fb-pixel Skip to main content

NEW YORK — The Psalmist allows threescore and 10 as the years for a human life. So when a person turns 70, that’s an occasion. Institutions seem to prefer three-quarter intervals. Seventy just starts the countdown to 75. Yet it makes sense that Magnum Photos, a very distinguished institution indeed, would find its 70th birthday observed. The greatness of Magnum, the most celebrated name in the history of photojournalism, has always been inseparable from that of Magnum’s photographers. The human element, both behind the camera and in front of it, has been the essence of Magnum.

The photographers who’ve made up the collective include a pair of the most famous of the last century, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa (two of Magnum’s five founders), and several of the finest of that century and this one: W. Eugene Smith, Elliott Erwitt, Eve Arnold, Burt Glinn, the list goes on. All have work in “Magnum Manifesto,” which runs at the International Center of Photography through Sept. 3.

Advertisement



The ICP has always had a special relationship with Magnum. Its founder, Cornell Capa, was Robert’s brother and himself a Magnum photographer. So there’s a family-reunion feel to “Magnum Manifesto,” and the reunion is big. Seventy-six photographers have work here, with more than 250 images hanging on the walls and more than 300 projected as slides.

There are also more than 130 documents, many being the text of photo essays, a format Magnum helped pioneer. Among those on display are Leonard Freed’s “Black in White America,” Paul Fusco’s “RFK Funeral Train,” Josef Koudelka’s “Gypsies,” Danny Lyon on the Texas penal system, Susan Meiselas’s “Carnival Strippers,” and Peter Marlow on “plane spotters” in pursuit of the soon-to-be-decommissioned Concorde. That list gives some sense of the phenomenal range that soon became a Magnum hallmark.

Paul Fusco’s “RFK Funeral Train.”
Paul Fusco’s “RFK Funeral Train.”Magnum Photos

The show starts with the most important document, if also the least prepossessing: Magnum’s incorporation certificate with the state of New York. It actually makes for fascinating reading. The five founders — the other three were George Rodger, David (Chim) Seymour, and William Vandivert — wanted to keep their options open. Or their lawyers wanted them to. Magnum would practice “photography of whatsoever kind, nature or description.” The collective reserved the right to manufacture cameras and other photography equipment, also to produce films, plays, and musicals. Clearly, the founders had a sense of what is now called synergy.

Advertisement



Nowhere, though, does the certificate mention the origin of the new entity’s name: yes, Magnum, as in champagne size. A sense of glamour and style — an elan — was meant to be a given.

There was also a sense of social responsibility. Magnum photographers would be as interested in theme and issue as event and personality. That’s not to say the latter were shortchanged. The show includes, for example, Mark Power’s photographs of the fall of the Berlin Wall or a 1978 Martine Franck portrait of the French thinker Michel Foucault that’s a knockout.

This interest in subjects beyond the headlines was increasingly a matter of necessity as well as principle. Photojournalism, ruler of the visual-information roost during much of the middle third of the 20th century, would be superseded by television (superseded, in turn, by the Web). One of Harry Gruyaert 1972 “TV Shots,” showing nothing grander than a blurry color television screen, makes the point — and a 2015 Thomas Dworzak photograph of a smartphone whose screen shows the last shot Robert Capa exposed before his death really makes the point.

Advertisement



The one constant in “Magnum Manifesto” is the skill of the photographers. Almost as prominent are their ingenuity and daring. Those elements are to be expected — if by no means taken for granted. What’s not expected is a thread that runs throughout the show, the ever-growing spread of mediation.

A photograph is itself a form of mediation, of course: mediating, whether as print or digital image, between a specific instant in time and a viewer of that image. But as the impact of media on the world has widened and deepened, so has the impact on other media. This isn’t exactly news — Bond, James Bond, meet someone else with a license to kill, McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan — but to see it in action, visually, rather than pontificated on, theoretically, brings home the lesson keenly.

Martin Parr’s "St. Peter's Square, 2005."
Martin Parr’s "St. Peter's Square, 2005." Magnum Photos

Thomas Hoepker’s 1991 photograph of a mutilated official portrait of East German leader Erich Honecker says as much about the fall of the Berlin Wall as Power’s photographs do. All honor to Power, it might even say more. The most prominent thing in Martin Parr’s 2005 photograph of St. Peter’s Square isn’t the pope or Bernini’s architecture or anyone in the crowd. It’s a Sony digital camera. Point taken. The fact that the camera’s housing happens to be a particularly nifty shade of cobalt makes the taking of the point all the more memorable.

Advertisement



What may be the most impressive thing about “Magnum Manifesto” is its charting of how good these photographers have been at making inner life visible — at rendering the private public — in ways that enlarge but do not intrude.

Chris Steele-Perkins’s “Young Teddy Boys in Southend, England, 1976” manages to be both a window on a subculture and a character study (hairstyle study, too). Cristina García Rodero’s view of two hooded and robed Spanish children during Holy Week shows an arresting, mysterious exterior while indicating an interior life that lends itself to endless speculation. Alec Soth, following Americans who have taken themselves off the grid, shows a yellow school bus in the middle of nowhere under threatening skies. It’s a startling tableau. Look more closely, and the tableau grows that much more startling. A horse appears to be nuzzling the school bus.

Alec Soth’s "USA, 2008."
Alec Soth’s "USA, 2008."Magnum Photos

There are complaints to register. Where are Bruce Davidson, James Nachtwey, Mary Ellen Mark? Not every Magnum photographer is here, but so many (happily) are, why leave out those three? The show concludes with a seven-minute presentation of slides and quotes from Magnum photographers. The best remark comes from Lee Jones: “Magnum is, and should fight to remain, an anachronism.” The show is very nice, but accompanying it with a recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” is, as the French would say, de trop.

Magnum projects haven’t been limited to journalism and books. A display notes the contributions of Magnum photographers to everything from corporate reports to . . . “Where’s Boston?” Anyone over 50 who grew up around here will remember what a big deal that was. A multimedia presentation in observance of the Bicentennial, it ran for several years at the Prudential Center. Cambridge Seven Associates put it together, with photographs coming from Magnum photographer Constantine Manos. Champagne, Berlin, the Vatican, all well and good, but don’t forget Boylston Street. Magnum got around.

Advertisement



MAGNUM MANIFESTO

At International Center of Photography, 250 Bowery, New York, through Sept. 3. 212-857-0000, www.icp.org


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.