Magnum Sells Out


Shortly before Christmas, two fully loaded trailer trucks pulled away from Magnum Photo Agency’s New York City offices in Chelsea and headed west. The cargo was not gift-wrapped for the holidays. The trucks carried more than 180,000 separate pieces of paper—the rare, sometimes unique, “press prints” from Magnum’s archives dating back to the agency’s founding in 1947. Their destination was Austin, Texas. For at least the next five years the photos will be stored, catalogued and digitally recorded at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. The goal is to make the work more easily accessible to students and scholars.

Magnum stopped making paper prints in 1998 but has been slow to digitally scan their photo archive for distribution via the internet. To date, less than half of the images have been scanned. This will change now that this trove of photojournalism history has been bought by a financial consortium owned by the Michael Dell family. The sale to MSD Capital is only of the prints themselves. The underlying reproduction and printing rights remain with the agency and its member owners.

Founded in 1947, out of the ashes of WWII, by five photojournalists—Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, David “Chim” Seymour, and William Vandivert, its goal was to establish a company for photographers to exercise greater creative and financial control over their own photographs.

Robert Capa and George Rodger, Naples, 1943.

Lurking in their consciousness must have been the insensitive and high-handed manner that many of the world’s leading photo magazines and newspapers had employed to edit their work.

Magnum Photos link

Eugene Smith’s running battle with Life Magazine’s editing policies of his photo-essays had served as a template for their own concerns. Out of this initial meeting, where  most of them were not even present, grew the world’s most important collective of news photographers. Thousands of the iconic images of the second half of the twentieth century have been made by Magnum members. The name Magnum bespeaks even today the highest artistic standards of image creation. The opening sentence of Russell Miller’s history of the agency is, “Photographers like to joke that becoming a member of Magnum is tantamount, in the rigors of the initiation, to joining a religious order.”—Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History: The Story of the Legendary Photo Agency link

To become a member entails a lengthy and intensive review process. It is described here in a Wikipedia entry:

Magnum's photographers meet once a year, during the last weekend in June, in New York, Paris or London, to discuss Magnum's affairs. One day at this meeting is set-aside for considering and voting on potential new members' portfolios. Successful applicants are invited to become a 'Nominee Member' of Magnum… After two years photographers then present another portfolio if they wish to apply for 'Associate Membership'. If successful, the photographer then becomes bound by all the rules of the agency, and enjoys all the facilities of its offices and worldwide representation. The only difference between an Associate Member and a full Member is that an Associate Member is not a Director of the Company and does not have voting rights in its corporate decision-making. Finally, after another two years, an Associate member wishing to apply for full membership presents a further portfolio of work for consideration by the members. Once elected as a full member, this effectively confers membership of Magnum for life or for as long as the photographer chooses. No member photographer of Magnum has ever been asked to leave.

Ex-member Sebastiao Salgado has been quoted as saying of the agency, “There has only been ever one rule guiding Magnum and that is the rule of anarchy—it is because of this anarchy that we have been able to do so many things.”

While no one has ever been expelled from the group, a large number of esteemed photographers became members, only to withdraw a few years later. Among these are Luc Delahaye, Charles Harbutt, Danny Lyon, Mary Ellen Mark, Sebastiao Salgado and W. Eugene Smith. The thorny Smith was a member for only a year and was temperamentally a bad fit for any organization. But the other artists who demurred are also highly idiosyncratic artist/photographers. It is likely that although the idea of an artist collective may be initially highly appealing, the day-to-day concerns of an agency whose directives are oriented toward news journalism, offered diminishing luster for the more maverick and personal artists. A roster of Magnum membership that includes present, withdrawn and deceased members can be found here:—Magnum Photos Member list link

Currently Magnum Photo Agency represents 51 active members and 13 estates. It has spawned other member/agencies such as VII, which was founded in New York City shortly before the tragedy of 9-11. Founding member James Nachtwey was present at its inaugural meeting; two days later he rushed to the WTC to make some of the most haunting images of that terrible event. Nachtwey is the subject of an essay I wrote several months ago:

John Bailey’s Bailiwick—“Bearing Witness” link

VII has remained small, its emphasis being on conflict photography. Magnum has attempted to be inclusive even given its rigorous qualifications, but it has always been an unruly entity. Thus, it comes as some surprise that its full archive of paper prints should have been sold for a reputed amount near $100 million. Whether concern over preservation of the archive, or necessary pecuniary security for its future projects, was the greater motivator, this sale merely echoes recent similar sales of paper prints by National Geographic Magazine and the New York Times.

