In Our Time: The world as seen by Magnum Photographers

  December 1994 –
January 1995

Photograph of Magnum images from the exhibition at the Gallery of Photography

The Magnum Story

In April 1947, at The Penthouse restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Magnum Photos held its first meeting. Conceived as a collective by founding members Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, David Seymour, Rita and William Vandivert and Maria Eisner, Magnum was to establish several basic principles that departed from the journalism practices of the day. Not only would photographers retain the rights to their photographs and maintain editorial control over their work, but they were to be encouraged to pursue independent projects.

Important projects in the 1930’s laid the foundations for the agency and helped establish the relationships of the founders. David Seymour’s photographs of the Popular Front socialist movement in Paris, Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War, and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s early explorations with photography in Spain and Mexico  created a diversity that would remain an important underpinning, World War 2 and its aftermath occupied all Magnum’s founders.

Following the war, Magnum photographers set out to depict the world beyond Europe’s borders, setting the groundwork for an ongoing tradition of international reporting. Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived in China in the late 1940’s and was in India at the time of Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. Robert Capa travelled to Russia with John Steinbeck in 1947 to collaborate on an extensive article about life in the Soviet Union for Ladies Home Journal. Werner Bischof went to Japan and Indochina, George Rodger went to Africa, and David Seymour to Israel and Egypt.

The 1950’s were marked by tragedy for Magnum. Within days of one another, in May 1954, Magnum received word that Werner Bischof was killed in a car accident while on assignment in the Peruvian Andes, and that Robert Capa was dead, a victim of a land mine in Indochina while covering the war. Two years later David Seymour was killed while covering the Suez Crisis in the Sinal. Shortly before his death he had written, “Magnum is something of a miracle by its very existence…and miracles require continued faith”.

In the past couple of decades the photography field has become increasingly complex. The commercial interests of many magazines have tended more than ever to obscure visual information, and in covering news events, photographers have had to contend with the manipulated photo opportunities imposed by governments and public relations officials. The generation of photographers who entered Magnum during the 70s and 80s have had to respond to such challenges.

Chris Boot, Director of Magnum(London) will give a talk in the gallery on Friday 9th December at 1:15pm- admission is free