Magnum Magnum

‘Magnum Magnum’

Edited by Brigitte Lardinois. Published by Thames & Hudson; pp568; £19.95

by John Carvill

How do you assess a book of Magnum photographs? The rational mind must surely recoil from the idea of ‘reviewing’ such a collection. What sort of critique could you possibly be expected to offer? Not bad, folks, keep trying? Ultimately, the only criteria on which valid opinions can be formed are relatively extraneous matters such as value for money, presentation, and originality of format.

In terms of value for money, ‘Magnum Magnum’ cannot be faulted. The hardback edition of this book, published in 2007, was quite expensive – though certainly not unusually so for a photography book – but this ‘compact flexibound’ edition, offering 413 photographs in 568 large, glossy pages, for a list price of £19.95 (or considerably less if purchased through one of the big online outlets), is, unquestionably, a genuine bargain. It’s beautifully presented, too, with each lovingly reproduced photograph occupying a full page (or, in some cases, two pages) in a sturdily bound yet surprisingly wieldy volume which feels as though it will easily withstand the repeated thumbings its contents deserve.

The real triumph, though, is the format: each featured photographer is represented by a selection of their work, limited to six photographs, chosen by one of their colleagues. This ‘Magnum photographers on Magnum photographers’ formula, suggested by British photographer Martin Parr, is as effective as it is (seemingly) simple. On one hand, once proposed, the idea must have appeared to be virtually irresistible: who better to choose a handful of images to sum up the work of a Magnum photographer than another Magnum photographer? In reality, however, the converse argument must have followed hard on the heels of any initial euphoria: what could be more potentially fricative than Magnum photographers having their work chosen by other Magnum photographers? As Magnum president Stuart Franklin says in his preface, the format was a ‘gamble’: indeed, when Franklin asked French photographer Jean Gaumy what it felt like, “being edited by others”, and “exposing a lifetime’s work to the curatorial gaze of” his peers, Gaumy replied: “Russian roulette.”

As Franklin notes, Magnum has “often been described in familial terms”, an analogy which cuts both ways: families may present a united front to outsiders, but they are notoriously prone to inner tensions. Welsh photographer David Hurn describes his colleague Josef Koudelka as a man “who became, in feel, the brother I had never had.” Balancing that, Eve Arnold is quoted as describing Magnum’s resemblance to a family relationship in which, “You love all of them, but you don’t like all of them. It’s an organic thing”.

The book’s editor, Brigitte Lardinois, in her fascinating and good-natured essay, ‘Inside Magnum Photos’, recalls some of the familial tensions which cropped up during the process of putting ‘Magnum Magnum’ together: photographers not wanting anyone else to make selections from their work, or not being happy with the selections which were made; even one photographer who “wanted to change the selection so much that the other one no longer wanted to write about him, and he had to write about himself.” Overall though, the gamble paid off, but it took, says Franklin, “all of Brigitte’s considerable flair for diplomacy to ensure that everyone was more or less content with their pairings.”

David Hurn describes some of the difficulties he had in making selections from the work of one of his favourite photographer colleagues, Rene Burri: “On attempting to select six pictures I first looked at Rene’s database, starting with 1955-60. From this short period there were over 1,300 pictures on show, and there were a further 47 years to select from!”

A similar – if less exalted – dilemma faces anyone attempting to describe the eventual result of all those peer selections. Where do you start, and how do you stop? What to say that isn’t already stated by the photographs themselves? How to describe the (often visceral) effect of seeing a given image for the first time? Is there any way to convey the cumulative effect of so many powerful images?

Nonetheless, some attempt must be made at highlighting a handful of photographs (and photographers) which might – depending on their focus, depending on their mood, depending on whatever hidden vectors cause a particular image to connect – catch the reader’s eye. There are some famous names here, of course. Some are famous photographers; some are famous, full stop. Often, though, the selections that have been made do not include a famous photographer’s most well-known images. Eve Arnold, for instance, has selected a series of rarely seen Cartier-Bresson photographs – including one from her own private collection – all taken in India in 1966.

