The many stories of the Magnum Agency

This collection of 61 photo stories offers a living survey of photography in the second half of the 20th century

Do we really need another book about the Magnum photo agency? In the half-century since the agency's formation in Paris, official and unofficial accounts have testified to its influence. All of its founding members - Robert Capa, David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodgers - and many subsequent recruits have been monographed. We're familiar with their photographs, their history, their importance. What more can be done with this material?

If you're Chris Boot, a director of the agency in the mid-1990s, the answer is lots. There's a great story here - actually 61 stories. Boot has structured a book that is fresh, inviting, and provocative. Here's how it works. Sixty-one Magnum photographers are each represented by one photo story laid out over six pages. Each photographer explains his or her thought process on the story in an accompanying essay.

Among the highlights:

• Robert Capa accompanied the first wave of troops onto Omaha Beach on D-Day. His pictures are about being with the action.

• Eve Arnold spent a year and $1,000 negotiating with an "arranger" to get access to Malcolm X in 1961. Her photos capture the commanding charisma of his personality.

• W. Eugene Smith captured a day in the life of a country doctor for Life magazine in 1948.

Each example is enlightening and rich with detail. But there's more here than a collection of unrelated, on-the-job tales. Boot also tells a larger story about differing philosophies over the second half century of photojournalism. He begins in the introduction and develops his survey by contrasting and comparing the individual photo stories.

Contemporary Magnum photographers have largely distanced themselves from the traditional narrative structure of beginning, middle, and end. For instance, Gilles Peress' photographs of Iraq before the US invasion, which appeared in The New Yorker last year, are better described as an extended essay than a linear story.

Luc Delahaye's distant and indecisive images from Afghanistan, published in History magazine last year, go further. Delahaye deliberately assaults the traditional dictums of photojournalism by rejecting narrative storytelling as well as any element of sentimentality or compositional style.

What would Capa think of all this? After all, he was a man who literally invented himself, transforming the Hungarian André Friedmann into the higher paid "American" Robert Capa. He might choose to reinvent himself once again, just as his chosen profession has done.

Tom Toth is the Monitor's director of photography.

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