alan little’s weblog

magnum fanboy

31st March 2009 permanent link

The Versicherungskammer Bayern(*) is hosting a cool photo exhibition in Munich until May this year – Magnum’s First. If you’re in town, go. It’s free.

(Let me know via the mail links provided, and I’ll go with you. I already told my wife: if she loses track of where I am any time in the next couple of months, this is where to look first)

It’s quite a small, low-key show, but there are some great pictures. It’s interesting from a historical perspective too. According to the exhibition notes (here in German), although Magnum was founded in 1947, exhibiting prints in galleries was against the members’ anti-elitist ideals. Instead they focused on getting their work published in magazines – the main mass-circulation visual medium in those pre-TV days. This, their first group show eight years after the agency was founded, toured galleries in Austria in 1955. It was apparently such a low priority for them that they didn’t bother retrieving the prints afterwards. They were found in a box in the cellar of a gallery in Innsbruck over half a century later – I would like to have seen that gallery owner’s face – and are now on tour again.

And the pictures: not by any means, in my opinion, wall to wall masterpieces of amazing genius. A few really stunning pictures, also a few pictures where I ask myself why s/he chose to exhibit that. They may not have exhibited much before, but these were established, famous photojournalists publishing regularly in the biggest magazines of their day, not some bunch of inexperienced unknowns. Interesting juxtaposition, both subject matter and style, of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures of Gandhi just before his assassination, and the funeral, with Ernst Haas’ stills from the shooting of Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs. One of the momentous events of the twentieth century, right next to something as trivial as stills from a film set. But what stills from a film set. A couple of Cartier-Bresson’s Gandhi pictures are really lovely; with some of the others I’m wondering, if I didn’t know they were by Henri Cartier-Bresson, would I still be standing here trying to convince myself I can see some kind of subtle compositional magic about them. Or, in other words, why did he choose to exhibit this one? In Ernst Haas’ pictures the compositional magic is far from subtle – they’re every bit as good as Cartier-Bresson’s, but in a way that’s much more formal and obvious, and seemingly far easier for my simple visual mind to grasp.

(Some fall on stony ground. I grasp the Cartier-Bresson pictures as an opportunity to explain to my nearly six year old son who Gandhi was and why he was important. A quarter of an hour later I check if any of it went in: “Would you like to explain to Mama who that man was?” “He was the greatest Indian man” “And why was he great?” “Don’t know”. Oh well. Try again another time.)

As part of the exhibition the Verischerungskammer is also showing a BBC TV documentary from 1989 about the history of Magnum. I didn’t have time to watch this at the weekend. (Or rather, my son didn’t have the attention span. “What was it about, Jack?” “Lots of blah blah blah in English”.) And so far I haven’t been able to track down any other means of getting to watch it. I resent this. I paid for it – in 1989, and for many years before and after, I was a BBC licence fee payer – so I’m entitled to see it. It should be streamable or downloadable from a BBC website somewhere, or at least available to buy on DVD. I couldn’t find it on any of the BitTorrrent search engines either, so it looks like I’ll just have to go to the exhibition again and watch it. Worse things happen though; the Versicherungskammer even provides free coffee.

For once the print quality of the exhibition catalogue is good.

After the exhibition, my wife and her friend wanted to go out and talk girl talk in Russian, an activity to which I am woefully ill-equipped to contribute. So I took our son home and put him to bed. And, before going to bed myself, I though I’d put a book or two by Magnum photographers out for my wife’s friend to have a look at. Just one or two – but which ones? It turns out that the majority of photography book collection is by Magnum photographers. No problem, then, finding a couple of books to put on the table – but perhaps I need to think about broadening my perspectives a little?

Retro-photo-blogging: I visited Magnum’s fiftieth anniversary exhibition in Berlin in 2000, thought that “If I could only look at one photography book for the rest of my life, [Magnum Landscape] is the book I would choose” – it still might be – and was bowled over by the work of former Magnum president Raymond Depardon.

(*) Bavarian Insurance Chamber of Commerce

related entries: Photography

all text and images © 2003–2009