Magnum Photos – A conversation with

By On July 2, 2012 In Art, Print

Vive la Revolution Permanente  – Cartier-Bresson


By Laurent Altier & Veronica Foregger


Founded in 1947, legendary Magnum Photos is one of the first photography cooperatives ever established. The agency was founded soon after the end of World War II by a group of photographers.  These photographers were driven to expose the atrocities of the war to the world and protect their work. Owned and administrated entirely by its members, Magnum Photos has become the reference in photographic journalism through its high artistic standards and its revolutionary approach to journalism. Its members include photojournalists from around the world who have covered some of the most important events of the 20th century. Today, with an ever-evolving media outlet, Magnum is tackling the internet revolution through a very modern digital photo library and Magnum In Motion (MIM), offering viewers documentaries by Magnum photographers.


In 1947, following the end of World War II, four photographers, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour, gathered together in Paris to form one of the world’s most prolific photographic agencies. As artists, documentarians, and photographers, these men sought to find balance between their personal instinct to report what they saw through the lens of their camera and the high aesthetic standards they each applied to their work. The concept of “emphasizing not only what is seen but also the way one sees it” has always been one of the core values of the cooperative. War, family life, drugs, religion, poverty, famine, crime, government, and celebrities are a few of the main topics Magnum photographers have focused on over the years.


What makes Magnum so innovative is the founders’ vision to create an atmosphere that allows photographers to operate outside the standard formulas of magazine journalism. Magnum photographers are in absolute control of their work, with the autonomy to document anything they see fit. Documenting the hidden corners of the world without boundaries is among their founding values. The agency’s staff supports the photographer’s vision rather than directing it. Copyrights to Magnum photos are not held by magazine publishers but by the photographers themselves, which in essence stimulates creative growth by giving new visionaries the freedom to explore new facets of photography, without the fear of losing the rights to their work.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson. SPAIN. Andalucia, Seville, 1933


When Magnum was founded in the late ’40s, photojournalism was still mostly virgin territory. Large areas of the globe remained ignored by photography-at-large, and the four photographers saw the world as theirs to discover and share with the masses. Their vision of exploration mandated that the photographer convey a point of view rather than simply serve a historical record. It is that gritty attitude that allowed the men to dig deeper and ultimately gain a better understanding of their duty to document. However, their affinity for pushing photographic frontiers had its risks. Within a decade, two of the four founders, Capa and Chim, died while on location in war zones.


Inclusion into the Magnum collective is an intensive process; very few applicants ever reach a full member status. Every once in a while, members meet to nominate new photographers, and the most qualified are granted nominee status. During the first two years of nominee status, Magnum’s members look closely at a photographer’s work. If the work is approved, the photographer is promoted to associate status. Another two years of outstanding work are required before a photographer becomes a full member. Some photographers even wait longer to provide a more elaborate portfolio. A full member is a member for life unless he or she chooses to leave; Magnum has never forced a photographer out of the co-operative.


After its beginning, Magnum added a number of talented photographers to the catalog, including Eve Arnold, Werner Bischof, Erich Hartmann, Marc Riboud, and Dennis Stock. As the agency grew, so did the public’s demand from popular magazines, and the editors of which finally realized the power of photography as an invaluable, honest art form. From the Algerian War of Independence, to the battles of Indochina, to famous photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, and Mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan, Magnum photographers became the leading source in photojournalism.

© Herbert List, “Spirit of Lycabettus I”. The GROUND issue 02 Cover

It wasn’t long after Magnum’s origin that photography began to hold more decorative and illustrative purposes. Cover shots became crafted works, with color and light often taking precedence over more serious imagery. With the intention of gaining readership, editors began demanding images that attracted their target demographics. For Magnum’s revered photographers, this created a challenge. Members began approaching their work from a different direction. A large number of the agency’s members chose a different path, and began expressing themselves through books and exhibitions since “on demand” photography was far from Magnum’s core values.


Today’s society creates even greater challenges for photographers. Now, everyone has the means to take photos; photography equipment is becoming more accessible. In addition, the speed at which information is shared and the prevalence of the information itself has led to an era where it is not enough to simply report injustice and conflict. Audiences are now looking for graphic, shocking visuals that represent an instant instead of a wider understanding of a situation as a whole. Magnum photographers today are finding new innovative ways to set themselves at the forefront of photography. For example, Paolo Pellegrin, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky, and Ginger Strand created “Postcards From America,” a project that entailed a road trip from Austin to San Francisco. After documenting their trip, they launched a photo gallery in San Francisco.


Today, the print industries struggle to compete with digital press online. Search engines have replaced the archivist as the primary source for photography, and as technology advances, Magnum must follow suit. Magnum recognizes where the future is heading. Rather than lament bygone days, the agency is aggressive in insuring its photographer’s progress. By encouraging its members to embrace what technology has to offer, the agency is moving forward with an advanced database that helps users navigate easily though archives.

© Magnum in Montion,

Another major innovation emerging from Magnum Photos is called Magnum In Motion (MIM), developed in 2004 by Claudine Boeglin, the French journalist and creative director, and Bjarke Myrthu, the award-winning Danish journalist, author, and educator. There had already been unsuccessful attempts in the ’70s by Magnum photographers to shift toward video documenting. At the time, no production company was willing to financially support the idea, but today, with new media technology, MIM has been developed with in-house production by video, graphic, and sound-engineering experts, allowing Magnum photographers to tell stories in new ways through new media while maintaining their individual creative direction. Through the use of film, interactive photo essays, and still photographs accompanied by audio commentaries, MIM is an innovative format for impacting a wide audience.


It is quite rare for a co-operative to maintain its original concept, but Magnum continues to push the odds. The collective maintains resources around the globe, with offices located in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo. Aside from web initiatives, Magnum continues to support its members through exhibitions, publishing, commercials, and other assignments. The photography trade is constantly transforming and evolving; photographers must adjust as the world shifts its focus. Magnum has not only been subject to these ever-present changes, but has documented them for over 60 years in an extraordinary manner.


Comments are closed.



Skip to toolbar