The Story of the Samurai Shooters

Magnum photographers bickered, obsessed, and captured the images of a half-century.

Opening Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History brought an

instant shiver of recognition to this former newsman, whose own career spanned the same momentous period. Just out of the University of Westminster and the Bloomsbury Schools of Photography, I lucked into a photographer's job on a major London weekly that set the pattern of my professional life. Within a decade, I would work with Magnum Photos co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs had so profoundly affected my choice of career, and as a Life correspondent, would cover several of the same stories with the Magnum staffers whose pictures and recollections make up the substance of this book. Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History

by Russell Miller (Grove, $27) 1968: Magnum Throughout the World

edited by Eric Hobsbawm (DAP, $49.95) It was an era in which photographers, using recently developed lightweight cameras, assiduously recorded everything from combat and disasters to the joy and melancholy of life's daily round. In the process they raised photojournalism to another dimension. Magnum's aggressive men and women did this splendidly, with the enormous courage and patience such assignments required. Founded in 1947 as a member-owned cooperative agency by a group including Hungarian Robert Capa, Frenchman Cartier-Bresson, Polish-born David Seymour, and Englishman George Rodger (all of whose stories are related in this book), Magnum hired itself out to shoot for international publications such as Life, Look, The New York Times, and almost paradoxically, the Ladies Home Journal—while retaining the copyright on its own material and the ability to resell it worldwide. As the agency grew, members working from regional offices in New York, London, Paris, and later in Tokyo covered news stories as they broke, selling their takes to the highest bidder, or shot photographic essays for media clients on assignment. In those days before television field camera crews, video news depended on still shots provided by service agencies. What Magnum provided was an exceptionally talented and diverse band of photographic artists and journalists who could shoot anything anywhere at any time, and whose essential raison d'etre was complete freedom from the concerns and direction of distant editors—often a compromising consideration for magazine and newspaper staffers in the field. I vividly remember almost coming to blows with a Life photographer on a shuddering heap of earthquake rubble in Iran because he refused to try for the cover New York had specifically requested. There wasn't a cover worth shooting, he bellowed, and he was damned if he was going to bother for the sake of "goddamned editors who aren't even here." (He finally bothered, and his picture made the cover.) Magnum photographers won instant notoriety wherever their pictures ran. Magazine staffers were usually credited on the contents page or the masthead of a single magazine, while Magnum's photos and bylines ran worldwide. The same picture might run in Der Spiegel in Berlin, Le Monde in Paris, and in that week's issue of Life. Celebrity status inevitably produced a breed of extraordinarily self-assured individualists with the guts required to stick their heads above the parapet and an ability to take advantage of others with no qualms whatsoever, a characteristic embodied by founder Bob Capa. Long before his gripping picture of a dying Spanish loyalist soldier made him famous, Capa was already a legend in his own mind. As Russell Miller relates in remarkable detail, Magnum staffers parlayed this attitude to great advantage, while a few, like the ill-fated W. Eugene Smith, carried it to the point of madness. (Late in his career Smith, a brilliant photographer, became obsessed with an enormous and notoriously unrunnable photo essay about Pittsburgh. He became so fanatic about the project that editors eventually stopped working with him.) Not surprisingly, this same bumptious individualism manifested itself in the fierce infighting that took place within Magnum's bureaus. Their infamous annual meetings regularly ended up in bitter displays of temperament, but Magnum's men and women remained a loyal though disparate bunch. Cartier-Bresson, the sole survivor of the founding group, once defined Magnum loftily as a family embracing "a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world . . . and a desire to transcribe it visually." Longtime member Elliott Erwin made no bones about his interpretation of the membership. "Sure we're a family," he said. "That's why we tear each other's throats out." This is a book for the reader who laments the passing of the still image as the definitive root of visual journalism and the inevitable waning of these samurai shooters who often seemed larger than life itself. Miller provides an unfiltered close-up of them at their professional peak, before their work was enfeebled by television's ability to bring dramatic pictures into the living space with sound, movement, and immediacy. What is noticeably absent from the book are portraits of Magnum's cast of characters, whose individual stories pique the reader's curiosity enough to want to identify with them, the better perhaps to understand them, along with a far better representation of the images that convey the lasting power of their now-diminishing craft. Sadly, 1968: Magnum Throughout the World also fails to provide this fuller, wider measure of their journalistic skills. It is a dark and somber book, presenting 1968 as a year almost entirely without gaiety of any kind, at least wherever Magnum's photographers happened to be. Wars, death, and civil strife form the bulk of its content. But the world back then was not entirely bereft of levity, even in a year darkened by the Tet Offensive in Saigon, student riots in Paris, London, Mexico City, and Tokyo, Soviet bloc tanks in Prague, and the killings of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The message the book delivers is that there was no end to conflict and tragedy in 1968—and certainly the photographic coverage by Magnum staffers supports this thesis. But the book's creators fail to recognize that with the exception of continued fighting in Vietnam, these outbursts were not ongoing without cease but sporadic pockets—and in the downtime, life went on as life always does. Sooner or later the tanks pulled back, police lines vanished, and rioters dispersed, went home, sat in cafes, joked, chatted, and made love, all with much more frequency than they plotted or participated in protests. Yet the lighter side of 1968 appears only sporadically in these pages. The pictures, to be sure, are indelible, but their impact here is diminished by theme repetition. All riots begin to look the same wherever they take place—the ominous gatherings, the anger, the recklessness of the few who cannot contain it, and the beatings, shootings, and deaths that inevitably follow. My own 1968 was very different from the one portrayed here. I was on the same planet but a half-world away in Australia, where disasters and confrontations were few, and the problems were private, personal and far removed from the conflicts and tragedies in other, crowded continents. That 1968 was filled with its own joys and tragedies—the coronation of the King of Tonga, a ferry capsizing and 50 people drowning between two New Zealand islands—that were vastly removed from the bloodshed and horror depicted in these pages. 1968 was bigger and far broader in its span than the year depicted here, which is perhaps what results when commercial considerations collide with art. The book was apparently designed to support an exhibition of the work of Magnum photographers, but the accompanying text does little to amplify the concept, and much of the visual drama is lost in the awful sameness of street demonstrations,

riots, and assorted mayhem. A broader approach, devoting more space to other elements that arose during that significant year, would have done far more justice to the interpretive skills of Magnum's witnesses to history. As for conflict, just about everything that needs to be said about being there is stated in the 27 pages of superlative pictures by Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, who, clambering over tanks with a couple of cheap cameras slung around his neck, detailed the invasion of Prague from the viewpoint of citizens who were there on the street with him. That essay alone is the archive of the event that then becomes its official history. Even more would have been accomplished if selected illustrations from this book had been combined with the forthright text of Russell Miller in one definitive volume. Such a book would show the reader just what Magnum Photos is all about in an era when television coverage bounces off a satellite and gets sifted through a phalanx of studio editors, leaving one longing for the subtlety of personal reportage, the individual eye, and that elusive, decisive frozen moment. Seattle writer Ken Gouldthorpe worked as a Life magazine correspondent and bureau chief from the 1950s to the early 1970s.

 
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