Magnum force

Few photographic agencies have such a reputation as Magnum. Jane Austin looks at its new brochure

Magnum photographers have always enjoyed a reputation for being at the forefront of global photo-journalism – whether it be capturing scenes of human suffering after the liberation of Belsen or images of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits. The Magnum photographer is generally thought of as being a glamorous, gutsy and romantic figure, a follower of Robert Capa’s hard-hitting mantra: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”.

Magnum’s reputation for glamour and credible, conscientious photography has spanned almost half a century since the photo co-operative’s conception in 1947. But as the years have passed, a number of myths about the agency have flourished and these have had a negative effect on its archive business. One is that the photographers are all dead; another is that the archive isn’t a commercial resource, merely a place for the photographers to store their images. Magnum’s corporate design representative Sharon Pearson explains: “Our reputation seemed to come before the facts. People didn’t seem to realise that they could use our archive commercially, and that we’re not a group of agents controlling the images. The library is the backbone of the company and contains over a million photographs.

“The other myth is that all we do is war photography and documentary commissions. But it’s more than a historical collection, it contains the best of the photographers’ work on personalities, show business and natural history themes. Our photographers are at the forefront of world photo-journalism, corporate work and advertising commissions. Our photographers create the market rather than follow it,” she says.

Undeniably, Magnum’s reputation has been built on the strength of its editorial photography since its foundation in Paris by Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson, “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger. Although it was always a commercial venture, the founders’ initial aims were to create an agency where the photographer’s copyright was guarded and respected.

While Magnum very much depended upon assignments and the sharing of fees between photographer and the agency, the international group of founding photographers established another principle which would cause problems with certain publications. The requirement was that the photographers, rather than the publications in which their images appeared, would retain the rights to their photographs. Almost fifty years on the retention of copyright is now standard practice for freelances.

As a co-operative, the photographers would make the decisions and hire staff members to assist them, rather than work under the direction of agency heads. Paradoxically, Magnum was founded to assert the independence of strong-willed, motivated people by putting them in a group that was permeable to outside pressures. “A co-operative that doesn’t co-opt,” said long-time member Burt Glinn. Apart from Magnum’s Paris headquarters, the agency now has offices in London, New York and Tokyo.

Despite this incredible history and the calibre of photography it offers, Magnum London felt that art directors and designers weren’t making the most of their wealth of imagery. They didn’t feel that they really had any direct rivals. As Pearson says: “We are not just a photo library, but an agency with a culture as well. And our images aren’t conceived in the same way as those held by more mainstream photo libraries.”

In an attempt to heighten Magnum’s profile with art buyers, the London office is launching its first brochure this month. Designed by one of the library’s clients, design consultancy Cartlidge Levene, the brochure has a collectable feel about it. “The new brochure isn’t like a Tony Stone Worldwide catalogue, where people say ‘I want a number six please’,” says Pearson.

Heather Vickers, Magnum’s archive director, had the unenviable job of selecting the images that were used in the brochure. “It was a very difficult process. I was conscious of not just reproducing what we achieved in our book, In Our Time, which accompanied our travelling exhibition a few years ago,” she says.

“I wanted to promote images that people might not normally associate with us. Consequently, the classic pictures are used small in the front section, while images of other subjects such as landscapes, natural history, travel and personalities are shown in a larger format. At least one picture by each photographer is shown. We didn’t consult the photographers for their choice, as we had to choose a picture that said something about the archive as a whole, rather than the photographer’s favourites. Eve Arnold complained that her pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Malcolm X are used too much, but they are well-known and represent the archive.”

The brochure, which is more like a book, was designed by Cartlidge Levene’s Tim Beard and Simian Browning, with Ian Cartlidge overseeing the project. The images take central place in the book, in a layout that is subtle and sympathetic to them. According to Beard: “The images are the most important aspect of this. We used black as the prominent colour as it has a classic feel, with colour inserts for balance. When I was choosing how to use the images, I laid them out side by side to work out a rhythm. So there are areas of intrigue, intensity and calm. The book contains full-bleed images which are punctuated with type and smaller images. We also designed a glossary to give further details about the picture, photographer and archive.”

Cartlidge explains that the design group wanted to produce a collectable book that was a beautiful object, as “many archive catalogues go straight in the bin. Magnum is known for its photographic quality. The idea of a photo library fits uncomfortably with that stature, so we had to design a book that was approachable without upsetting Magnum’s status,” he says.m

The Magnum brochure can be bought from the agency for 10.

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