Inside Story

The editorial eye

Behind Henri Cartier-Bresson and his high-profile colleagues at Magnum Photos was a talented backroom staff

Richard Johnstone 26 September 2020 2333 words

A party at the home of the Paris Vogue editor Michel de Brunhoff in August 1944 brought together Magnum identities including John Morris (centre, at rear, in glasses), Robert Capa on Morris’s right and “Chim” Seymour on Morris’s left, and Lee Miller (foreground in uniform) with Henri Cartier-Bresson in a tweed jacket behind her. Magnum Collection/Magnum Photos

The Decisive Network: Magnum Photos and the Postwar Image Market
By Nadya Bair | University of California Press | US$49.95 | 336 pages

Magnum Photos, the world’s best-known photographic agency, recently announced a major review of its vast historical archive. “We have… been alerted,” says agency president Olivia Arthur, to “material in our archive that is problematic in terms of imagery, captioning or keywording and we are taking this extremely seriously.” She appears to be referring to allegations, first reported in August by the photography website fstoppers, that the Magnum archive contains images of underage prostitution.

The review will explore questions of “context,” Arthur stresses. The weight of the task ahead falls very much on that word, and on the extent to which historical and situational context can be reconciled with what she calls “evolving standards.” This challenge is hardly unique to Magnum, so it is not surprising that the organisation has been aware for some time now of the need to engage with its vast collection of historical material, and with the complexity of interpreting past ways of seeing.

Recent articles on the Magnum website with titles such as “Old and New: Working with and Responding to the Photographic Archive” and “Breaking Out of the Archive Trap” have tackled the status of the individual image by emphasising the importance of the context in which it was made and the context in which it is seen. Magnum has also encouraged photographic projects that revisit and interrogate its own work, applying a contemporary perspective to Magnum’s trove of images of China, for example, or Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous “Man and Machine” series from 1968.

The agency has devoted particular attention to highlighting the process by which its photographs were and are created. The substantial volume Magnum Contact Sheets, published in 2011 and edited by Kristen Lubben, shows in absorbing detail, complete with mark-ups and annotations and recollections from photographers, how published images were selected from the reams of “contacts” that characterised photographic practice in the pre-digital age. “Unique to each photographer’s approach,” writes Lubben, “the contact is a record of how an image was constructed.”

A rather different “process” can also be seen at work in a series of Magnum-sponsored Live Labs held in collaboration with a variety of cultural institutions around the world over the past two years. Here, says the agency, the “process of making, editing, printing and curating the work is performed in full view of the public.” The audience “is invited to ‘join’ the journey,” and in doing so to “highlight the collaborative nature of production at the heart of the Magnum Photos cooperative.” It’s an ambition that, at this stage of the journey, doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with the culturally persistent trope of the star photographer that is at the heart of Magnum.

What these varying approaches to photographic history and practice have in common is a recognition of the overriding importance of context — using the word in the broadest sense — in allowing the viewer of today to form a judgement. An image that may once have been accepted at face value may now raise questions in the mind of the viewer: questions about the ethical issues involved in breaching privacy, for example, or photographing controversial subjects, or undertaking the kind of photographic manipulation that masquerades as spontaneity. And beyond that is the question of when the questions stop. When does the revelation of process, of what goes to make a photograph, stop being explanatory and start being overwhelming?

Magnum Photos was founded as a cooperative in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger, all of whom had built significant reputations, and reached vast audiences with their images of Spain in the 1930s and of the second world war and its aftermath. With the gradual involvement of newer recruits such as Eve Arnold, Inge Morath and Werner Bischof, Magnum cleverly combined its brand of humanistic, engaged photography with the business savvy needed to seek out new clients and deliver a product according to a brief.

A lot of photo agencies have come and gone since those years, but Magnum — despite changes in technology, distribution and consumption — remains a major cultural force. Its unusual model of cooperative entrepreneurship appears to have survived pretty much unscathed, with Magnum members exercising complete authority over admission to the ranks. And ranks there are, with an ascending hierarchy of nominees, associates and, finally, the elusive and desirable category of member, from which, like monarchs, only a very few have abdicated and none, as Magnum attests with some pride, has been dethroned.

