You can find whatever emotion you want in the retrospective exhibit of photojournalism from the Magnum agency, one of the world’s premier photo agencies for over 40 years. Want a look at the essence of anger, that sheet of red that slides up into your field of vision? Gaze for a while at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1945 image of a Gestapo informer being exposed in postwar Germany to the jeers of refugees. Want horror? Gilles Peress has been photographing Northern Ireland’s spasms of violence since 1970. Want to feel your blood surge with the righteousness of a just cause? Look at Josef Koudelka’s pictures of Czech protesters holding back tanks in the Prague Spring. For sheer human gumption in the face of adversity, there’s James Nachtwey’s photo of a child swinging on the barrel of a tank abandoned in Nicaragua. For the sublimely ridiculous, there’s Elliott Erwitt’s cameo of a nattily dressed Chihuahua in New York City.
The agency’s founders weren’t thinking about creating a historical archive of such depth when they gathered in 1947 in the penthouse restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art. Indeed, that setting seems incongruous; these four photojournalists were more interested in the rights of the photographer than in art. In their agency, they decided, photographers would retain ownership of the negatives they shot. And they would decide for themselves whether they wanted to sell their pictures to any given magazine. That these rights are now commonplace demonstrates how influential the little agency was.
Magnum has remained small–it includes only 44 photographers today–but it has flourished because its members have included many of the best photojournalists in the world. Among the founders were Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. If Cartier-Bresson’s presence implied that the photojournalist must be an artist too, Capa’s added the cachet of the romantic. He was a playboy and gambler; he hit the beach with the first American troops on D day; and in 1954 he forever sealed the image of photojournalism as a glamorous occupation by dying in action in Vietnam–he was one of three Magnum photographers to die on assignment. (Some of his–and Cartier-Bresson’s–best photos date from before Magnum’s inception, but they have become part of the Magnum archives and are included here.)
The Magnum retrospective, being shown at the Chicago Historical Society, is comprehensive both geographically and thematically. Magnum has always been a well traveled group–the founding members included a Hungarian, a Frenchman, a Briton, a Pole, two Americans, and a German–but even that knowledge didn’t prepare me for the exhibition’s international scope. Protests in Prague, famine in Africa, civil war in Nicaragua–how did so few photographers get around to so many of the last half century’s significant events?
The agency’s birth coincided with the high-water mark of photojournalism, with the heyday of Life, Look, and the other picture magazines. This exhibition also traces the subsequent growth of a style of photography more closely linked to graphic design than to emotion: images of computer chips and of businessmen, the sort of thing that companies put in their annual reports. It’s a market that opened up for Magnum as the growth of television nudged newsmagazines out of the picture.
But the journalistic part of the exhibit, old and new, has a great immediacy. One of the most recent photos is from Tiananmen Square, 1989. And those photos of angry Hungarians torching portraits of a dictator in ’56–didn’t we just see those last year, datelined Bucharest?
“In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers” opens at the Chicago Historical Society today, February 23, and runs through April 15. The museum, at Clark and North, is open 9:30 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 Sunday. Admission is $1.50, 50 cents for children and seniors, free Monday. For more information call 642-4600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rene Burri, Bruce Davidson, Gilles Peress.