Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History: The Story of the Legendary Photo Agency

Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History: The Story of the Legendary Photo Agency

by Russell Miller

ISBN: 9780802136534

Publisher Grove Press

Published in Arts & Photography/History & Criticism

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Meeting

Photographers like to joke that becoming a member of Magnum is tantamount, in the rigour of the initiation, to joining a religious order. Not for nothing do critics deride the agency as a closed community of self-righteous monks scorning heathen outsiders. Acolytes accepted on probation may claim membership of the order, but have no privileges and must prove their worth while undergoing rigorous assessment and instruction from older members. After two years they are required to submit a portfolio of work to move on to the next stage and become a novitiate in preparation for taking their final vows as a penitent and fully fledged member entitled to vote at the annual convocation. Fortunately, none of the usual monastery rules regarding chastity and obedience apply.

The annual convocation of Magnum photographers takes place towards the end of June each year, rotating between the major Magnum offices in New York, Paris and London. Part business meeting, part social gathering, part therapy session, part family reunion, part tedious debating chamber, it is axiomatic that it is held against a background of crisis, since Magnum is always embroiled in a crisis of some kind, and it is almost a tradition that at one point or another the meeting will deteriorate into a furious shouting match, if not worse.

Many and colourful are the stories about Magnum's incendiary meetings. One year the shouting got so bad that Erich Lessing, who is a professor of photography in Vienna and was then in his sixties, was obliged to clamber on to a table, stamp his feet and bellow at the top of his voice to try and restore order. Another year Bruce Davidson and Burt Glinn, both long-standing Magnum colleagues based in New York, could be found on their feet, leaning over from opposite sides of a table, noses inches apart, veins bulging, screaming at each other. Observers vividly remember Davidson, who was in his fifties, accusing Glinn, who was in his sixties, of being a 'prostitute', an apparent reference to Glinn's willingness to take on corporate work. A different disagreement, the details of which few can now remember, left Erich Hartmann looking as if he might be the sole surviving member after everyone else had threatened to resign en masse and in high dudgeon. On yet another occasion, when Philip Jones Griffiths refused to attend the meeting in New York, a delegation went round to his apartment intent on kidnapping him. Unfortunately Jones Griffiths is a burly Welshman built like a rugby forward and all attempts to bundle him into the elevator on the eleventh floor of his building failed. Jones Griffiths's grievance was that he disapproved of a decision to move the New York office into new premises in Spring Street, SoHo, and consequently vowed never to set foot inside the place. Since the meeting was being held in the new office, he naturally felt honour bound to absent himself.

Eugene Richards was so appalled by the experience of his first meeting that he could have left the agency that very day. 'There were tirades that went on for hours and there was a sort of pleasure in the abuse. This kind of behaviour among such a sophisticated and talented group of people was quite shocking. And it went on and on. It was an eye-opener and I didn't understand it: such malevolence, such negativity seeping into the institution and the quality of the relationships. It was very sad that such bitterness would persist for so long that it developed into paranoia and fear.'

'It takes several years of meetings to begin to have a clue as to what is going on,' explains Alex Webb, a Harvard graduate who joined Magnum in 1974. 'You can be listening to someone speaking and you begin to realise he is referring to something that could have happened fifteen years ago, some great grievance that is still sitting there and you can't understand why. Why all the anger, what's it about?'

'I often thought Magnum would self-destruct,' says Lee Jones, who was New York bureau chief in the 1960s. 'There were always lots of fights, people walking out, doors slamming. Rumours ran rife that so-and-so was resigning, or had already resigned, and then they would turn up next day in the middle of dinner. Sometimes the photographers would literally throw tantrums, he on the floor and drum their heels or bang spoons on the table.

'The history of Magnum is full of murders. They always kill their kings; they killed anybody who tried to run them. It's probably why they're still around. The things that most organisations offer are money or power or glory. In Magnum money has always been problematical, power is something that was never allowed to rest in one person's hands for very long and glory most certainly had to be shared. A great many people have come in, rolled up their sleeves and tried to get the place straightened out, but it always fell apart when they tried to do it.'