In this impressively researched study of the early decades of Magnum, Nadya Bair uncovers the complex interactions of artistic ambition and business acumen that somehow produced a kind of order out of chaos, and shows how an organisation that inspired intense loyalty and commitment was able to balance the image of the lone, intrepid and in most cases male photographer, so important to its profile, with the realities of entrepreneurial endeavour.

Bair highlights the role played by marketers and picture editors and other behind-the-scenes staff, many of them women, who managed the processes of picture-making, from identifying photographic opportunities to setting schedules and not infrequently selecting, on behalf of the photographer and from a vast array of contact prints, what would work best on the page. While never detracting from the artistic and professional achievement of the photographers themselves, Bair shows how the organisation conspired, in effect, to downplay the role of its backroom staff in order to keep the photographer in the foreground.

As individual Magnum photographers became increasingly well known and in demand, so it became more important to emphasise their unique visions and minimise the role of the apparatus that kept the show on the road. Cartier-Bresson, ever a dab hand at self-mythologising, increasingly let it be known that his success in the postwar years was more in spite of than owing to Magnum, but if anything this kind of public lament only enhanced the overall brand. The idea of the lone artist resisting the constraints of capitalism, all within a framework that brought recognition and financial reward for the individual, for the agency and for the commissioning organisation, suited everybody.

Magnum was equally successful in managing and exploiting a further contradiction, between the idea of the photographer as a silent witness whose personality and presence are minimised in the interests of giving full weight to the subject, and the photographer as artist, adventurer and active mediator between the world and the viewer. This romanticised notion of the fearless photojournalist, simultaneously distanced and engaged, continues to exert cultural force today, in fiction and in film. It didn’t hurt that those early Magnum photographers were often highly photogenic themselves — George Rodger, the “handsome young photographer,” or Robert Capa, with whom every woman in the Paris office was said to be in love.

The contradiction between being apart from the action and embedding yourself remains inherent in the profession. Magnum continues to embody this tension, even as viewers have grown more alert to its implications. The agency remains culturally significant, not because membership is essential to professional success but because of how it has set the cultural parameters for what it means to be a photojournalist — concerned, humane, fearless, truthful. And successful.

Magnum photographers made an astonishing number of images during the postwar period, the vast majority of which were never published. These unseen images were referred to as “dead” material, in the manner of the 7000 or so pictures, taken by George Rodger for the Economic Cooperation Administration, that “were mostly filed away in the ECA archives.” The oversupply of visual images — and the difficulty of telling them apart — is regularly cited today as a function of the digital era. But as Bair shows, the portable camera and overproduction have long gone together for the professional photographer, as well as for many an amateur. Indeed, as she has it, “if the medium in which the agency worked had any single defining quality, it was overproduction.” The editorial eye — that indefinable instinct for what would be the right, and most striking, image — was vital to the success of the enterprise.

With the advent of digital photography, the process of selection has devolved more and more to the photographer. But in the early days of Magnum, when photographers were often working on assignment in remote areas without access to photographic laboratories, they might not be able to see their own work. Rolls of unopened film would be sent off in the post, to be dealt with back at base. Many people might then be involved in the process of editing and selecting what to publish or to offer for publication. This was no simple matter: in late 1948, as Bair notes, “the entire Magnum staff in Paris spent November and December editing Cartier-Bresson’s 300 rolls of film” brought back from an assignment in the Soviet Union.

It was Cartier-Bresson who famously coined the term “the decisive moment” to describe his photographic method, a phrase that by extension seemed to capture something essential about Magnum. It suggests a rare ability to spot the potentially iconic scene or subject in a moment, and to capture it with a click. It plays down the processes of pre- and post-production in favour of the inspired instant. Contemporary art photography has rather turned away from and in some cases actively rejected this idea of photographic genius, favouring instead an emphasis on overt staging rather than spontaneity, on exploiting the ever-expanding options for post-production effects, and on celebrating technical artifice.

