On the occasion of Magnum’s 70th anniversary, Stuart Franklin revisits the Saharan adventure of Magnum co-founder George Rodger
“We drove, surrendering our car and ourselves to one of the most punishing trips on earth,” wrote Jinx Rodger of her journey through the Sahara with husband, George Rodger. Embarking on the three-month expedition in 1954, through countries including Algeria and Morocco, George and Jinx travelled 4,000 miles in a Land Rover, documenting one of the world’s most unexplored and inhospitable terrains.
One of the co-founders of Magnum, Rodger’s early career was dominated by his documentation of war. Beginning with the Blitz in London, for the duration of World War II, he travelled extensively in Europe and abroad, covering over 18 military campaigns on assignment for Life Magazine. As the conflict drew to a close, Rodger photographed the liberation of France, Belgium and Holland, and was the first photographer to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. The experience traumatised him and he abandoned war photography, turning instead to an exploration of the people and landscapes of Africa and the Middle East.
When invited to revisit an iconic photo series from Magnum’s past for Magnum Retold, acclaimed photojournalist Stuart Franklin was immediately drawn to George’s Saharan adventure. On the occasion of the agency’s 70th anniversary, Magnum Retold is a new series for which current Magnum photographers have been asked to retell an archival photo story, celebrating Magnum’s continued dedication to documentary storytelling. Temples of Stone, Franklin’s reinterpretation of Rodger’s African landscapes shot on Leica, will be on view at the Leica Studio in Mayfair, London from 17 January to 16 February 2018 and Franklin will also be teaching a masterclass, Visual Coherence, on 2 and 3 February.
“I have always been interested in the relationship between landscape and man,” explains Franklin, a former president of Magnum Photos, renowned for his commitment to thought-provoking photojournalism. In embarking on his perilous journey through the desert, Rodger fully surrendered himself to the unknown of the open road. “For George, the desert provided a respite from his troubled consciousness following the war,” says Franklin, recounting the words of Jinx, with whom he worked when researching the project.
Taking the parallel diaries that Jinx and George wrote as a starting point, Franklin went on to create a new body of work paying tribute to Rodger’s original photo story. Shot on three different Leica cameras – the Leica M Monochrom, SL and Q systems – the project is a testament to the region as it exists today. Initially, he wanted to visit the Hoggar Mountains and Timimoun in Algeria, but it soon became clear that securing a visa would be impossible. Instead Franklin set on the Atlas mountains in Morocco, the Sudan Egypt border and the Western Desert Road, where Rodger also went.
“That idea, of the starting point, the road ahead, became my focus,” explains Franklin, “starting points are wonderful opportunities for photographers and artists. A path has been cleared, but the road is unmade.” On arriving, Franklin was once again forced to change his plans due to security concerns in Algeria. Changing tack and journeying instead along the Nile, through the sand dunes in Aswan and temples in Lake Nasser, and then on to Tafraout in the Atlas mountains, as Franklin began to explore the region, the photo story started taking shape.
Franklin was particularly drawn to the ancient statues along the Nile and the temples in Lake Nasser. “I knew I wanted to see the weathered statues and the ruins of antiquity – that’s why I chose that specific route,” he explains. The images of these monuments are characterised instead by an eerie desolation. “There’s one picture, which I took at Lake Nasser that I think is particularly reminiscent of George Rodger’s work,” says Franklin. Depicting two individuals sitting outside the temple of El Seboua on the edges of the lake, the photograph echoes the silence of the sprawling desert felt in many of Rodger’s images.
To achieve these shots Franklin had to leave his hotel in the early hours, making sure to arrive at sunrise before the hordes of visitors descended. Lighting was key, and, for Franklin, the early morning sun perfectly illuminated these ancient sites. Initially shooting in colour, using the Leica SL enabled him to convert his images into black-and-white on the point of taking them. Coupled with the striking shadows defining the sweeping surfaces of these ancient monuments, the tonality achieved by Franklin is a testament to the aesthetic of Rodger’s photographs.
In Tafraout, the second and final destination of his trip, Franklin was taken by the shapes of the stones, which “ reminded me of the weathered monuments and temples of antiquity.” The lightness of the Leica SL allowed Franklin to explore the Atlas mountains for hours on end, seeking out “the weathered stuff, the temples of stone.” It is from this observation that the photo story and accompanying exhibition take their name. Using the Leica SL also enabled Franklin to experiment with different lenses. “I don’t spend a lot of time photographing with really long lenses, but it’s nice to engage with a new way of working and a different aesthetic, and one which complements George’s,” he reflects.
Today photography must increasingly compete with other mediums, arguably more so than 60 years ago when Rodger photographed the original story. “With a lot of the stuff you see now you think that might have been better as a documentary film,” observes Franklin, “what I was most happy about with this project was that I felt I had found a truly photographic solution.” And indeed, Temples of Stone exists as both a tribute to an iconic photo story and a powerful body of work in and of itself.
Visit Temples of Stone at Leica Studio Mayfair – 27 Bruton Place, London, W1J 6NQ – from the 17 January to 16 February 2018 and book a place on the masterclass, Visual Coherence: A Leica Masterclass with Stuart Franklin, here.