Jill Glenn explores the work of the iconic Magnum Photographic Co-operative
Those little London galleries with ever-changing ‘selling exhibitions’ generally receive much less coverage than the major shows at venues such as the National Gallery or the Tates. It’s not surprising; their price tags frequently have an eye-watering number of noughts at the end, thus putting them out of reach of a large proportion of mainstream gallery-goers, and their artists may lack broad appeal or popular recognition. Every so often, however, a show comes along that’s impossible to ignore – and Magnum 62, at the Chris Beetles Gallery, near Piccadilly, is exactly that: one picture from each photographer* that has ever been a member of this revolutionary co-operative.
Don’t be put off by the velvety silence that encompasses you as you are let in; gallery staff are friendly, and aren’t standing over you to force you to buy. You can take a list of the prints from the central table, or invest in the lovely catalogue, which, frankly, is an unmissable bargain at £10 – and then simply browse and enjoy.
Magnum, founded by Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Rodger and Henri Cartier-Bresson, just after World War II, is perhaps the world’s most famous and influential photographic agency; its members have been responsible for many of the most celebrated photographs of the last six decades, so while selecting one single image to represent some astonishing portfolios of work must have been a challenge, would-be visitors are assured that they will see ‘in the flesh’ shots that they know very well indeed – plus, of course, images that will open up the work of less familiar names.
Seymour, Rodger Capa and Cartier-Bresson recognised that media in the post-war years was about to become very different, and they wanted to be at the heart of those changes.
The agency that they established in 1947 is the world’s longest surviving, and arguably most successful, artist co-operative. It forever changed intellectual property, copyright and the way in which the modern world received – and consumed – photography. With the increase in the amount of printed media, along with simpler reproduction techniques, photography was about to completely change the way that journalism presented itself, and Magnum was to play a large part in the revolution.
During the war, pictures such as those taken by Capa at the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches had huge impact on the public consciousness; in the last 65 years, agency members have followed in his hallowed footsteps, taking thousands of images and rewriting the photojournalism rulebook along the way. Combining innovative photography with integrity, often with outstanding bravery, they have covered many significant world events. Collectively they have provided fresh insight into international politics and culture, shown the reality of conflict and disaster, harnessed the growing power of celebrity, and have consistently influenced world-wide opinion.
Becoming a member of Magnum has always been a rigorous process, taking at least four years. It begins with a photographer submitting his or her portfolio to existing members. If a majority vote is passed then a preliminary 'Nominee' status, lasting two years, is awarded, after which the photographer must submit a further, extended portfolio to become an 'Associate'. A further two years later the photographer can apply for full membership, becoming a shareholder of the company and obtaining voting rights if successful.
You’ll know some of the images on show from books, of course, but nothing beats seeing them on a wall, at a decent size, and accompanied by anecdotes or explanatory comments, some from the photographers themselves. Capa’s comments – ‘The slant of the beach gave us some protection, so long as we lay flat, from the machine-gun and rifle bullets…’ – for example, flag up just how vulnerable a position he was in; Paul Fusco’s account of travelling on Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train from New York to Washington, photographing the mourners standing to attention en route, adds moving insight to an image already powerful in its own right.
The photographs are beautifully and thoughtfully displayed, in subtle pairings or groups that reveal shared themes, similar preoccupations, underlying connections. Margaret Thatcher, shot by Peter Marlow at the 1981 party conference in Brighton, is adjacent to Martin Parr’s powerful image of a girl serving ice cream in a shabby café in New Brighton a couple of years later. Chris Steele-Perkins’s shot of two Teddy Boy brothers is shown alongside Susan Meiselas’s Lena in the Motel.
There are old favourites; there are new favourites – and a fresh appreciation of the quality and depth of the work. Truly the adage that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ was made for Magnum.
The exhibition continues until Saturday 19 May, 10am – 5.30pm, at
Chris Beetles Fine Photographs, 3-5 Swallow Street, London W1B 4DE.
See www.chrisbeetlesfinephotographs.com or
call 020 7434 4319 for further details.