Magnum, the world’s most famous photographers’ cooperative, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.
Among the various commemorative books, exhibitions (four in London alone), and t-shirt collections, the show currently at Le Bal presents a unique take on Magnum’s heritage.
The little prints in Analog Recovery were originally made for distribution to the press, starting with Magnum’s inception in 1947 and continuing till the late ‘70s. The exhibition’s curator Diane Dufour tantalisingly describes “a collection of thousands of prints… stored in the Magnum archives in Paris in boxes bearing the name of each photographer.”
The prints displayed are accompanied by commentary from the photographers themselves, including some original teletyped notes sent from worldwide war zones. These are by turns poignant, hilarious, hair-raising and heart-breaking. Gilles Peress, covering the Iranian revolution in 1979, tells head office, “Nothing’s happening. Am tired. Out of money. Two cameras went dead in Beheshtezara Cemetery. Will probably return Monday.” Only to hear back, “Impossible you leave. Rumour hostage will be freed next Thursday. Also Life interested.”
Gilles Peress writes from the American embassy siege in Tehran, 1979-1980
The prospect of selling a story to a publication like Life was of course Magnum’s raison d’etre, certainly as far as some of the administrative staff were concerned. What would be the point of supporting the worlds’ greatest photojournalists if not to present their photojournalism to the world?
But of course the perennial problem of the photojournalist – do you put your camera down to help or do you keep shooting? – is often the dynamic that drives this exhibition. Werner Bischof says, “When you think like an editor yourself you’ve already gone wrong, because then you have put the event first.”
Werner Bischof, Magnum Analog Recovery
Bischof is only one of the photographers who profess dismay, disgust or despair with where their talents have led them. “I am simply not a newspaper reporter,” he says, “I am prostituting my work and I have had enough.”
Erich Lessing, documenting street fighting in Hungary in 1956, writes, “I had thought… that by taking pictures we were showing what the world is like, that you can at least in a small way influence behaviours and the course of politics. But every journalist knows… the most horrible war pictures will not end wars.”
Erich Lessing, Budapest, 1956
But for every Werner Bischof there was an Elliott Erwitt. His trip to the USSR in 1957 was an assignment for Holiday magazine, to document the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. Erwitt shot “the first pictures of the Soviet missiles that were seen in the West which testified to the technological superiority of the Soviets over the Americans.”
He also witnessed “The Kitchen Debate,” a moment when Soviet Premier Kruschev and the visiting US President Nixon argued publicly. Erwitt wrote, “This picture was used in Nixon’s campaign to show what a tough guy he was… I am pleased with the pictures but I am not terribly proud of the use that was made of it but what are you going to do? You just take the pictures.”
Elliott Erwitt, Nikita Kruschev and Richard Nixon in Moscow, 1957
It’s impossible not to sympathise with the Magnum members who suffered for their work (George Rodger in Bergen-Belsen in 1945: “The dead were lying around, 4000 of them, and I found I was getting bodies into photographic compositions. I said, My God, what has happened to me?…[But] it had to be photographed because people had to know.”)
George Rodger at Bergen-Belsen, 1945
But at the same time, one can only be grateful that they bore witness. In a world where every smartphone is a camera, and respect for the photographic profession is declining rapidly, this exhibition is a clear illustration of the “why” of photography. Photographers may not stop terrible things happening, but they can stop us from lying to ourselves that everything’s ok.
A major adjunct to Magnum Analog Recovery is the catalogue that commemorates the exhibition. It’s presented as an A4 horizontal ring binder: 230 pages, including reprints of the images and text from the photographers, foldouts, enlargements, and plenty of anecdotes. It is simply, brilliantly, and beautifully designed and edited. It’s available in French or English, and can be ordered online for just €60. Definitely a candidate for photobook of the year.
Robert Capa, Magnum Analog Recovery
Magnum Analog Recovery, Le Bal, 6, Impasse de la Défense, 75018 Paris, until August 27, 2017. www.le-bal.fr
© Fiona Hayes 2017