The new Ransom Center photography exhibition is epic but also refreshingly intimate
by Claiborne Smith
Photographers were thought of as technicians at the time; the establishment of Magnum was a radical move that insisted on more power being given to artists rather than the media makers who published those artists’ photos.
For someone unfamiliar with the history of photography, the idea that a group of ambitious photographers needed to band together in 1947 to protect their rights as artists might, on the face of it, seem a little absurd. Anyone nowadays who is half-awake wouldn’t bat an eye seeing a photograph mounted in a major museum, but the acceptance of photography for more than its documentary value as a tool of journalism—for its acceptance as a medium as artistic as canvas and paint—has been a relatively short-lived phenomenon.
It certainly wasn’t the case in 1947 that photographers were thought of as artists. The change in how photography is perceived is partly due to those photographers who linked arms in 1947. Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour, and George Rodger are some of the better-known photographers who founded the artists’ cooperative agency known as Magnum Photos with the idea that each member of Magnum would be able to retain the rights to his or her photos, determine how the photos would be used in magazines (at the time, coffeetable books of photos weren’t published), and what the captions would say. The art of the photo essay or photo story in magazines is largely due to Magnum’s influence. Photographers were thought of as technicians at the time; the establishment of Magnum was a radical move that insisted on more power being given to artists rather than the media makers who published those artists’ photos.
Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age is on display at the Harry Ransom Center until January 5; in 2009, the Ransom Center acquired a deposit, or kind of temporary archive, of some 200,000 images from the New York office of Magnum (there are four Magnum offices around the world). There are 315 images that made it into the exhibition. For the members of a society that is assaulted by images every waking moment, the exhibition is a return to first principles: the curators, and the Magnum photographers whose work appears in the exhibition, demand that you look slowly, thoughtfully, and actively at these images of war; languid Hollywood glamor; insane, institutionalized children; and people who seem curiously nonchalant about the fact that a noted photographer is capturing the essence of their personality for us to ponder and judge.
Even for two respected scholars of photography like Roy Flukinger and Jessica McDonald, the curators at the Ransom Center who created the exhibition, culling 200,000 images into the 315 on display was a daunting task. The images they selected for the exhibition tell the story of Magnum’s intuitive, flexible adaption to the rapid technological innovations that have fundamentally altered photography since the agency’s founding (and since cameras were invented). I think the more compelling story the exhibition tells is about the tension in photography between its reliable ability to document news events and the more aesthetic capabilities of the medium (although even that formulation seems inapt when you look, for example, at Paul Fusco’s images of the mourners by the train tracks as Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train passed them by—the photos are newsworthy but also deeply human and sad and objects of art in their own right). However you approach the exhibition, it is not only worth visiting, but you might consider a second visit to fully absorb everything it has to offer.
I sat down with McDonald and Flukinger just before the exhibition opened and asked them about the story they tell about Magnum and the history of photography in the exhibition.
How did the Magnum archive end up at the Ransom Center?
Jessica McDonald: There are four Magnum offices around the world and the archive on deposit at the Ransom Center came from the New York office. It’s what they were using on a daily basis until 2009, so it’s very much a working collection of materials. If digital photography didn’t exist right now and somebody called up and said, ‘It’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and we know you have photographers who were there in 1963, please send us photographs from that event and we may publish them as an anniversary issue,’ they would go in their file cabinets of prints and they would send them in the mail and that magazine would reproduce it from the photograph. Well, now this is all done digitally, of course. And so what was there was this moment in time, this frozen moment; they didn’t add to it, they didn’t take anything out. As the technology changed and they decided there was another way to go with these prints and the archive could be a record of their office at the time and it could all be kept together, that’s what we’re showing in the exhibition and that’s what really inspired the organization and theme of the show, because it’s really about technological shifts. And we’re arguing that this whole digital thing is not the only one that changed how Magnum worked, that [technological change] has been going on since Magnum was founded. So when television came, they had to change how they worked significantly. Television ate into the picture magazines quite a bit. As the way that people consume images has changed and is changing since the 40’s, Magnum has had to adapt and shift how they operate. Most people assume everything was the same until digital came, and then everything changed, but we’re showing how there have been these cycles through the history of photography.
Roy Flukinger: Not only do photographers evolve and technology evolves, but the whole agency has evolved with the times.
McDonald: When Magnum was founded, it was very, very rare to have a photograph in an art museum, even though one of the founders of Magnum did have an exhibition in 1947 at MoMA. It was incredibly unusual; there were only two or three museums in the entire country showing photographs. As that changed in the 60’s and 70’s, how did they adapt to that? What opportunities did they take? There’s this whole interaction between the history of the agency and the field, so we’re taking a really broad view of all that. We’re looking at photography itself and how it’s been changing through this window [of Magnum’s history].
