Magnum Cinema... Neat Slice
'Magnum Cinema' was on show at The Gallery of Photography, Dublin 14th March - 28th April 1996
Review by Daniel Meadows
"Photographs", wrote Susan Sontag, "may be more memorable than moving images because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow... Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again".
Never was there a collection of neater slices than can be found in the pages of Magnum Cinema. Mother's Pride eat your wrapper.
First suspend disbelief, then spin a yarn and wrap it in a mystery. Give it to photographers who know instinctively that their business is noticing things, making order from chaos and rendering something which sparkles in the gesture of a single moment. And what have we got? Documentary at its best and at a price you can afford. Spread thick over enough pages to allow you to turn just one a day for a year without growing bored, MAGNUM CINEMA makes a stay-at-home of all moviegoers and a night out at the Odeon look very expensive indeed. This is an approach to photography which weaves a web of wonder from the medium's two unique qualities: its power to describe and its facility to freeze moment. And it wraps those qualities in a celluloid missile of such velocity that I can only explode with joy.
Here is a virtuoso performance from the world's most celebrated co-op of independent photographers. Among the movie nomads, on the set, behind the scenes, in the viewing theatre and the cutting room, at the celebrity screenings, in the face of the stars and on the street, Eve Arnold, Bruno Barbey, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rene Burri, Bruce Davidson, Martine Franck, Elliot Erwitt, Jean Gaumy, Burt Glinn, David Hurn, Josef Koudelka, Peter Marlow, Susan Meiselas, Gueorgui Pinkassov, Eli Reed, 'Wonderful' Eugene Smith, Dennis Stock, Nicolas Tikhomiroff, Alex Webb and the rest give of their very best. You won't find a better rendering of life in the movies anywhere between crusts.
It is fashionable to rubbish this stuff. Paul Graham, described in the Guardian interview he gave last August as 'one of Britain's foremost photographic artists', did some serious rubbishing. He referred in that interview to the "photographic fundamentalists of Magnum" who want "a return to traditional values" and lambasted them as "champions of the 'old consciousness' who have failed to notice that over the past two decades our perception of reality has changed from something 'out there' to something 'within us', a blend of external, internal, past and present stimuli, personal and collective beliefs, mediated and original ideas".
Well, all I can say is he can't have seen Erich Hartmann's Magnum Cinema picture shot on the set of The Misfits. It shows Eli Walach behind the wheel of his car with a dog in the passenger seat and Marilyn Monroe outside the window. This picture is electric with magic, it's a picture which plays itself over and again on the inside of your cranium. It won't leave you alone. It wraps up those Grahamesque qualities of the 'within us' so perfectly and with such oomph! And it was shot thirty six years ago. As that cosy old crust Ken Russell once remarked when asked to describe the unique quality of the cinematic experience: "It goes straight through to the emotions ", he said, "without foreplay". So too with Hartmann's still.
Oh, I'm so fed up with the sniping that goes on around the work of these photographers that I can be nothing but excitedly enthusiastic about this book and those in the Paris office of Magnum who had the wit and energy to put both it and its truly epic sister exhibition (now on a world tour) together.
This is the hardest kind of photography to pull off. It is as hard to make pictures like the best of these as it is to run a four minute mile, or write a best seller, or dream up a tune for a nation to whistle, or score a goal in a cup final. There's nothing snappy or casual about the manna on Magnum's table. It's a good job someone out there is maintaining standards.
Making pictures uses all of you, and it's exhausting. It can wear you down. Perhaps Graham was feeling depressed when he gave that interview to the Guardian. In which case I forgive him. And perhaps it was a depression which led Nicolas Tikhomiroff to take all his photographs and bury them in the garden of his house in the south of France. Thank God he lived somewhere dry. The woman researcher from Paris who went in search of them had to take a spade. Amazingly they had survived and here, fresh as a daisy, is Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight. Herbaceous.