How The Magnum Agency Reinvented Portrait Photography

The Magnum agency was born as a cooperative to defend the rights of photojournalists, but it became a school for the best photojournalism, a club where talent is the entry pass, but where staying is only possible based on work and perseverance. .

The legacy of Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and other greats of this art served to show the world the best and the worst of society, from wars, famines and natural tragedies to red carpets, fashion shows and actions. humanitarian.

It is possible to learn about his legacy through the exhibitions that are periodically organized in different parts of Spain or the world, or through some gems that every image lover’s library should have.Yerevan street, Armenia. Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Two essential books

In this case we are looking at two works, two facets of the many faces of photojournalism: Magnum on the Street and Magnum Artistas , both published by the Blume publishing house .

Magnum on the Street collects 300 images from more than 60 agency photographers in their search for urban shots. Casual and spontaneous for the most part, they are snapshots of various parts of the world from the last 100 years, precise portraits of pedestrians, shops, beaches and parks; with children dancing, teenagers showing off, distrustful old people, distracted tourists and all the possible combinations.Magnum cover on the street. 

Street images are microdramas that can lead to captivating and mysterious photographs. Stephen McLaren

They are “microdramas”, says Stephen McLaren in the introduction , “which when seen from the proper point of view, can give rise to captivating and mysterious photographs, whose storytelling potential would thrill Tolstoy or Proust”.Child in a car in Colorado, USA. Photo Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos

Another view of conflicts

Several of the images presented in this volume were commissioned by newspapers or magazines, such as Bruno Barbey ‘s 1968 Paris, which focused on barricades.

And for that, talent is not enough (which is already a merit), but knowledge of the field.Barcelona in 1992. Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

“Like taxi drivers, street photographers know how cities work, how people interact, where the action is. Being an urban expert is knowing where the sun sets in the fall in Washington Square or which streets in Soho are busiest on a Friday night,” says McLaren .

Ephemeral scenes

These images without permission or later forgiveness give an ephemeral fame to the anonymous protagonists of life on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the concrete towers of Beijing, the slums of Cape Town, the Whitechapel market in London, a market of camels in Cairo, a square in Pyongyang, an abandoned piece of land in Oaxaca or the exit of the subway in Madrid.

The book is structured around three thematic axes, four cities and a brief retrospective of 30 photographers.

The axes are In Transit (the relationship between mobility, cities and people); Free Time (where street photographs do not have to be taken on the street) and Markets (perhaps the best thermometer to register the feeling of a city).Daytona Beach. Photo: Constantine Manos/Magnum Photos

The chosen cities are New York, Paris, London and Tokyo, where no introductions are necessary to describe the choice of synthesis of the best and worst of the metropolises.

And among the thirty professionals are the aforementioned Cartier-Bresson, Abbas, Sergio Larraín, Martin Parr, Carl de Keyzer, Inge Morath, Alex Webb, Bruce Gilden and Herbert List , among others.

Artist to artist

Magnum Artistas is a dialogue between talent and talent, from photographer to painter or sculptor, where the art of one reflects the second, an exchange of values ​​that exceeds the frame of an image.

Among those portraits are several of the men and women who have shaped the visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.Cover of Magnum Artists.

Because that’s the idea, to explain how 125 photographers managed to make as many creators of marble and brush pose or were able to make themselves invisible to catch them in the middle of the process of transforming a canvas or a piece of rock into a masterpiece.

Among those portraits are several of the men and women who have shaped the visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.Yayoi Kusama.  Photo Alex Majoli-Magnum PhotosYayoi Kusama. Photo Alex Majoli-Magnum Photos

Entering the privacy of the sitter

“Magnum developed an invaluable record of the lives of artists throughout the golden age of photojournalism, during which it received plentiful magazine assignments that sometimes allowed photographers to spend days in close proximity with the artists,” says Simon . Brainbridge in the introduction.

That intimacy can be seen, for example, in Werner Bischof ‘s portrait of Frida Kahlo between the easels, in Robert Capa ‘s shots of Pablo Picasso laughing with friends in his atelier on Rue des Grands Agustins, or in the after-dinner drinks between Philippe Halsman with Marc Chagall in Provence.Roy Lichtenstein. Photo Thomas Hoepker-Magnum Photos

Herbert List could capture the gaze of a Joan Miró who was not fond of being interrupted, Thomas Hoepker managed to get Roy Lichtestein to pose among patches of three-dimensional brushstrokes that ventured a work in progress, Alex Majoli portrays Yayoi Kusama abstracted with her creation of colored polka dots and René Burri took Yves Klein to paint a model so she could use her body as a brush.Jeff Koons with sculpture of Michael Jackson. Photo Thomas Hoepker – Oskar Kokoschka Foundation

The hits and the misses

One of the most famous and amusing productions is the celebrated image of Salvador Dalí leaping into the air, with a weightless easel and two flying cats crossed by a jet of water, made by Philippe Halsman .Salvador Dali portrayed by Philippe Halsman. Photo Magnum Photos

Next to the remembered image, the discarded shots are shown, to remember that despite gaining the trust of the sitter, looking for lights, shadows and compositions, there are many random factors that cause an image to go from being a good photo to being wonderful.