In the preface of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photobook, “The Decisive Moment”, published in 1952 (titled Images a la Sauvette for the French edition) a quote by Cardinal de Retz reads:
“There is nothing in the world that does not have a decisive moment.”
While the quote inevitably lends itself to describing photography and all its underlying elements, Cartier-Bresson was also part of one of the most decisive moments in its history. In 1947, four photographers, David “Chim” Seymour, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger, formed a photography-based artist collective whose contributions continue to resonate to date. The deal was famously sealed over a toast from a magnum of champagne in the MoMA, NYC.
Seventy-years and 92 photographers later, it was Los Bandidos’ pleasure to attend a handful of events in NYC to commemorate Magnum’s 70th Anniversary bash. Magnum also hosted public events in Paris, London and Asia for its 70th Birthday party, as they continued to lend their commitment to imagery, storytelling and integrity to the craft of photography.
MAGNUM PHOTOS NOW - PHOTOBOOKS: HISTORY, FUTURE, FORM
(INTERNATIONAL CENTER OF PHOTOGRAPHY X MAGNUM PHOTOS 70)
Los Bandidos attended “Magnum Photos Now - Photobooks: History, Future, Form” graciously hosted by the International Center of Photography (ICP) and Magnum Photos on 21 June 2017 in New York City. I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that the daylong symposium left me partially starstruck; the list of panelists, moderators and attendees are considered some of the most legendary in the field of photography. However, my own self-consciousness quickly dissipated as I became completely mesmerised by the magnitude of knowledge and the stimulating dialogue that I was engaging in at the behest of some real modern day masters.
While it would be nearly impossible for me to transcribe all of my “chicken scratch” notes, and in the interest of brevity, the following is a synopsis of some meaningful takeaways from the day’s events. For many photographers, the ultimate goal is having a photobook published as it provides tangibility to their work. The medium means that a body of work can ultimately travel the world. As such, the insight provided by this seminar was equally as intriguing as it was practical.
THE MAGNUM FOUNDERS’ FIRST BOOKS
Although perhaps the topic would seem a bit scholarly, the discussion, moderated by Kristen Lubben, former longtime ICP curator and current Executive Director at Magnum Foundation, was hardly boring; in large part to the heavy-hitting cast: Berlin-born Inge Bondi, who joined the NYC office of Magnum in 1950, Cynthia Young, curator of the Capa-archive at ICP and Jinx Rodger, wife of Magnum-founder George Rodger and fellow photojournalist/travel partner who joined Magnum’s Paris office in 1950. Topping off the panel was the impromptu addition of Marco Bischof, son of Werner Bischof, famed Swiss photographer and photojournalist who joined Magnum in 1949. Talk about what many photo fans would consider the opportunity of a lifetime.
On a curatorial level, the talk opened up with a nod to Capa’s 1938 photobook “Death In the Making”, which documented the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Afterwards, we were given an overview of Capa’s 5 photobooks created over the course of a 12-year period. I think that the biggest takeaway is in contextualizing the importance of the photobook in the history of photography by using it as a vehicle to express the point-of-view of the photographer outside of that otherwise guided by newspapers or magazine publications; but in this case also before the advent of television.
Above all, I was most touched by the personal anecdotes offered by the panel. For instance, Inge Bondi, who spent 25-years working at Magnum, shared that she would often amuse herself by guessing who the particular photographer of an image was when she received photos to file back at the NY-office. Or, finding yourself vicariously living through Jinx Rodger; as her love to travel led to true love with her husband George Rodger, leading them to places as untraversed as West Africa, and with work as fascinating and true to the craft as Les Village des Noubas.
PHOTOBOOKS ON SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONFLICTS
Moderated by Fred Ritchen, Dean of the ICP School, the panel, which included Bruce Davidson, Susan Meiselas and Larry Towell probably requires little introduction.
Bruce Davidson walked the audience through many of his iconic images related both to civil rights themes and his revered East 100th Street series. His presentation was really personal and actually made me feel even more convicted about my fascination with photography (social/street in particular). In discussing his image from the 1963 Birmingham Riots, “Birmingham, Alabama 1963”, he discussed the importance of “being close” as the photographer. He laughed that he supposed that he’d be the next to be arrested after his subject, and that he took the snapshot and “ran like hell.” As for his piece from the East 100th Street series that depicts a young tenement girl with a bird in a cage, he was proud to report that the subject, who is currently an economist, called him about the print. To call the personal presentation of his work moving would be an understatement.
Susan Meiselas, well known for her 1978-79 series documenting the rebellion and subsequent human rights abuses in Nicaragua, described the importance of the photobook as “a home for all of the work from a certain period.” In addition, by her having published multilingual books, it made me think about the raw power of photography, in and of itself, representing a universal language. She also discussed new avenues for the photobook to evolve in conjunction with new forms of technology such as the “Look & Listen App”, which allowed her to create and customize clips of film about the subjects in her work.
Larry Towell, hard to miss in suspenders and a straw hat, certainly exudes a confidence and intelligence you’d hope to see in any photographer; most especially one that has spent countless hours producing his work in conflict zones like Afghanistan and most recently, Standing Rock. My biggest takeaway from listening to Towell is that he really represents the notion of the photobook as an actual physical object. I was extremely impressed with his inclusion of actual artifacts as well as the two-step process which he used to create “Afghanistan” which involved handmade fiber prints, mounted to wood then written atop, that were then photographed by publisher Aperture in order to publish into book form.
All in all, the talk was extremely enlightening both with regard to the photobook from an aesthetic standpoint and for the incredible work and integrity put forth by the aforementioned photographers.
THE FUTURE OF PHOTOBOOKS
An unexpected flight delay precluded Alec Soth, who claimed via text to “know everything about the future of photobooks”, but the future of the discussion left no one hindered as Martin Parr, initially intended to be moderator, eased gently into role of panelist. And to be honest, apart from being one of the most well-renowned documentary photographers of his generation, who better to opine about the fate of the photobook than someone who has published 90 books and edited another 30? The panel also included Olivia Arthur, who began her foray into the photobook world in 2012 with her work Jeddah Diary and who currently co-helms Fishbar, a space for photo and publication of small run artist books, based in London. Last but not least, the discussion was joined by Lesley Martin, who is publisher of the book program at Aperture.
Parr referred to photography, as most engaged in the field would inevitably concur, as “the most exciting and democratic art form in the world.” However, he cautioned about thinking about the intention and purpose of creating these books so as to ensure that the photography “ghetto”, (he uses the term to describe the isolated, maybe even incestious nature of the photo community), is not merely suffering from its own self-aggrandizement. Everyone concurred that in an age of self-publishing or publishers demanding upfront fees from photographers for publication, it’s hard to argue that there is definitely some bad content out there; but that’s not to say the future is bleak.
In thinking about the photobook’s destiny and relevance, I couldn’t help but chuckle when Parr stated that he’ll be satisfied when his email auto-correct stopped changing “photobook” to “phonebook.” But in all seriousness, a major takeaway is the less robust activity and momentum in America versus our European counterparts. The panel cited the fervor and excitement surrounding fairs in Vienna, Bristol and Istanbul. The market is simply more developed there. In fact, as noted by Parr, there has yet to be any “History of the American Photobook” to be written. I’m not quite certain if that was a challenge, Mr. Parr, but if your Churchill was correct in saying that “history is written by the victors”, then here’s a reminder that the future is yet to be seen. Thanks for the ideas, inspiration and great talk; we’ll see what can be made of it.
© Los Bandidos del Arte, 2017. All texts & photos.