texas Press), Magnum Manifesto includes notebooks, magazine spreads and other previously unseen material that amount to more than 500 illustrations.

David Seymour’s photograph of children at play beside abandoned landing craft on the beaches of Normandy, 1947 in Magnum Manifesto, Thames & Hudson (2017).
David Seymour’s photograph of children at play beside abandoned landing craft on the beaches of Normandy, 1947 in Magnum Manifesto, Thames & Hudson (2017).

In 1947, founding member David Seymour visited the beaches of Normandy and photographed children at play beside abandoned landing craft. As well as reproducing his era-defining shot that fronted an edition of the American This Week magazine, the book also displays one of Seymour’s contact sheets showing 12 other shots taken on and around Omaha Beach that didn’t find their way into print.

Robert Kennedy was shot dead in Los Angeles in 1968 and his body was taken to New York and then transported by train to Washington. Paul Fusco, on assignment for Look magazine, was on the funeral train and he photographed people lined up along the tracks to pay their respects. Over a dozen of his images are in Magnum Manifesto, capturing small gestures of humanity while wordlessly speaking volumes about the hopes for change that so many had invested in the brother of the slain president. Life, though, can be doubly cruel and the magazine article records how two people who came to watch died under the wheels of an express coming the other way.

The book’s “Anthology” section, a collection articles, memos and letters by members, lays bare Magnum’s soul-searching questioning of its identity. The admission of the British photographer Martin Parr caused ructions that still reverberate, and a fax from Philip Jones Griffiths to his fellow members declared his opposition. Parr’s membership, he said, would be “a rejection of those values that have given Magnum the status it has in the world” and to see what he means you need to look at some of Parr’s work. In Signs of the Times, the British photographer satirically photographed the interiors of ordinary people’s homes, mocking their interior design, and in Last Resort, irony is directed at working-class families enjoying their hard-earned holidays at New Brighton beach in Merseyside. Parr finally gained membership in 1994, scraping in by one vote, and in 2014 he became president of Magnum Photos International. A different sign of the times perhaps?

The last entry in the “Anthology” section is a heartfelt email from a member calling for reflection over the choice of new members. He wants people who are “socially conscious” and capable of “working outside of stereotype”, harking back to what made the agency such a distinguished body of photographers. Described as an organisation “held together by the intangible glue of hope and dreams”, another member has insisted that “Magnum is, and should fight to remain an anachronism”. Cartier-Bresson called it “a photographic utopia” but whether Magnum remains so and what direction it will take in the future remains to be seen.
Seán Sheehan writes for LensCulture and is the author of Jack’s World: Farming on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, 1920-2003 (Cork University Press) with photographs by Danny Gralton, Ciaran Watson and Danny Levy Sheehan