Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2014
Steven Hoelscher, ed. Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World Harry Ransom Center Photography Series.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. 352 pp.; 275 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780292748439)

In December 2009, the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) at the University of Texas at Austin acquired a remarkable research collection: the contents of the Magnum New York photo library. The collection, initially purchased by computer manufacturer Michael Dell and his hedge fund MSD Capital, L.P., and then donated in full to the HRC in September 2013, consists of over 200,000 press photographs, many of which are now considered icons of the twentieth century. The photographs were taken by individuals associated with the preeminent international photography agency Magnum Photos, founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour to give photographers greater autonomy and control outside of the confines of magazine journalism. Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World is the first book-length project to consider the HRC collection in its entirety. Edited by Steven Hoelscher, who serves as academic curator of photography at the HRC, the volume contains seven essays that “share,” as Hoelscher explains in his introduction, “a concern for historical and cultural context that is so often missing when photographs are disconnected from their original settings” (12).

Given the ubiquity of photography, reconstructing the sociohistorical context in which an image has been used and circulated can often be a challenging, even daunting, task. What makes the Magnum photo archive so remarkable is that much of this context is documented on the versos of the black-and-white press photographs now housed at the HRC. “The information represented by the image on one side of the object,” explains Alison Nordström in the volume’s opening essay, “is supported, affirmed, limited, defined, and made retrievable by the labels, key words, captions, numbers, rubber stamps, instructions, and other classifying material accumulated on the object’s back, establishing over time a unique history of a unique trajectory” (22). Here Nordström calls attention not only to what the Magnum photographs depict but also to their value as objects. In other words, building upon the important body of scholarship on photography’s materiality collected by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart in their anthology, Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images (London: Routledge, 2004), Nordström argues for the impossibility of separating the uses and meanings of the Magnum photographs from their physicality as objects.

With the recent transition to the digital age, picture agencies like Magnum now organize, distribute, and sell their images in nonmaterial form. This means that while the paper prints that once made up the Magnum photo library are now obsolete, their materiality tells a great deal about how images managed by the famous photo agency came to acquire meaning as they moved from film to contact sheet to 8” x 10” press print sent out to clients as part of a packaged story or “distro” that might eventually be published in a newspaper or magazine. Nordström’s excellent essay detailing how the meanings of these photographs have shifted as they moved from being part of a “library” used in the business of selling images to residing as objects of study in an “archive” should be required reading for anyone who wants to think more critically about the changing systems of interpretation under which Magnum Photos and photo archives more generally have operated as well as constructed understandings of the world.

Since the black-and-white press photographs in the Magnum photo library were produced exclusively as source material to facilitate the sale and distribution of images to clients, foregrounding their objectness is paramount. This is wonderfully visualized in Nordström’s essay through an informative full-page illustration of an Eve Arnold press print that includes detailed description notes deciphering what each of the stamps, labels, terms, and numbers on the verso represent. In his introduction, Hoelscher also contends that the themes selected for Reading Magnum were “generated by a close reading of the archive” (12). But only Nordström explores how their chosen subject matter intersects with the classification system used by Magnum to organize their New York photo library—an arrangement intentionally preserved in the archive’s new location at the HRC. Indeed, the six additional essays in the volume suggest that the contents of the “dog-eared, labeled, and written-upon prints” are more important than their materiality (17).

Written by Barbie Zelizer, Frank H. Goodyear, Hoelscher, Erika Doss, Robert Hariman, and Liam Kennedy, these essays explore a collection of themes: war and conflict, portraiture, geography, cultural life, social relations, and globalization. To introduce each essay and theme, Hoelscher appends what he calls “Notes from the Archive.” Consisting of a short description as well as four to six images, each set of “notes” briefly follows the material history of a single Magnum photograph from its “annotated press print to distribution to eventual publication” (13). Like Nordström’s essay, these “notes” provide invaluable information for scholars interested in exploring how the materiality of the Magnum press photographs shape and are shaped by their social and cultural meanings.

Given the immense value that materiality holds for more fully understanding the complex ways in which Magnum’s press photographs were actually made, marketed, sold, and used, it is curious that the six thematic essays themselves take up this objectness only cursorily, if at all. Many of them include superb formal readings that carefully consider how the visual construction of selected images contributes to their meanings. But without additional contextual information to ground these visual analyses, the interpretations speak mostly through generalities. A case in point is Zelizer’s essay in which she considers a set of interconnected visual tropes that repeatedly appear in Magnum photographs of war and conflict. As part of her discussion, she focuses on images of victims, including a photograph that Susan Meiselas took in 1981 of decomposed human remains from the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. According to Zelizer, Meiselas’s photograph “holds back nothing, its gruesome details leaving no doubt as to the brutality that occurred” (56). In making this statement, Zelizer alludes to photography’s unique ability to bear witness to atrocity. This assumed testimonial power is of course one of the hallmarks of the photography of suffering, but without an investigation into the actual circulation and uses of Meiselas’s photograph, this potential remains speculative at best. And so although Zelizer writes that news coverage of the El Mozote massacre appeared in January 1982, she never clarifies if this image was circulated in the print media or the extent to which the Reagan administration’s denial of this massacre shaped how the American public understood it at the time. Hariman’s essay on social relations suffers from a similar problem. Though he offers a wonderful reading about the resilience of the human encounter in Cornell Capa’s photograph of two men playing chess in Attica, his interpretation relies entirely on what the image depicts and not on how its meaning was constructed through its commission and publication by the New York State Special Commission on Attica, which was itself created to investigate the 1971 prison riot that left forty-three people dead and received widespread coverage in the local, state, and national press.

Doss addresses the complicated issue of commissions more explicitly in her essay on cultural life. In this chapter, she explores, among other things, how Magnum photographers sought to “challenge . . . the cultural authority of the big picture magazines” while at the same time recognizing their “dependen[ce] on that authority” (200). As part of her discussion, Doss briefly examines some of the different ways that Magnum photographers attempted to protect their artistic autonomy through more institutional means such as the “distro” system that included appending specific texts and captions to the packaged press prints as well as more subversive ones, including camera angle and setting. Doss might have pushed her analysis even further by making more direct links to the ways in which the archive itself promotes Magnum’s independence. For instance, as Nordström notes in her essay, archives are valuable for both what they include and exclude. In the case of the Magnum archive, one such absence is “the corporate report work that may have stabilized Magnum financially in the 1960s and 1970s” (27). The larger implications of this as well as other commission-based exclusions would have been a fruitful avenue of exploration.

Individual essays reveal other missed opportunities. Goodyear’s essay on portraiture, for example, would have been an apt place to explore how the category of personalities informed Magnum’s organization and selling of their collection. Likewise, Hoelscher’s essay on geography would have been greatly enriched by a consideration of how this term was employed as a categorizing structure within Magnum’s photo library. Finally, Kennedy offers a fascinating discussion in his essay of the ways in which “the Magnum archive is an archive of globalization,” by which he means “it is not only a set of documents representing processes of globalization, but a set of representations formed and marked by those processes” (294). And yet he, like other authors in Reading Magnum, never fully interrogates the archival ramifications of this statement and instead falls back on a discussion of pictorial content.

As the digital turn supplants the value once held by the Magnum archive’s paper prints, it is imperative, as Nordström points out, “to preserve these objects and the entity they constitute as well as the images they bear” (33). Hopefully future authors will heed her advice.

Erina Duganne
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Texas State University