The annual general meeting in 1996 was held in Paris, at the Magnum offices in Passage Piver, in the distinctly unfashionable 11th arrondissement. Before the meeting a black-bearded Iranian member who goes by the single name of Abbas circulated a memorandum warning of problems ahead: 'As we are about to celebrate - with some complacency - our 50th [anniversary], the main danger we are facing is not money, shrinking markets, shifting organisation and a tough outside world. The danger is within ourselves: it is mediocrity. Wa salaam.'

With these portentous words to chew on and chew over, members gathered in the courtyard at Passage Piver on a warm and sunny Thursday morning for the first session, which was due to start at 10.30 but was promptly postponed because a number of the French photographers were due to attend a ceremony at which Robert Delpire, director of the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris, was being invested with a medal. Chris Steele-Perkins, the president of Magnum, announced that the meeting would now start at one o'clock sharp.

With his white T-shirt, baggy cotton trousers and sandals without socks, Steele-Perkins set the informal tone for the occasion. Multi-pocketed waistcoats and variations on a safari theme were favoured by other members. But no one could mistake the fact that this was a conclave of photographers, for many of them had Leicas hanging round their necks and amused themselves by taking pictures of each other. Larry Towell, who firms in rural Ontario when he is not working as a photographer, turned up in a straw hat, striped shirt, braces and jeans, while Micha Bar-Am, who has covered every war in the Middle East since the foundation of Israel, would have looked like an Old Testament prophet, with his luxuriant beard, had it not been for his combat jacket and tinted spectacles. Jean Gaumy, the French vice-president, bears a striking resemblance to a mischievous pixie and darted about with a video camera to produce a filmed record.

Usually only those members who are sulking or are on unavoidable assignments miss the annual meeting, even though it often means travelling halfway round the world. But travel is nothing to these people; it is an integral part of their lives as professional photographers and getting to Paris is a lot easier than reaching many of the places in which they find themselves. Indeed, not long after chairing the meeting, Chris Steele-Perkins was in Afghanistan with the government forces just outside Kabul when a rocket-propelled grenade failed to explode right in front of him.

The meeting did not, of course, start at one o'clock prompt because by then a buffet lunch had materialised in the courtyard with cold chicken, salads, some fine cheese, an excellent red wine and, curiously, two bottles of Pernod which remained primly unopened. But at two, after much cajoling, the members were assembled in a darkened ground floor studio for the traditional opening event, an opportunity for members to show what they have been working on during the previous twelve months. 'Please make it very tight', the agenda pleaded, 'as there are a lot of people, around 30 slides per presentation.'

Chris Steele-Perkins kicked off with a selection of bleak pictures of the homeless he had taken as part of a project he was working on with a London charity. As the carousel clicked, the wretched faces of the urban dispossessed stared out from the white wall on to which the pictures were being projected. They were followed by scenes of crime and violence in South Africa, competitors at the Paralympics and British football supporters. Steele-Perkins's presentation was received with a polite ripple of applause.

For the next hour or so those present were whisked around the world, mostly with images in black and white, which is the preferred medium for those who consider themselves to be serious about photography. (It is also an enigma for ordinary folk: why would anyone want to photograph an indisputably colourful world in monochrome? If colour film had been invented first, would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?)

Thomas Hoepker showed the destruction of the rainforest in Borneo and Sarawak; Patrick Zachmann showed the elections in Taiwan, the Mafia in Russia and the funeral of Francois Mitterand; Nicos Economopoulos showed the Greek Orthodox religion struggling in Israel, Serbia, Albania and Monrovia; Abbas brought along pictures from Israel and the Philippines, part of a major project on Christianity around the world; John Vink had been working in the mountains of Guatemala with Medicins sans Frontieres - 'I kept the project cheap,' he explained. 'I only spent $300 in six weeks'; Larry Towell showed a portfolio on a Mennonite community in Mexico; Elliott Erwitt presented a typically wry selection from a new book called Museum Watching; David Hurn showed Welsh landscapes, portraits and lifestyle; Martine Franck had photographed children in Nepal and India considered to be reincarnations of deceased lamas; David Harvey gave his presentation on Spanish culture in Cuba; and Ferdinando Scianna showed a moving set of pictures of invalids clinging to faith and hope on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

