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VICE Loves Magnum: An Interview with Christopher Anderson

Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven’t heard of it, chances are you’re familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War, Steve McCurry’sAfghan Girl or Martin Parr’s very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum’s members are selected by the other photographers in the agency, which, given they’re the greatest photo agency in the world, means that becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.

First up is Christopher Anderson, who became a Magnum nominee in 2005 and was a full member by 2010. His early work on Haitian immigrants’ illegal journey to America—during which he and they sank in the Caribbean Sea in a handmade wooden boat named Believe in God—won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal. And last year, we produced an episode of Picture Perfect about him.

His subsequent book projects include Son, a series of photos capturing his wife and young child as his own father grew ill with cancer, and Capitolio, which documents unrest in Caracas during the time of Chavez.

I had a chat with him about how he sees himself and how that’s changed over his career.


Joe Biden descends from Air Force Two in Virginia, shot for New York Magazine.

VICE: You’ve vocally distanced yourself from photojournalism in the past. Why is that?
Christopher Anderson: 
There are photojournalists in Magnum, but I don’t see it as a photojournalist agency. It’s more founded in documentary photography. If I were to use a term for myself, I feel I’d fit more closely in the bracket of documentary photography than photojournalism. The term photojournalist tends to be loaded with meaning: specifically that one reports the news. I don’t see that as my function. Even when I was photographing things that were news topics, like conflicts, my function was not that of a news reporter, my function was to comment on what I saw happen that day and to offer a subjective point of view. In my role, I was commenting on what was happening, but also trying to communicate what it felt like to be there when it was happening.

So you wanted to capture images that were more emotional and personal?
Exactly. But I would go further and say that I not just wanted to do that, that is in fact what I did do. I had no pretence of objectivity. I was photographing, giving my opinion, and I wanted you to know that I was giving my opinion.

Did your unconventional approach make it initially more difficult to sell your photos, or was it beneficial from the start?
Well, I don’t think I was going ‘round articulating that to editors, saying, “No, I won’t work for you unless you understand that what I do is subjective.” With the agency I was with before, it didn’t make a difference, as I was already sort of working for “journalistic magazines,” and I worked a lot for the New York Times Magazine. The kind of stories that I would do, even ones from conflict zones, would be longer and more in depth in their approach to what was happening there, trying to put what was happening in a more human, intimate context rather than the headlines of the day. But to be honest, the marketable advantage never crossed my mind at the time. I was just intent on trying to do what I did in the way I wanted to with as much integrity as possible.

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Martine Franck, an esteemed documentary and portrait photographer and second wife of Henri Cartier-Bresson, died of cancer in Paris on Aug. 16 at the age of 74. A member of Magnum Photos for more 32 years, Franck was a co-founder and president of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation.

“Martine was one classic Magnum photographer we could all agree with,” said photographer Elliott Erwitt. “Talented, charming, wise, modest and generous, she set a standard of class not often found in our profession. She will be profoundly missed.”

Born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1938, Franck studied art history at the University of Madrid and at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. In 1963, she began her photographic career at Time-Life in Paris, assisting photographers Eliot Elisofan and Gjon Mili. Although somewhat reserved with her camera at first, she quickly blossomed photographing the refined world of Parisian theater and fashion. A friend, stage director Ariane Mnouchkine, helped establish Franck as the official photographer of the Théâtre du Soleil in 1964—a position she held for the next 48 years.

As her career grew, Franck pursued a wide range of photographic stories, from documentary reportage in Nepal and Tibet to gentle and evocative portraits of Paris’s creative class. Her portfolio of the cultural elite includes photographic peers Bill Brandt and Sarah Moon as well as artist Diego Giacometti and philosopher Michel Foucault, among others. In 1983, she became a full member of Magnum Photos, one of a small number of female members at the legendary photographic agency. Balancing her time between a variety of stories, her work reflects an innate sensitivity to stories of humanity.

In a piece published in the Guardian in 2006 about her time photographing a Buddhist monastery in Nepal, Franck chose to highlight a photo (slide #2 above) of an elder monk sitting with a young apprentice.

“I was there for an hour, just sitting quietly in a corner, observing,” she explained. “The picture is somehow a symbol of peace, and of young people getting on with old people. Although I didn’t think that at the time—in the moment, it’s just instinctive. Afterwards, maybe, you realize what the photograph means.”

Her humanitarian work paired her with numerous social humanitarian organizations and was heralded for the truths it revealed. But her name was also often associated with Henri Cartier-Bresson.

In an interview on Charlie Rose, Franck recalled her first time meeting her future husband in 1965.

“His opening line was ‘Martine, I want to come and see your contact sheets,’” she recalled. They married in 1970.

Throughout her career, Franck served as a powerful advocate, both for Magnum and for the continued legacy of her husband. Serving as the president and co-founder of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Franck ensured that the spirit of his work survived.

Franck continued to work on her own photography, participating in group projects with Magnum, including “Georgian Spring.” As recently as this April, Franck’s expansive collection of portraits were exhibited in Paris at the Galerie Claude Bernard.

Magnum photographer and President Alex Majoli described Franck as a dear friend and a steady foundation within the photo agency. “Magnum has lost a point of reference, a lighthouse, and one our most influential and beloved members with her death,” he said in a statement released by Magnum over the weekend.

She is survived by her daughter, Melanie.

