Photograph above by master photographer Susan Meiselas
Magnum Photographers from Different Generations Talk About the Fabled Agency’s Past, Present, and Future by Maximilíano Durón
Magnum Photos, the esteemed agency of globe-trotting photographers founded in 1947 by a storied group including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, is celebrating its 70th anniversary. To mark the occasion, the agency—which represents and supports photographers at work in artistic and journalistic contexts around the world—has staged exhibitions and other programming to highlight its legacy. “Magnum Manifesto,” on view through September 3 at the International Center of Photography Museum in downtown New York, surveys photographers from the agency’s founding to the present. (The show is accompanied by a catalogue published via Thames & Hudson.) Earlier this summer, “Magnum: 70 at 70 in New York” paid similar tribute at NeueHouse. Meanwhile, in Paris through August 27, “Magnum Analog Recovery” at Le Bal looks at the agency’s archives, and “In Our Time,” which opens next month at London’s Magnum Photos Print Room, will showcase selections from years past.
In the midst of Magnum’s anniversary year, ARTnews spoke with two current agency members from different generations: Susan Meiselas and Peter van Agtmael. Meiselas started with Magnum in 1976 and is known for her series “Carnival Strippers” from that year as well as work that includes war photography, which will be published in a book by Aperture later this year. Van Agtmael joined Magnum in 2008 and has relentlessly covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both spoke about what Magnum is today, what its legacy has come to mean in the decades since its founding, and what its future looks like in an era when people’s relationship to photography is rapidly changing.
Do you remember when you first learned of Magnum and your early impressions before you started work with the agency?
Susan Meiselas: I have a very specific memory. In 1976 I had already done a body of work called “Carnival Strippers.” I was teaching photography in public schools, [but] I didn’t have a defined purpose that I was going to become a photographer. I didn’t have a sense of what that would mean. But I was shooting at the Democratic Convention for Jimmy Carter in ’76 and encountered [Magnum member] Gilles Peress. He basically said, “Why don’t you bring your work up to Magnum?” I bicycled up and dropped it off. I entered Magnum very quickly without having a real sense of what it was or how it would change the direction I was taking at the time—or what it meant to become part of the community we are describing now.
Peter van Agtmael: I discovered Magnum 25 years after that, around 2000, and it was early in the process of me discovering photography. At that point Magnum was more institutionalized in a way. I was in a Barnes & Noble [around the same time], and there were two massive Magnum tomes there: I was hungry to consume photography but didn’t know where to look, so these two appealing books seduced me. I remember going through them and, in the process, very decisively realizing what the parameters of photography were. It blew my mind. There was this feeling of—for lack of a better way to describe it—a mystical experience. I realized where I thought my place could be in the world. Magnum showed me the way. My background is in history, and what Magnum represented for documenting history of the modern world was very important to me.
Meiselas: I remember Peter’s work coming in. Very often, when you’re looking at someone’s work, you’re looking for highlighted moments that stand out singularly on their own. You might see some storytelling motif or you might see images that are unlike what you’ve seen before—and that’s what grabs your interest. I still remember some unique views from Peter. His work took me beyond what I had seen. That’s an important moment.
What is the community within Magnum like today?
Van Agtmael: It would be interesting to do a comparative study. The 30-year difference in the time we joined makes for a much bigger agency. Now, I think, there’s one overarching community that is defined in different ways by different people, and then within that community people find their own micro-community. At the same time, there’s a lot of overlap in different communities and approaches and generations. That’s the enduring power, I think, of Magnum—that sense of the community that takes so many forms.
Meiselas: Magnum is a very dispersed community, and that’s challenging. When I came in, the founders’ generation was still alive, and one thing I’d say about multiple generations: there weren’t as many decades differentiating us as there are now. Now you have photographers in their mid-20s all the way through their 80s.
How do you bridge those kinds of generational divides?
Van Agtmael: We’ve had retreats in these last years, and Micha Bar Am, who was pushing 90, came to the last one. He came for the sense of the community.
Meiselas: The retreat was as much about spending a different kind of quality time, looking at work and also talking about the world in all kinds of ways and just reinvesting in relationships, which is key to the survival of Magnum. When I came in, Magnum was only based in Paris and New York, and it used to be that the photographers’ rooms in those offices were the one point of intersection. The physical place has become not as important as it was in those days, but it’s still a pleasure to randomly land at an office. I was just in Paris and Josef Koudelka was there looking at a recent project he finished. These incidental encounters are what make it an associative community.
Would you say that Magnum is a collaborative effort then?
Van Agtmael: Yeah, in many different forms. For my book-making process, for example, a big part of the final product is the result of bouncing different versions off of different Magnum photographers. Magnum is a critical part of the process because there’s such a wealth of perspective that you simply can’t get otherwise. It’s a brain trust with so many decades of experience and approaches.
Meiselas: I’m careful about using that word “collaborative.” There are lots of different ways that Magnum has created projects together with “X” numbers of members. The most recent example is “Postcards from America,” which began with five photographers creating the initiative to try and work together, which just meant that they were going to work out of an RV and travel together from Texas to California, looking for ways to intersect and complement each other. Is that collaborative? They’re not collaborating in the field, but together they make something that only looks the way it does because each contributed.
How does Magnum differ from other photo agencies like Getty Images and the Associated Press? What makes Magnum unique?
Van Agtmael: Well, I think it all depends on the agency you’re talking about. Agencies like VII or Noor are very much based around the Magnum model. They, like Magnum, are promoting individual authorship and the kind of photographer that’s going to deeply dive into what they’re most passionate about and shape their life and their work around those passions. Agencies like Getty and AP are generally more geared toward feeding this broader notion of photojournalism, writ large, which is more about what’s happening now than it is about diving into a subject. There’s also the multitude of perspectives contained within Magnum. We’re not approaching subjects in terms of creating a few individual icons to represent a situation, but rather a complex layered group of pictures that is as much looking outside as it is looking inside.
Meiselas: Aesthetic approaches are broader inside Magnum than most. The centers of other agencies have a lot of similarity, but it’s the latitude—the edges—where you see the difference. Passion and authorship is what we share and is the most important thing.
Van Agtmael: Also a general kind of curiosity too. I think the inter-generational aspect is part of it as well. For example, learning from someone like Susan from the outside, just in terms of consuming her work, and then to be in Magnum learning from her on an individual level—even working together with her—is a massive expansion of how I understand photography and the world. That is what I think creates this deep loyalty to Magnum that a lot of people have. Magnum is notorious for people complaining and being frustrated and it being kind of dysfunctional, but it often glosses over the deep loyalty that gets created by the community and all its myriad manifestations.
The “Magnum Manifesto” exhibit addresses a tension within Magnum from the beginning, with different approaches to photography between Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Is that tension still present?
Meiselas: Well, you know, that’s one way to talk about it. Early on, I thought about this Capa/Cartier-Bresson schism, but I think about it more now as a spectrum than as a binary—though there was a time when people were either on one side of the equation or the other, the equation being more “art” versus “document.” If you look at Cartier-Bresson carefully, he uses the opportunity of joining Magnum to do a kind of reportage, which is different than what he’s doing as a Surrealist. He clearly goes off and does very extensive travel and makes books and exhibitions from the assignments that he gets, which is a tradition that Peter continues. People are at different points on the spectrum. That range is tremendously vital, and that dialogue or the dialectic of that spectrum is constantly in play.
Van Agtmael: I think the tension is often highlighted because it’s a nice narrative device, but more often than not, I see the symbiosis of different perspectives and how much it has influenced various photographers. I see and feel the tension, but it has not been the dominate part of my experience in Magnum. The symbiotic nature of it has been far more critical to my experience.
What does the future of Magnum look like to both of you?
Meiselas: I would look backward ten years. The initiative for Magnum photographers on the 60th anniversary [in 2007] was to create the Magnum Foundation. Our focus was for Magnum photographers to relate with growing circles of photographers further from the core. We started to see the Global South and many areas regionally that had not been part of the dialogue of photography. The foundation’s mission is to try to create opportunities in the tradition of Magnum that involve small travel grants to go deep into the world and do in-depth mentor trainings there. Peter and I have worked very closely in the Middle East in the past four years. We’ve been looking to complement our own community with the opportunities for others.
Van Agtmael: My future vision for Magnum is, in a lot of ways, consistent with the aim of the foundation, which is to dramatically increase the gender, racial, and geographic distribution of photographers. Ideas about the value of having a diverse array of perspectives have been building for a long time. While Magnum has diversity within its vision, my belief is it can expand much more.
Meiselas: I think it is important to figure out how big the circle can become and still stay a vital community. When [Magnum photographer] Inge Morath died, members decided to each contribute to a fund to support a young woman photographer under the age of 30, and we’ve done that now for 15 years. One of those women, Olivia Arthur, joined Magnum, but it wasn’t a mentor program to guarantee entry—it was to support young women finding their paths and hopefully grow into whatever community seemed right for them. There are a lot of ways of supporting diversity and developing voices in a historically distorted field.