Eight Magnum photographers celebrate the prestigious agency's 70th birthday by revisiting stories by their predecessors; BJP caught up with Magnum insiders to get the lowdown
It’s a commendable milestone by anyone’s standards – for 70 years, Magnum Photos has been at the forefront of documentary photography, photojournalism and visual storytelling, its members reporting on conflicts, crises and changes for humanity the world over. To celebrate Magnum’s long and rich history, the agency has devised Magnum Retold, a group project in which current members revisit stories by their predecessors.
Photographers were invited to respond to an archival story that had influenced or inspired their practice in some way – a story that meant something to them personally, or a topical subject they wished to revisit. “There is a repository of amazing work, which is the 70-year-old legacy of these incredible photographers,” explains Magnum’s content director, Francesca Sears.
“We discussed as an agency what we might like to do for our 70th anniversary and something we returned to again and again was the legacy of the brand and how important it is that we keep telling contemporary stories. It was a nice way to marry up old and new – to honour the founding fathers of the agency, to look at the seminal stories they had worked on, and to consider who inspires our current photographers.”
Eight photographers stepped up, each taking an original story as a point of departure and embarking on a new project in their own style. Among them were Moises Saman, who travelled to Peru to follow in Werner Bischof’s footsteps, retracing the last journey he made; Olivia Arthur, who was inspired by David Seymour’s Children of Europe; and Thomas Dworzak, who revisited Robert Capa’s A Russian Journal, about life under Soviet rule made in the early months of the Cold War.
If the aim of Retold was to “celebrate the ongoing resonance of past stories”, it was also to create compelling new stories that could be added to the archive – to promote Magnum and what it stands for, but also to provide important contemporary context for older stories in the same way that the historical stories inform new work. “When you photograph now, it’s not enough to go to Machu Picchu and show, ‘This is what it looks like and here’s what an indigenous person to the area looks like’,” says Hamish Crooks, Magnum’s global licensing director.
“There’s much more intricacy. We know far more about their lives, the land rights issues, the problems of tourism, so it’s a very different story [now] than it was then. For Magnum, that’s what we’re about – trying to be more in-depth, not just looking at things in the prism of today.
“In the case of many of the Retold stories, we need the subtleties because we know the story, it’s not unknown anymore,” he continues. “And as the attention span of much of the business gets shorter, there is a part of it that gets longer. Spot news, yes, that’s very important, but we need more explanation and context. People want to know the whole story. There is a really big audience for things to be more in-depth, so it’s channelling [what we do] into that audience.”
Magnum contributed about 10 per cent of funds towards the project, but it was predominantly funded from multiple external sources, including camera brands and individual patrons. “Normally my colleagues and I would be going to the editorial market to get finance, but this has been, as are many projects, really hard to fund,” says Sears.
She offers an insight into the challenges of working with and within an editorial marketplace in which money isn’t as readily available as it once was – but adds that these challenges are nothing new. Funding streams have been “drying up” over the past decade, she says. “It’s been a very mixed and complex picture of funding,” she says of Retold. “This is par for the course now.”
Crooks echoes Sears’ view on the necessity of finding alternative (and multiple) revenue streams. “I think that’s increasingly where we’re going,” he says. “What we have to do is show a bit more of our own ambition. If you take the Middle East, for example, there are so many individual stories that are saleable at the time, but we have to try and do much more in Magnum and build on each of those stories… Nowadays projects live or die by the amount that you can get along the way because it’s quite hard to fund these projects on your own.”
The fundamental aim is about getting back to what Magnum is good at, which is, says Crooks, “in-depth stories – spending longer on them, bringing in photographers with new ways of looking at things and different experiences. “The DNA of Magnum is spending longer, getting closer,” he adds. “Of course you need the day-to-day, the bread and butter, but you really have to follow some kind of creative ethos. Projects such as Retold is us instigating it and doing it in a more uncompromising way. This is us, being Magnum.”
Ultimately, Retold was a way to ensure “the world understands that we’re alive and kicking, and sees that we have this great cadre of photographers,” says Sears. “That comes from a bedrock of 70 years of doing it consistently.”
Sears also adds that the project is about strengthening and embracing Magnum’s legacy, while using it as a platform and source of inspiration to continue telling stories that matter. “That was the point in the 70th year,” she says, “to have a reason to refresh, re-evaluate, reappraise, and enjoy some of the archive again, especially some of the gems that are less well-known.”
Magnum Retold is on show from 05-09 December at Art Bermondsey Project Space, London, a not-for-profit arts platform sponsored by Olympus in association with State Magazine magnumphotos.com http://project-space.london/