There are, too, some images of famous people here: Cornell Capa’s wistfully candid shot of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe on the set of what would prove to be both actors’ final film, John Huston’s ‘The Misfits’, in 1960; Burt Glinn’s exuberant image of Sammy Davis Junior capering across New York’s Madison Avenue in 1965; Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev, his half-bald head seen from behind, contemplating the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1959, etc.

More often than not, though, the subjects are anonymous. Perhaps we will pause over Bruno Barby’s street shot of Italian children – a moment out of the flow of everyday life which the photographer has frozen for us. “The overall feeling”, David Hurn says, “is illusive and I enjoy that.” It’s an exactly apt description: the viewer enjoys the image, yet there is something off-kilter about it. The composition is intensely dynamic – Hurn calls the geometry “violent”, and points out that it “poses many questions.” Not least among these questions would be: what is the nature of the children’s relationship to the beggar who remains static – “visually much smaller” – in the background? Friends? Tormentors? Un-related passers-by?

Unanswered questions, as well as that ‘illusive’ quality, percolate through many Magnum photographers’ works. Jonas Bendiksen’s photograph of an “entrepreneur and his bear at a tourist stop near the Black Sea” could scarcely be more bizarre. The viewer wonders first whether the bear is real, then more slowly begins to question what sort of ‘real’ world could contain such a scene. More extraordinary still is Bendiksen’s astonishing photo of Russian villagers collecting pieces of scrap metal from a crashed spacecraft, the air around them thick with clouds of white butterflies. The image is heavy with symbolic resonances: the contrast between natural and manned flight, and the phenomenal expense of space exploration versus the desperation of impoverished peoples.

A similar point is eloquently made by Constantine Manos, in relation to Stuart Franklin’s overhead shot of two adjacent yet irreconcilable worlds brushing past each other at the Jockey Club in Nairobi, Kenya: white and black faces regarding each other curiously across the picket fence which cuts across the photograph and offers “a powerful comment on race and the (literal) barriers which divide people.”

One of Franklin’s other photos – an intriguingly framed shot of a public swimming pool in Sao Paulo, Brazil – points up a similar division, between rich and poor. The swimming pool is patronised by “working class Paulistanos: ’You would never see a rich person here’, says a city resident.” Franklin’s swimming pool image is one of those curious photographs which look very much like paintings, bringing to mind the long-standing conflicts and symbioses between painting and photography, and raising all sorts of questions about where this sort of photography, in particular, fits on the scale between art and pure documentary.

Constantine Manos points out that Franklin is “typical of many Magnum photographers, who strive to make fine photographs not for the sake of the photograph alone but also to make a statement about the world in which we live.” In his preface, Franklin discusses how the “dichotomy – between art and photojournalism – that has often been used to describe division inside Magnum, simply vanishes in the multiplicity of approaches to documentary photography” demonstrated in these pages. This cuts right to the heart of the matter: the division vanishes, not because it never mattered, but because the breadth and depth of the combined work of these photographers represents a communal spirit which crosses, and even eradicates, all boundaries between what can be considered ‘art’ or ‘documentary’ photography.

A compelling example is Leonard Freed’s shot of Martin Luther King in the back of an open-top car, having just returned from collecting his Nobel Peace Prize. A crowd has gathered on the street, eager to interact with King despite frowning policemen and the bodily intervention of King’s security staff. His arm stretched out across the boot of the car, King’s hand has become a hub from which radiate half a dozen eagerly grasping hands, seeming to symbolise King’s role as the focus of so many of the hopes and expectations of a whole nation. One woman’s hand is caught mid-motion. In a second, she will in all probability achieve her goal of fully embracing King’s hand. For the moment, though, she has managed to bend one finger down and thus make contact with the back of King’s hand. Her smile suggests a current of exultant energy has coursed up her arm.

Of all the thoughts which may have passed through the mind of the photographer as he made this image, it’s doubtful that creating a work of art was amongst them. Constantine Manos approvingly records how, “I have never heard a single Magnum photographer refer to himself or herself as an ‘artist’, nor refer to a photograph as a ‘piece’. The photographs have a mission which goes beyond merely creating pretty pictures”. Although it’s worth noting, in passing, that ‘art’ too means more than just pretty pictures, Manos’s point is well made. Yet, if only by dint of their sheer quality of execution, and resultant visual power, photographs such as these are art. They may have become art as a by-product of being something else first, but art they undoubtedly are.

