Magnum: Fifty Years at the Frontline of History

26th September 2013

The main reason I bought this book was to enable me to find more in-depth information about the founding characters of Magnum and perhaps get an idea of what gave them their individual style and what drove them.  Well, you certainly get plenty of what drove them, not a lot on style and a very good read to boot.

When I first picked it up it rushed me straight into the Founders, mostly about Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, but what a yarn, it’s like a story right out of Boys Own with all their derring-do, travel and adventures.  On the other side though there is a dreadful tale of how they misuse(d), abuse and denigrate their staff and it’s a wonder that Magnum managed(s) to survive the prima-donna’s who inhabit their world.  Always scraping around for cash, never making any agreements all the shareholders can stick to, jealousies between the Paris and New York offices and the fact that the annual gathering is (was) an excuse for a big screaming match at one another whilst others read magazines, walked in and out at will and resigned on points of honour, it’s enough to make anyone wonder why they would want to be a member.

Every member wants priority on staff resources and time but none of them wants to take responsibility for the way that things are run and when you consider that the whole shebang is run for the benefit of the members and not for profit, without any professional business help it’s no wonder things are always up and down and no-one knows what’s going on at any time.  Everyone has an ego that has to be stroked and if some of them can’t get their own way they literally lay down in the office and kick their heels on the floor and scream like naughty children, or else they bang spoons very loudly on desks.

One of the central ideas when Magnum was set up was that Magnum would take a percentage of all sales to provide support and allow individual photographers to go off and do their own thing, subsidised to a certain degree from the kitty.  But when W. Eugene Smith took them virtually to the edge of bankruptcy and one other owed $100, 000.00 when he resigned (he did repay it eventually)it makes you wonder how Utopian it all really was (is).

To be allowed to be represented by Magnum there is a long courtship process that doesn’t always go smoothly and some who you’d expect to have no trouble making Full Member have hiccupped along the way.  The first level of membership is ‘Nominee’; to get to this stage you have to submit a portfolio at the once a year members meeting, where if you’re successful you are then allowed to call yourself nominee and be represented by Magnum, if you fail then you have to wait a full year before resubmission.  Once you’ve served two years as Nominee you can then ask to become ‘Associate’; once again you have to submit a portfolio, but this time more advanced, a pass means you become Associate, failure means you can either try again next year, or leave altogether.  Once you’ve done a further two years as Associate you can then apply for Full Member; again a new portfolio and a deeper examination by the Members, even Salgado failed to advance at this stage even though he was extremely well-known as an artist by then.  Once you’re a Full Member you have full voting rights and are privy to all that goes on in Magnum, you’re there for life unless you decide to resign, and some do.

To say it sounds like a lunatic asylum run by the lunatics is possibly a very accurate description of Magnum, but then who wouldn’t want to at least try to get them to represent your work?


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