But for all that, the idea of the decisive moment retains enormous power. While the term has always been misleading in the sense that it airbrushed out the role of the picture editors and all the others involved in the chain of production, it was accurate in the way that it caught the importance of the photographic eye, the quality that made a photograph instantly recognisable as a Cartier-Bresson or a Werner Bischof or an Eve Arnold. It was part of the Magnum style.

Bair catches something of this essential contradictoriness within the Magnum enterprise in her clever title, The Decisive Network. The moment of capturing the image was decisive, but so were the processes and the interconnections surrounding that moment. She shows, for example, the surprising extent to which a photographic assignment was framed and specified beforehand. Rita Vandivert, working from Magnum’s New York office in the late forties, instructed photographers working on the major magazine project “People Are People the World Over” to “cable before shooting” should they ever feel an overwhelming need to deviate from their detailed brief.

In a fascinating chapter on Magnum’s collaboration with the influential travel magazine Holiday, Bair notes how such instructions sometimes became superfluous because Magnum photographers “learned to gravitate towards florist shops filled with bright bouquets, ‘pretty girls’ dressed in red, and particularly bright blue skies and pools of water.” As for the other end of the production line, that was when the real business of making a photograph began, at least according to John Morris, Magnum’s most senior administrator throughout the 1950s, who was known to remark that “shooting is only the beginning.”

A strong streak of idealism accompanied the commercial savvy of those foundation years. There was an emphasis on “the cultural unity of the world,” on the role that photography could play in bringing people together and leading them to recognise commonalities across cultures. Magnum images featured prominently in the famous Family of Man exhibition that opened in New York in 1955 and subsequently toured to more than sixty countries. The exhibition, which drew massive visitor numbers, has been criticised, not least by Roland Barthes, for its naivety and sentimentalism, with its emphasis on the family as humanity’s unifying commonality. Morris, who was instrumental in ensuring the agency’s involvement, represented the time’s prevailing view that the exhibition showed that “there are really no foreigners any more.”

Morris’s remark was accurate as far as it went. Foreignness could be captured and also made less foreign by photographs, particularly if images appeared under such harmonising rubrics as “youth” and “family.” But Magnum photography could promote the ideal of inevitable progression towards a harmonised world while simultaneously highlighting difference — even in The Family of Man, or in “People Are People the World Over,” published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1948 — by showing stark discrepancies in social relationships, living conditions and implied political backgrounds.

In “People Are People,” eleven families from different countries were selected to have a visual record made of their daily lives. The shooting schedules were highly choreographed to ensure direct comparability from family to family. “The pictures of women, standing or sitting at their stoves, were astonishingly similar,” notes Bair. But, as she also points out, this does not entirely override the discernible differences in material wellbeing and notions of domesticity and privacy.

By highlighting the paradoxes inherent in the making of a documentary image, Nadya Bair makes an important contribution to the growing reassessment of photographic history. In doing so, she shows Magnum to have been an organisation creatively built on paradox. The idea of the decisive moment coexisted with the often drawn-out processes of pre- and post-production; the lone and intrepid photographer coexisted with the realities of teamwork and cooperative endeavour; and the humanistic worldview coexisted with a sure grasp of commercial reality.

In her introduction Bair highlights the particular difficulties photography poses for drawing clear boundaries between recording a subject and manipulating or even, by implication, exploiting it. She notes how the phrase “small baby crying over rations” appears in a Magnum shooting script as an example to the photographer, capturing images of postwar damage in Europe, of a suitable “tear-jerker” to transmit back to base. Whatever else this tells us, it is a reminder that any ethical failings we may now discern in photographic images were not simply attributable to the photographer, or to the commissioning director or the backroom editor, but to the demands and expectations of the viewer. There is no escaping context. •