...As Seen by Magnum
'Israel 50 Years As Seen by Magnum Photographers' was published by Aperture. The exhibition was at The Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, 1998
Review by Jim Maginn

Source - Issue 14 - Spring - 1998 - Click for Contents

Issue 14 Spring 1998
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I waited eagerly to see Magnum's Israel 50 Years book and exhibition. My interest came as an admirer of the Magnum school of Photography and in terms of what it would contribute to my understanding of the conflict in the Middle East. With one or two exceptions I was not disappointed.

I won't get into the dubious territory of making direct comparisons between the conflict here and there. There are a lot of similarities in our post-colonial history but thankfully we have escaped the extreme bloodshed of modern Israel and it's neighbours. Which ever tribe you happened to be born into here none of us really know the sheer scale of the conflict in Israel. The book is a timely reminder of the ever present potential for strife of that scale on our doorsteps.

The history of Magnum is closely paralleled by the history of Israel. Magnum was founded at the end of the Second World War by Cartier-Bresson, Rodger, Seymour and Capa men that had been profoundly effected by their war time experiences. Capa wrote in 1948 "The present state owes its existence just as much to Hitler as to it's own accomplishments". I would go one step further and say that without Nazism Magnum would not have been created. It was formed in the bleak post war period when, historians say, there was a jaded optimism.Robert Capa - lsrael, 1948, The Arrival of Refugees by Boat in Haifa 
Robert Capa - lsrael, 1948, The Arrival of Refugees by Boat in Haifa 

I wonder if Magnum's close association with Israel is the reason for them investing so much in this sumptuous book and exhibition? However the cynic in me tells me this is simply a photographic agency marketing it's product. If you accept this as the book's raison d'etre you are free to enjoy work at the very highest levels. It would be a mistake to say that Magnum has adopted a blindly pro-Israeli stance in the book. Chris Steele-Perkins' Sandbags at the Window of a Beirut Hospital During the Israeli Shelling of the City is not the only image illustrating the negative results of unbridled Zionism but it is one of the most effective. The picture shows a wounded man and child in a hospital ward barricaded against the onslaught of shells from a neighbouring state. The implications of a hospital having to protect itself in this way are clear.

All the images synonymous with Israel, Judaism and Magnum, are here. Phylactery clad, Hassidic Jews, praying at the Wailing Wall, gun toting, Israeli soldiers. Classic Magnum school, full frame, decisive moment etc., A perfect example is the photograph by Larry Towell of Palestinian boys in the only Poolroom in Beit Hannoun Gaza. But in recent years Magnum has adopted photographers from different traditions. This has revitalised the well worn Magnum picture making formula. My personal favourites are Zachman and Parr's colour work. Rabbis playing guitars and cross cultural ravers bopping away in front of the universal coke machine and yet another assault rifle toting kid.Larry Towell - Billiards is the least of the Diversions at the Village Pool Room in Bein Hanoun, Gaza Strip 
Larry Towell - Billiards is the least of the Diversions at the Village Pool Room in Bein Hanoun, Gaza Strip 

I had a remarkable sense of unease, a shared discomfort with the subjects of Patrick Zachman's camp survivors. It is more than the awkwardness one feels at being a voyeur. These two women look at the camera, self consciously exposing the death camp numbers tattooed on their inner arms. A chilling image.

I suppose it is as pointless as telling a God fearing terrorist that it is Un-Christian to take a life. But Peter Marlow's image containing the graffiti "Judaism and Zionism are diametrically opposed", sums up my sentiments exactly. A reminder that it is yet another post colonial conflict manifesting itself as a confusion between religion and politics.

It has become increasingly popular among sections of the photographic community to deride Magnum and it's 'type' of photography. Magnum has had a huge influence on photographic history. I would say that it has definitely been a positive one but even I am getting to feel like a devotee who is being called to prayer a little more often than is all-together healthy. Magnum at the Movies, Eve Arnold, etc. etc.

Other articles by Jim Maginn:

Other articles mentioning Robert Capa:

Other articles mentioning Larry Towell:

Other articles on photography from the 'Documentary' category ▸