Flukinger: It would be important to emphasize that sense of story. Many photographers from early on wanted to go out and not only shoot a particular assignment but cover it completely, as a point of view, and reveal many things about the event as it occurred. That evolved from the magazine story to controlling it with their own books and getting into film and video, so there are other ways to combine the imagery with the words to make that work.
McDonald: Magnum’s never been about getting the one picture; they’re all about the picture story. That’s a legacy that continues and that’s why I think multimedia is such a good development, because it allows them to combine moving images, still images, language and all kinds of different things, which is a natural evolution.
Flukinger: I hope for people to come in here and see the course of that progress but also to see that here’s this great, famous image and yet it was part of a larger story. The Capa image of D-Day…
McDonald: People know the image of the soldier’s head popping out of the water…
Flukinger: And we’ve added three images from Life magazine from that sequence.
McDonald: It’s several days’ worth of photos; [Capa is] going back on the medic boat days before the attack, he’s photographing the generals as they’re strategizing and then he goes on the boat. He’s with them in the days before and then he actually gets in the water and goes to the beach and then he’s there several days after, setting up camp, there are bodies, they’re hauling away German prisoners: it’s the whole thing. People will know the one iconic image but Magnum never thought of that as the one picture. So people will recognize that [in the exhibition] but then they’ll see that it’s part of a story.
If there are 200,000 photos in the archive that arrived from Magnum to the Ransom Center, and there are 315 photos in the exhibition, what was the selection process like for this show?
McDonald: I think that in a perfect world, we would’ve had 20 years to look at them. I can’t say that we did look at every single print—that would have been impossible—so we accepted that it’s not a perfect world. We decided we wanted to represent every current member and every member who continued to be a member until their death.
Flukinger: And then from there, it evolved into what stories were there in-depth and then others that maybe only had one or two images that didn’t tell that story, so that helped us narrow it down, too.
What were the strongest years for Magnum?
McDonald: That’s a difficult question because it’s changed; you could talk about the heyday of the certain kinds of things they’ve done, but I don’t know that there’s a heyday.
Flukinger: It’s all evolved, in some ways subtly and in some ways dramatically. They have always come forward and always come up with solutions to technological change and now they’ve entered the Web. That’s as much a heyday as the early magazine years. The flexibility of these people is amazing.
Why do you think that flexibility with technological innovation was built into the organization from the beginning? A lot of cultural institutions aren’t as adaptable as Magnum has been.
Flukinger: Part of it has to do with the fact that they were always open-ended about bringing in new members. They refreshed themselves as they went and some of the older members had to face the fact that there were younger people working with different techniques and different media. They may have had arguments amongst themselves but at their annual meeting, they always voted in new members. They wanted to bring in that new challenge. They didn’t say ‘No, this is a closed club;’ they wanted the agency to have people who contributed in an active way and that takes a certain commitment to the future.
“Not everyone in the family gets along all the time and there’s a lot of strong personalities, but they still want to be in the family at the end of the day.”
– Jessica McDonald, curator of Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos Into the Digital Age
McDonald: I think the whole spirit of the agency is unique in that the founders didn’t want to be controlled by the people who assigned them to do things. They would get an assignment from a magazine, they would have to shoot what they were supposed to shoot, and then turned over their negatives and they didn’t know how their photographs were going to be reproduced or captioned. They didn’t know how many times those photos were going to be republished and they didn’t get a financial benefit from that and they formed this organization to retain that control. And that was a completely radical idea and that’s why we use that word in the title of the exhibition. That had never happened before. They were thought of as technicians, so this idea that they would decide how their photographs were published, how they would be captioned, allowed them the freedom to say what they wanted to say with these projects. They wanted those captions to say what they wanted to say about the situation; they didn’t want them to be used to support another political side. One of the very interesting ironies about Magnum is that it’s made of these individuals who want to be fiercely independent but that’s what has joined them. They are still these very, very independent, forward-thinking people with ideas, even though they are operating in this mutually beneficial situation. They’re in it because it allows them to not be beholden to assignments or be a staff photographer somewhere. This is one of the only agencies that allows them to be a member but still drive their own bus, so to speak. A lot of people will talk about it like a family and I’m not the first one to say that. Not everyone in the family gets along all the time and there’s a lot of strong personalities, but they still want to be in the family at the end of the day. They’re very loyal to each other but that doesn’t mean they all agree.
Flukinger: It’s not entirely a logical, rational organization. In so many ways, it depends on emotion, and they bring a lot of that to their photography.
Are there favorite images you all have from the exhibition?
Flukinger: This is perhaps defensive, but this is what David Douglas Duncan once did to me: Somebody would ask him what his favorite photograph was and he would always quote Picasso. When Duncan was doing a bunch of copy work for Picasso, one day he asked him, ‘What’s your favorite painting?’ And Picasso took his hand and stuck it up in front of Duncan’s face and said, ‘You may as well ask me what my favorite finger is.’ Perhaps that’s a cop-out but my problem is that my favorites change week to week, if not day to day.