The recent NY Times story of this sale  led me to speculate what the greater meaning of this might entail:

The New York Times article link

A spokesman for MSD Capital has made one clear statement about the value of the archive:

Given the technical changes that have taken place in the world of photography, including the digitization of images, a collection of prints like these will never exist again.

There is a certain irony that these so-called “press prints,” with a litany of markings for cropping, affixed shipping labels and often even devoid of the photographer’s signature, should now have such value. As a collector, I had always been advised to avoid “press prints” as they were deemed by museums and dealers to be inferior to prints made by the photographer and/ or his printer, these latter ones being signed and often numbered for exhibition and sale. The simple truth is that for perhaps tens of thousands of these Magnum images, the “press prints” may be the only paper prints that even exist.

In December 2001, the Fahey-Klein Gallery in Los Angeles presented an exhibition of “iconic images” that included the three most indelible images from the Vietnam War: Eddie Adams’ “Execution in Saigon,” Nick Ut’s “Children Fleeing an American Napalm Attack,” and John Filo’s “Grieving Students at Kent State University.”

Eddie Adams "Execution in Saigon," non-cropped version.
Nick Ut, "Children Fleeing American Napalm Attack" non-cropped version.

While these photographers were not Magnum members at the time (much Vietnam era work was for AP) these are the photographs most credited with raising American consciousness toward ending the war. Yet none of these historic photographs had been offered previously for sale to photo collectors in gallery exhibitions, even decades after the older combat work of Robert Capa, Eugene Smith, and others had achieved canonic status in the photo collecting community.

The move to de-accession paper archives in libraries throughout the world is reflected in a not uncommon perspective on paper prints as somehow no longer necessary, as even a burden to preserve. A visit to the inner sanctum of the Getty Museum’s or the Eastman House’s temperature and humidity controlled vaults makes clear the challenge of preserving our photo history as “silver prints” for future generations. As collectors ourselves, Carol and I are all too aware of our responsibility to serve as the temporary custodians for the work we have acquired. The best of it will be part of the legacy we leave behind, some of it of more enduring value than many of the films we have made. So any thoughts that I have about Magnum’s sale of its archives are filtered through my own lens as a collector/photographer.

Paper is a fragile medium, vulnerable to the vicissitudes of humidity (think of all the foxed and spotted books in world libraries). Much early photography exists mostly in compromised prints. A pristine Carleton Watkins or Eadward Muybridge landscape may be valued at more than ten times that of the same image that is foxed, faded, hypo-stained or simply of inferior contrast and resolution.

On the other hand, most of the photo prints offered by today’s artists are perfect duplications from print to print throughout an edition, thanks to photo-shop style programs and high-quality computer ink-jet printing. They are also made on paper made to the highest contemporary standards of archivability. It would seem that many of the concerns of preservation have been addressed. And yes, most photographers now are using digital tools in their work, creating images that a generation ago would have been impossible. So, what’s the problem, if there is one?


The world of movies, theatrical films made for entertainment, has from its inception as the child of Georges Méliès, been fanciful, fictional, and manipulative, in terms of narrative and image creation. Documentary film has also, even since the days of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, been subject to criticism of editorial as well as visual manipulation. Here for example is the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia entry:

Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic (1922) is a silent documentary film by Robert J. Flaherty. In the tradition of what would later be called salvage ethnography, Flaherty captured the struggles of the Inuk Nanook and his family in the Canadian arctic. The film is considered the first feature-length documentary, though Flaherty has been criticized for staging several sequences and thereby distorting the reality of his subjects' lives.

