Magnum Magnum

A renowned photo agency celebrates its 60th anniversary.

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(To see images from this and other photo books reviewed by the Monitor, click  here.) The world’s premier photo agency, Magnum, celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2007 with a book. In Magnum Magnum (edited by Brigitte Lardinois, Thames and Hudson,  568 pp., $80), 69 acclaimed photo documentarians edit and comment on each other’s work.

The original edition of the book was enclosed in a “suitcase” with a carrying handle to ease its 15-lb heft. This year it has been reissued for the holidays – seven pounds lighter and almost a third less costly.

Cofounders Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, and George Rodger envisioned Magnum as a place where dedicated photographers could follow their own consciences when pursuing stories and these works are powerful testaments to the conviction of bearing witness.

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But Magnum’s members have always gone further. They report the human condition as artists – evocative, intimate, graceful – inspiring a deeply personal response in the viewer. Though Magnum photographers have always created artistic images, in following the chronology of this work, one can see over time the vision change from straight journalism to  the personal.

Eve Arnold took on the formidable task of editing the master himself, Cartier-Bresson. It is a joy that she found images that are wonderful examples without leaning on his most famous works.

In the photo “Near Trivandrum, Kerala, India 1966” (above), the movement is a backward arch with arms stretched above the woman’s head. She and a man in a sarong lift a basket of what appears to be soil above their heads. The arch reveals the exertion needed to lift this weight.

It is an image you may have seen hundreds of times by other photographers, but coming across this one reminds the viewer of Cartier-Bresson’s singular brilliance. This everyday movement is more like a dance between the couple – life-giving and celebratory.

It is the vitality expressed, the individuality seen in his subjects that made Cartier-Bresson such a preeminent photographer. Arnold speaks of him with the gratitude of a student. “He never failed to surprise me,” she says, describing him as “the poet with a camera.”

At the other end of the chronology is Alec Soth, who became an associate in 2006 and uses a large format camera, definitely not practical in today’s 24/7 news world. His images are quiet and a step removed from the immediate scene.

Soth is a cultural commentator, creating photographs that are a little askew, suggesting people and places hidden from view, existing on the edges of society. Lise Sarfati, who edited Soth’s work and who is herself interpretive in her portraiture, says of Soth, “A great clarity, or one should say grace, lights up each picture. The lack of artifice reinforces the charms operating in his photographs.”

Soth emulates Bresson’s grace but in his own visual language. A leather jacket with the words “Cry Baby” across the back lies bunched up in a tangle of weeds, burrs and wildflowers. This is documentary, yet soft-spoken.

In “Magnum Magnum” the selections are sometimes as surprising as they are engaging.  Early Magnum member Burt Glinn’s classic forms appear just before Jim Goldberg’s experimental approach with writing across images. The result is that “Magnum Magnum” reads like a visual conversation among talented colleagues. And we are allowed to listen in.

Joanne Ciccarello is a staff photo editor.

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