There is also the matter of how artfully images are presented and arranged. In Robert Frank’s seminal book, ‘The Americans’ – which distilled thousands of rolls of film down into a collection of 83 immensely potent images which summed up the contradictory, even delusional nature of life in 1950s America – a kind of visual narrative was constructed by ordering the images in a very particular way. Page by page, motifs and themes accreted, images on successive pages often providing a repetition or echo of elements of their preceding image(s) – flags, hats, cars, cigars, etc. This process, – which Colin Westerbeck once described as a “little retinal retention” that will “superimpose one picture on the next one” – has, in many cases, been replicated in the pages of ‘Magnum Magnum’: images on successive (or facing) pages seem to echo each other, not just thematically but also compositionally.

Some of these echoes are so strongly present as to be all but unmissable: Jonas Bendiksen’s photograph of Nepalese villagers under the triangular eaves of a hut, looking down upon the covered up body of a murder victim (killed in a dispute over water for irrigation), is displayed opposite his picture of a Canadian suicide victim’s snow-covered grave, overlooked by a triangular mountain peak; Ian Berry’s shot of a child smoking a cigarette, with Liverpool city centre in the background, is echoed by his shot of a London child eating an ice cream cone, with London’s docklands behind him; Thomas Dworzak’s image of a red cardigan hanging on a line between Russian military tents is mirrored by his image of Lebanese soldiers holding up a white sheet stained red with the blood of civilians killed in an Israeli air-strike.

Some echoes are so subtle that you might miss them, if it weren’t for your familiarity with the existing pattern: John Vink’s photograph of the installation of a drinking water pipeline in Guatemala might seem to have little connection with its succeeding image, which shows a group of Kosovan refugees crossing a border while the US air force fly overhead. But in both images, the foreground holds a cluster of men, while the background features a similarly shaped curve: for the Guatemalans it is a curve made up of sections of water pipe laid out across the landscape; for the Kosovans, the curve is formed by the contrails of the B-52 bombers circling round to attack Serb positions.

Sometimes, there is a further, poignant twist: Chien-Chi Chang’s selections from Bruce Davidson’s work are all images of couples together: hugging or embracing, or (in the case of the famous shot of a girl fixing her hair using the mirrored surface of a cigarette machine while her boyfriend fastidiously rolls up the sleeves of his t-shirt) just being together. The final image, however, breaks the pattern by showing a lone female figure on an unmade bed, forlornly clutching the bed sheets to her breast; behind her, on the wall of her room, is an ornament, or perhaps a chocolate box, shaped like a heart.

In his contemplative introductory essay, ‘What Is a Magnum Photograph?’, Gerry Badger again raises the dichotomy between art and documentary, claiming that photographers “do not join Magnum primarily to make art. They join because they want to make photographs about the world.” The world they wish to photograph is one that’s full of people – and it’s significant that virtually every photograph here features at least one person. Looking at David Hurn’s work, says Eve Arnold, “the first word that comes to mind is ‘humanity’”; similarly, Elliott Erwitt admires Eve Arnold as someone who observes and records, with “great heart and sympathy”, the “manifestations of our human condition”, working in “the best humanistic tradition”.

Constantine Manos writes that Stuart Franklin’s photos are taken as a means of conveying “what our civilisation looks like”. This is the true subject of ‘Magnum Magnum’, a book which records what our civilisation has looked like, documents what it looks like now, and goes some way towards positing what (if anything) it might become. Eve Arnold once called Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson, “the poet with the camera”. Cartier-Bresson himself said that “when we are good, we are maybe little better than the watchmaker”. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between these extremes.

Writing about music, they say, is like dancing about architecture. In which case, writing about photography might be compared to whistling about string theory. Qualitative judgements are rendered sufficiently subjective as to be inherently invalid. Each reader must make his own journey (or, more accurately, series of journeys) through these images. This book is an essential purchase. It’s a must for anyone with any interest in photography; anyone lacking such an interest would surely soon develop one after glancing through its pages.