Photography, especially photojournalism, on the other hand, has an esteemed history as a greater repository of truth, of life and experience observed. We have infused the best of our photojournalists with a near deific identity as truth sayers. They “bear witness” to the human experience. Though there has always been a minority community of photographers whose images are primarily fictive, most photographers have been seen as men and women who risk life, limb, or at least, sanity, to report back to the rest of us the reality of the world around us.

As “art” photography has become the darling of established, older galleries in the past several decades and as a new generation of photographers has emerged who create a fictive world as elaborate as that of the movies (think Gregory Crewdsen or Melanie Pullen) the very idea of photography as embodying “truth” of experience has come under scrutiny. Digital manipulation, especially in commercial and fashion photography, has become the norm, and the elaborate landscapes of an artist like Clifford Ross, while made on film, exist only in a world of elaborately composited and manipulated zeros and ones. article link

Clifford Ross, Mountain XIII, 2006.

For me as a photo collector all of this computer technology in the service of new imagery has given me a revisionist perspective, one that is deeply focused on the vanishing world of silver prints or of color done only by slowly disappearing photochemical processes. The much maligned “press prints” from news and photo archives seem to spring up above this complex alternate mix of computer techniques with an almost child-like mien. “Press prints” were made for expedient distribution and were not ever meant to be the definitive record of that image. And, in the case of the best work, they are not. But clearly, for much of the purely journalistic work, these expedient prints will be what becomes the template for any future reference as the scanned, digital version becomes the go-to one.

I have gone on record many times as preferring a photochemical finish for the movies I photograph, rather than the now almost ubiquitous digital intermediate. It seems it was only a few years ago that I sat in ASC Board meetings listening to many of my peers discuss how they could persuade the studios to allow them to do DIs. In a few years, the tables have turned and there are many of us, who consider the DI unnecessary, yet are being mandated by studio post-production executive directives, to do a digital finish—even when we can make a compelling case (as I often have) that it is an unnecessary  and costly expense. Likewise, in the world of art photography photochemical, darkroom printing has been eroded; it has become the exception. Blackened fingernails are being replaced as occupational hazards by carpal tunnel syndrome. What does this presage?

Already there is within the photo collecting community a certain nostalgia for the era of the chemical print, even as many veteran photographers still working have switched reluctantly to digital capture and printing. But there are real questions to be asked here. In the photo collector marketplace and at major photography auctions such as Sotheby's and Christie's will there be a higher or a lower monetary value placed on film versus digital capture? Will there be aesthetic distinctions made between digital and chemical prints much like that between a vintage and a contemporary silver print? What about images that are captured digitally, but printed chemically? On the surface this seems an unlikely path, but I do know that several of the most prestigious photography schools have re-introduced once abandoned chemical darkroom classes into the curriculum, not for historical but for aesthetic reasons. Scanning to film negatives from digital capture for photochemical printing is not common but is a fascinating option, especially with a concurrent revival in 19th century printing techniques such as cyanotype, carbon, platinum for B/W, and Fresson and Carbro for color.

An indication of what a salmagundi current practice is, are the images of Nick Brandt, whose African work was the subject of a recent Los Angeles exhibition. Brandt photographs on film, 6 x 7cm, digitally scans at very high resolution, then offers platinum prints of selected images as well as digitally printed ones.

Nick Brandt, "Elephant with Tattered Ears."

Will the future of photography move inexorably toward digital imagery in all phases? Or will there be a reactionary move back toward chemical work for fine art photography? Will there be a hybrid system as with Brandt and Clifford Ross? In the next decade will chemical prints be the province of a fanatical group of specialist collectors and historians much like the librarians and collectors who specialize in early printing incunabula? Will the next museum or institutional acquisition of photo archives be mainly a bunch of discs, floppies and zip drives like the Ransom Center's recent acquisition of John Updike's "papers?"?

For my part, though I have and will continue to acquire some digital material, I know that my heart beats in sympathy with photographers like Alexey Titarenko, artists who enter a darkroom, labor in a noxious and dim space, and emerge after hours of work on a single print, a fixed image on still wet paper redolent of the loving commitment that traces its origins back to the 19th century roots of the art form, a print that in its every detail is unique, a print that is a record of the hand and of the mind of the image’s creator.

Alexey Titarenko, "Woman on the Corner."


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