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Back in 2008, photographer Larry Towell’s agency, Magnum Photos, had contacted him about a project in Afghanistan that would require him to embed with the British military. Towell, having just completed work in Palestine, decided that he didn’t want to see Afghanistan for the first time with an embed, and instead set forth to see the country on his own. “It was important for me to learn more about the history of Afghanistan to get some perspective about what’s going on today and see if I even had anything to say,” says Towell, who was later awarded a Magnum Emergency Fund to aid his work. From 2008 to 2011, Towell traveled to Afghanistan five times, documenting in both photographs and videos the various social issues that plague its citizens, from drug addiction and poverty to the prevalence of landmines, many of which still remain from the Soviet occupation of the country during the 1980s.

Larry Towell—Magnum

Larry Towell, Afghanistan: Military

Through five harrowing videos (three of which are shown here), Towell gives viewers a comprehensive look at life for citizens inside conflict-riddled Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the photographs from this project are on display for the first time in Larry Towell: Danger and Aftermath at the Museum London in Southwestern Ontario through April 1. “I wanted to look more at the social problems before I looked at what was going on militarily,” the photographer says. “The victims of the war weren’t just people who were wounded. They were the people living in the rural areas who were forced into the cities without means.”

Larry Towell—Magnum

Larry Towell, Afghanistan: Amputees

Towell is now at work with Aperture to turn his pictures into a book by spring 2013. The poignant publication date means Towell’s recent documentation of the country will be on display just as U.S. forces are expected to end their combat role in Afghanistan.

Larry Towell is a Candian photographer represented by Magnum Photos. Larry Towell: Danger and Aftermath is on display through April 1 at the Museum London in Southwestern Ontario. All images, video and sound ©Larry Towell—Magnum.

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In May 2011, Magnum photographers Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Paolo Pellegrin, Alec Soth and Mikhael Subotzky, as well as writer Ginger Strand, set out from Austin, Texas in an RV. Two weeks and 1750 miles later, they arrived in Oakland, Calif.

Together, they documented their experience, the result of which is a new, limited edition book that launches this week. Postcards from America is a collection of objects: a book, five bumper stickers, a newspaper, two fold-outs, three cards, a poster and five zines, all in a signed and numbered box.

“We knew each other through Magnum, obviously, but we’d never actually tried to work together,” says Soth. “We wanted to see what that would be like, to see if we could create a kind of polyphonic sound. Hopefully the box book achieves that. It also gave us an opportunity to push each other creatively and conceptually, which I think has carried over into our individual work.”

The book does not attempt to document the American Southwest in a traditional sense. Instead, it uses the prototypically western experience of a road trip as an entry point into depicting the region. “Some of us are used to working only on immersive, multiyear projects,” says Subotzky. “Obviously this was very different. Doing it collectively brought a great energy and looseness to the work. The box, with all its moving and arrangeable pieces, really reflects that and reflects what we found on the road—a divided and often contradictory society, unsure about its identity and future.”

The Postcards from America box book, in a signed edition of 500, is available exclusively at www.postcards.magnumphotos.com 

The second Postcards from America project is scheduled to begin this April in Rochester, New York.

To read more about the project background on Lightbox click here. To read a dispatch from the project click here.

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In the winter of 1955, Parisian high society buzzed in anticipation of a dance on ice to be performed by members of the royal houses of Europe. Inge Morath, 32 at the time, and a newly minted member of the Magnum photo agency, was assigned to cover the charity event, going behind the scenes to document the glamorous participants as they rehearsed for the gala evening. She shot 14 rolls in total, and the material was processed and distributed through the Magnum network, but never found its way into print.

In those days, the agency routinely distributed material shot on spec to a roster of sub-agents and publications, with the understanding that the prints would be returned. In many cases, that never happened; the prints remained in far-away files or gathered dust on the shelves of the recipients. Now, in an effort to reclaim the work, the Magnum Foundation, in partnership with the art magazine Esopus, has initiated a project to seek out that lost material and other works made by its photographers that never found its way into public view. Called “Analog Recovery,” the project is being edited by John Jacob, who is also the director of Morath’s estate. The goal, Jacob says, is to reintroduce a portfolio by a Magnum photographer twice a year. Morath’s Bal d’Hiver, is the first in the series.

Jacob had come across the Bal d’Hiver photos while doing research for another project about Magnum and the world of fashion. To assemble the piece, he used the marks that Morath herself had left on the contact sheets. “She really knew what she was doing with her editing,” he says. “I rarely needed to go beyond what she had selected.” How fitting, then, for the Esopus magazine feature on the photos to honor her astute eye—the issue includes a detachable reproduction of one of the 14 contact sheets, with Morath’s marks still visible.

A launch party for the issue, along with a small exhibit of the photographs will be held on Nov. 2 at Esopus Space in New York at 6 p.m. Select photos from the project will also be sold as prints by the online gallery 20×200, with proceeds benefitting the Magnum Foundation.

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In October 2010 I completed the last leg of my work in Fresno, California. California has one of the highest rates of foreclosure in the United Sates and 21.7 percent of all the riskiest loans. Here, the housing prices peaked in early 2005 and started to decline in 2006.

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Magnum and Leica are collaborating to draw on their shared legacy: looking back to the iconic stories this relationship has produced and commissioning new work from the current generation of Magnum photographers.

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