Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World

Edited by Steven Hoelscher. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. 344 pp. $75.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0292-74843-9.

An iconoclastic group of preeminent photojournalists disenchanted with picture magazine practices gathered in 1947 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to form a cooperative agency. When they decided to call their member-owned firm Magnum Photos, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, and George Rodger most likely had in mind the word's Latin meaning rather than the size of champagne bottles they consumed at the meeting, for their work and the agency's eventual impact is great. Magnum's influence became so considerable that a leading research institution with notable photography holdings acquired, in 2009, approximately 200,000 mostly black and white press prints by over 100 photographers affiliated with the agency's New York bureau. The fifth in the Harry Ransom Center Photography Series, Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World brings this important collection of documentary photography into sharper focus.

As volume editor Steven Hoelscher, chair of the American Studies Department at the University of Texas and academic curator of photography at the Ransom Center, explains in the Introduction, "reading" the archive requires understanding that each photograph not only is an image and an object with physical properties but also a representation open to various meaningful constructs or interpretations. Hoelscher writes, "It is based on the premise that much is to be gained by studying Magnum's visual archive, and that patterns of intention, aesthetic vision, and political perspective become most legible with the raw material of their business—by reading the Magnum's photos" (12). Chapters about war and conflict, portraiture, geography, cultural life, social relations and everyday life, and globalization each features an essay written by a world-class authority who delves into the archive and illuminates its worth to researchers. Comprehensive end notes will test any citation chaser's endurance. In addition to roughly 220 compelling photographs throughout the book, chapters include a portfolio along with "Notes from the archive," a closeup of one photographer's technique.

Central to the business strategy Magnum's founders devised was the concept that photographers maintain copyright to their images. A similar sentiment calling into question the authority of magazine editors led to Magnum's innovative distro, a packaged visual story complete with unalterable descriptions and captions. The agency also allowed photographers to pursue individual projects requiring extended periods of time with their subjects, a practice financed in part by Magnum's selling and reselling photographs to magazines (not newspapers) in various global markets. To manage the traffic, Magnum adopted a unique numbering, tracking, stamping, and filing system recorded on the verso of each print, which Alison Nordström discusses in her chapter "On becoming an archive."

Most of the photographs in Reading Magnum display the agency's calling card: mastery with Cartier-Bresson's idea of the "decisive moment" (vii, 1, 41), the simultaneous split-second recognition of an event and "'the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression'" (2). For Magnum's founders and most of its members, moreover, the camera became "a weapon of reform and rebellion" (106), so Magnum photographs also make a statement meant to leave a strong impression on viewers (4). Although a distinct Magnum style escapes identification (4, 94), the agency's driving artistic force blends "idealistic internationalism" (141)—a desire to rediscover and reconnect with humans alienated in a world torn apart by war, poverty, and famine—with "sentimental humanism" (142)—"the belief in a common human nature beneath the incredible diversity of human beliefs, values and geographies" (142). These impulses lay at the heart of two important projects that confirmed Magnum's legendary status.

When Ladies' Home Journal and the German magazine Heute, in 1948, conceived a year-long photo essay called "People are People the World Over," their editors turned to Magnum. The agency's young library was becoming a resource for images shaped by the idealism essential to the project and, of the fifteen photographers featured in the magazines, twelve belonged to Magnum. A few years later, in 1955, Magnum was instrumental in developing the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition The Family of Man, whose ideological basis centered on the liberalism of shared universal values central to the agency's mission. Curated by MoMA's Edward Steichen, the momentous exhibition relied on photography by Magnum's four founders in addition to prominent members Eve Arnold, Werner Bischof, Cornell Capa, Elliott Erwitt, Burt Glinn, Ernst Hass, Wayne Miller, and W. Eugene Smith. The ideals behind the two projects complemented Magnum's principal cause, as Hoelscher explains: "The founders of Magnum, deeply influenced by the era's unrestrained atrocities, were substantial participants in an imperative that sought to create a world different from the one that led to two world wars. Visually describing what that world might look like became Magnum's immediate raison d'ê'tre" (141).

Although Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Seymour, and Rodger envisioned shooting "adrenaline-charged stories" (197) such as wars and coups and elections, another desire urged them and ultimately Magnum in a direction where the agency inspired originality: coverage of cultural topics. According to Erika Doss, in her chapter entitled "Hollywood stars, high-paid llamas, and car shows," Magnum's founders wanted their operation "visually sophisticated, serious, and smart" (198), a response to what they regarded as "the crass cultural ambience of Henry Luce's Time-Life mass media empire" (198). As Doss writes, "Drawn to compelling, dramatic stories and moments, Magnum made its mark by catering to a cultural style that often went against the grain, a style that was edgy, inventive, and bold. At the core of Magnum's quest for photo independence were interests in scrutinizing cultural subjects and events, in testing conventional assumptions about those subjects and about the nature and purpose of documentary photography itself" (198).

Reading Magnum celebrates the remarkable achievement of the cooperative and its "concerned photographer[s]" (99), who have portrayed "consistently and with striking artistry" (101) the human condition everywhere. "If their job is to get us to look and think," writes Frank H. Goodyear III in his chapter about Magnum portraits, "then they have been an unqualified success" (111).


William F. Meehan III

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware