This mighty tome demands to be taken seriously. Magnum are the originals, the auteurs, the most committed of the photojournalists, and they demand respect. As our appetite for dramatic photographs of world events in our morning newspapers gives way to the paparazzo’s snatch – at editors’ behest – Magnum have had to reinvent the channels through which their images and messages reach viewers.
Despite a sense of veneration for the world famous members of the historic photo agency, the appearance of another Magnum volume, (and volume is a word to be emphasised; this is an epic) is also tinged with a feeling of burden and estrangement that is perhaps the consumers’ version of the newspaper editors’ weary cynicism. Looking at the images feels dutiful rather than urgent; the increasing distance – despite and yet due to globilisation – engenders a sense of powerlessness over the life and death issues framed by Magnum’s photographers. Compassion fatigue has set in. What do we do with these images? What are the Magnum photographers to do with their images?
Magnum Stories is the formidable agency’s latest attempt at reinvention, successfully transforming an ailing practice into a magnum opus of history, a high art, and in so doing, shifting the site of reception from the newspaper page to the coffee tables of our new found conscientious consumption. We are presented with a doubling of biography and autobiography in the edited extracts from 61 photographers choosing their own most significant photo story, in addition to a first person account of their practice. To them we delegate the courage of their commitment to the battle zones and the disputed territories, the natural and political crises. In return we receive the integrity of the image-makers who resisted the facile by-line or the arbitrary crop. And where once this precision and purity of photography served as guarantor of accuracy in the news columns, in a changing world with the legacy of the decades of their tireless production, the result is no less than a set of authentic images from history, a history that increasingly will be remembered in the realm of the visual: Iran 1986-9, Jean Gaumy’s penetrating study of the Iran Iraq War; another war we would do well to remember. Who else will remind us? Or ‘The Black Triangle, Czechoslovakia’ 1991-3, in which Josef Koudelka’s magical realist panoramas of the despoliation of landscape and environment transform our photographic understanding of the surface of this earth and its representation.
With the passage of time the practices of Magnum have also widened in their form and scope. We have Martin Parr’s formative subjective documentary on New Brighton, the Last Resort for Britons by the sea, contrasted by the equally bleak but formal The Maze by new recruit Donovan Wylie. These two British photographers extend the scope of the traditional worldview from Magnum and considerably enhance the aesthetic appeal of this richly produced book. We are reunited with the critical judgment of Philip Jones Griffiths reminding us of “24 Hours in Grenada” and review the extraordinary iconic work of Stuart Franklin in “Tiananmen Square 1989” with a welcome chance to see the set of slide contacts that include one of the most memorable images of all time: the lone protester holding up a line of tanks. Eve Arnold presents us with the stark contrasts of US Nazis attending a Black Muslim rally addressed by Malcolm X in 1961.
It is inevitable that some of the quieter corners of the world represented to us sit uneasily with the harrowing stories from the war zones we all too easily forget, nevertheless the masterful editing of Chris Boot has kept a coherence and integrity to each photographer and project. There is much here to learn for the aspiring photographer or the art historian of that very 20th century phenomenon – the photojournalist. The history of these visual events stops short of the fuzzy televisual frame grabs that have displaced the integrity of the single shot except in the work of Harry Gruyaert from 1970-2, work which presages the blank generation of the endless simulacrum that rules the present.
The weakest points in a strong and challenging selection are the contributions from Ferdinando Scianna, “Marpessa, Italy 1987”, wet t-shirt fashion shots sit uneasily with the epic stories from our recent history as do the somewhat flat and aestheticised portraits of the US navy personnel pictured by Peter Marlow in his “Sixth Fleet, Adriatic Sea 1999”.
In a year that saw the passing of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Stories appears like a record of the latter half of the 20th century rather than a vision of a future for photography. The inclusion of so many photo essays from the past rather than contemporary work suggests something of a swansong. In Susan Meiselas’ case the work in black and white from El Salvador in 1983 is shown in preference to her important colour images from Nicaragua or her path-finding work in Kurdistan – one of the recent greats of photographic publishing. An exception to the backward gaze is Marc Riboud’s revisitation of his classic subject of China 45 years later and juxtaposing the results. As new practices arise and established traditions of the photographic document shift, it is to be hoped Magnum chooses to engage with the possible avenues of the future.
Meiselas herself recently voiced the impact of such changes in a seminar on Robert Frank at Tate Modern, London. When asked what is to be the future of the documentary photograph she cited the cameraphone and the power of the images from Abu Ghraib, photographs of such power, impossible for the Magnum professional to garner, that could only emanate from the ‘taking I’ of the operative, grinning into their own trophy snapshots, produced for a world suffused with reality TV and a new enablement of the individual. The 21st century will certainly be less deferent to the heroes of the analogue era, and for the most part this volume appears as a requiem for a heroic age, its A-Z construction additionally serving to memorialise the photographers.
Finally in this book we are reminded that the overarching theme is the broad biography of the complete Magnum output from early Robert Capa on the beaches of D-Day to the most up to date images by Luc Delahaye in Afghanistan and Baghdad, in an encyclopaedic exploration of the Magnum vision, so comprehensive you should not forget your shopping trolley to carry this £45 masterwork home.