As a demonstration of a truly international organisation it was impressive in every way, not least in the backgrounds of the presenters, who were: an Englishman born in Burma; a German living in America; a Frenchman; a Greek; a Belgian; an Iranian living in France; a Canadian; an American born in Paris to Russian immigrants; a Welshman born in England; a Belgian raised in America and married to a Frenchman; an American and an Italian.

At four o'clock it was time for the first business meeting in a borrowed room on the opposite side of the courtyard. Eve Arnold, diminutive, silver-haired and slightly stooped, arrived just before it was due to begin and was warmly welcomed by everyone with kisses on both cheeks, rather like a much loved Jewish mother turning up for a big family reunion, which in a way is what she was. She took her place at the long table in the centre of the room and those unable to find chairs sat around the floor and leaned up against the wall or squatted on a flight of stairs leading to an office above. This proved to be something of a nuisance since the office above was a production company auditioning for a television commercial and throughout the meeting a procession of astonishingly beautiful young women picked their way up and down the stairs, causing considerable distraction and much nudging and eye-rolling.

The first business was to hand out a green report containing the previous year's figures. This was initially studied with enormous concentration, not because everyone present was suddenly taking an interest in the balance sheet, but because the report listed what each photographer had earned. 'Of all the paper that is going to be pushed around this weekend', one member whispered, 'this makes the most interesting reading.'

The news that Chris Steele-Perkins had to impart to his colleagues was uniformly bad. Magnum, he said, was facing the worst crisis in its history. It was different from the crises that are always raised at every annual meeting: this one was life-threatening. Unless urgent action was taken, Magnum would collapse. The figures continued to go down relentlessly. Assignments, both editorial and commercial, were decreasing every year. The archive, the so-called 'gold mine' that everyone said Magnum was sitting on, was not being sufficiently exploited, particularly in America, which was the biggest market in the world. The debts incurred by the New York office were now no longer sustainable, but none of the offices was working properly. A new, radical business strategy had to be devised, and additional Magnum funding identified, if Magnum was to stand any chance of surviving ...

The members received all this with remarkable equanimity. It was immediately clear that Magnum meetings were unlike any corporate meeting anywhere in the world. While Steele-Perkins was talking, people wandered in and out, whispered among themselves, read newspapers, took photographs and occasionally nodded off to sleep. Philip Jones Griffiths remained engrossed in Private Eye more or less throughout.

'When I look at the consolidated figures,' Steele-Perkins continued, 'I find it very depressing that a lot of the new members are only earning peanuts, making $9,000 or even less. With the offices not working properly, we have not much to offer them. What we are saying to them is, give us your money and get screwed and they should be thanking us. Is that what we are offering new photographers?'

Jones Griffiths looked up from his magazine for a moment to offer the following: 'Everything that has happened in the world of photography we did first and here we are bankrupt and divided and on our knees and our competitors are millionaires. Why? Everyone think on that before they go to sleep tonight.'

'How can we be efficient and make concrete decisions in the next days?' asked Gilles Peress. 'We must have a business plan.'

'Every year we make plans and rules,' complained Thomas Hoepker, 'and every year they are forgotten as soon as we walk out of the door.'

Patrick Zachmann said the structure of the agency had to be made lighter to make them all more free. If you ask younger members if they are satisfied with the structure, they are not.

'We've never been businessmen,' Leonard Freed put in. 'If it's a business, let's hire businessmen to run it. We are out photographing, that's what we do. Why ask us to make business decisions?' Freed was wearing a T-shirt which resonated curiously with the despairing nature of the debate.


Excerpted from "Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History: The Story of the Legendary Photo Agency" by Russell Miller. Copyright © 1999 by Russell Miller. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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