By Steven Hoelscher
Steven Hoelscher, editor of Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World, will discuss the book at The Contemporary Austin tonight in an event hosted by Austin Center for Photography, University of Texas Press, and The Contemporary.
The arrival in December 2009 of some 200,000 press prints from Magnum Photos’s New York bureau represented a remarkable opportunity for scholarship—and a substantial challenge. Although Magnum’s photographers had received considerable individual attention and lavish coffee table books have reproduced their iconic images, no scholarly work to date had assessed the photo agency’s visual archive. Important retrospectives have been published, but their textual brevity and the fact that the photo agency itself produced them suggested the opportunity for a critical, independent study.
Thus, the time seemed ripe to dig into the collection, to see what’s there, and to consider how the photographs fit into a larger cultural history. Here, of course, is where the challenge arises. How to approach the photo collection? What sort of organizational frameworks would seem to be most appropriate? What should the resulting publication look like? I spent roughly six months combing through the 1,300 archival boxes to find answers to these questions.
During this preliminary research, several things occurred to me. First, while nearly limitless possibilities of scholarly frameworks existed, a half dozen themes kept emerging as I studied the contents of the archival boxes. War and conflict, of course, was important, but so too was portraiture and geography. What’s more, cultural life, social relations, and globalization stood out as recurring themes.
Second, it became immediately evident that three years would not be nearly long enough for me alone to take on such a project, and it was always my intention for the volume to be published in conjunction with the current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, which was curated by Jessica S. McDonald and Roy Flukinger. The book would necessarily be one of collaboration. Here, I was fortunate to be joined by seven distinguished scholars for this project. They are trained in a range of academic fields—art history, journalism, literature, cultural history, geography, cultural studies, communications, and visual studies—for the simple reason that no one perspective can adequately encompass the Magnum archive’s reaches. Each contributor spent considerable time with the collection at the Ransom Center, and each brings his or her unique point of view to the collection’s materials.
What each chapter shares is a concern for historical and cultural context that is so often missing when photographs are disconnected from their original settings.
Finally, I wanted the book to reflect the dual nature of photographs: that they were both physical objects and the bearers of compelling imagery. With this in mind, two sets of works—bookends, if you will—surround each chapter. I included a set of “Notes form the Archive,” which emphasizes the materiality of the photograph and traces its trajectory, from annotated press prints to distribution to eventual publication. A “Portfolio” then follows each chapter, illustrating something of the depth and range of the images carried by a photograph.
Putting this book together has been a real labor of intellectual love. The deeper I dug into the Magnum Photos collection, the more impressed I was by the depth, range, and artistry of the contents. It’s my hope that Reading Magnum reflects something of the collection’s power.