Book Review by Bill Kirk
Published by: Phaidon
Magnum Photos, the co-operative agency founded in 1947 by a group of left-thinking photo-journalists, among whom were Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and George Rodger, soon grew to epitomise the term 'concerned photography' and drew into its ranks the cream of the world's reportage photographers.
The idealistic and (some say) naive hope of changing the world for the better by means of photography was the impulse that drove their image making, although even in those heady days a doubt already existed about the morality of the activity of the 'great photographer' in relation to his 'oppressed' subjects. This was expressed by George Rodger in 1945 when he found himself making artistic compositions of piles of bodies at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, an experience which caused him to cease photography for a long time.
Despite the big question and the equally big worry about what to do when Picture Post and Life magazine closed, Magnum's output all through the succeeding 50 years is generally accepted to be of great value.
An almost obscene photograph by Susan Meiselas taken near Managua, Nicaragua, a few months before the Samoza regime fell in 1979, savagely tells us what happened to the disappeared. It is a truly shocking image, a fragment of a decaying torso as a detail in an otherwise beautiful landscape. Looking at a glance like a tourist view it is the most harrowing image in the Landscapes of War section of the latest exposition of what lies in Magnum's files in Paris, London and New York.
Presented in five sections (Viewers of Landscape; Landscapes Presented; Re-invented Landscapes; Landscapes of War; Man, protagonist in the Landscape; with a foreword by Ian Jeffrey and other text by Henri Peretz) it fails to entirely satisfy in a number of ways.
At 220mm x 158mm it is small and strangely uncomfortable and prevents many of the images from attaining the grandeur they deserve, a point which seems to apply particularly to Bruno Barbey's trio of pictures probably because of their soft tonalities, and a bit less to those by Ernst Haas and Marc Riboud.
There are 133 photographs in the book, in my view too many. I find myself comparing its viewing experience with Robert Frank' The Americans in which every one of the 84 photographs is unquestionably essential. Saturation point is never reached and 'so what?' is never a response.
A final criticism is the tendency to muddiness in the monochrome printing. This effects a substantial number of images, but particularly Larry Towell's cover shot which appears as if printed from a grossly underexposed negative. Here and there, however the printing of black and white is OK as in Raymond Depardon's amazingly economical Sun City, Arizona Peter Marlow's Wales 1986 - full of strangeness. Fine too are Ernst Haas' White Sands, New Mexico and James Nachtway's Kabul, and of course Erwitt's famous Brasilia, 1961.
However it is the beautiful contemplations in colour of Harry Grumaert (a new one for me) along with Costa Manos, Martin Parr and of course Koudelka in black and white which gives the lie to those who say Magnum is old hat.