In 2012, Magnum introduced the sale of carefully reproduced contact sheets, offering “the opportunity to own a piece of Magnum’s history.” Indeed the digital turn in photography has forced the contact sheet, once an inextricable part of the photographic process, into obsolescence. Contact sheets, made when negatives are printed directly in contact with photographic paper, gave photographers a first look at their images and provided an important tool for editing. They also serve as artifacts, revealing how photographers approach a subject and work through time and space.
In a statement for the 2011 group publication Magnum: Contact Sheets, edited by International Center of Photography Curator Kristen Lubben, Jonas Bendiksen (b. 1977) marveled at his apparent hesitancy to “use up” too much film on any one scene. He recalled, “here we were in a cloud of white butterflies circling the remains of a Soyuz space rocket’s second stage, while local farm boys were gutting it for scrap metal. In total I shot less than half a roll of film. From the basic angle and composition from which I got the final selection, I clicked the shutter three times. That would not have happened today.”
In a stunning break with the black-and-white tradition of war photography, Susan Meiselas’s pulsating color images documenting the resistance against—and ultimate insurrection of—the brutal Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua were published in magazines and newspapers around the world. The revolutionaries quickly appropriated her photographs, adapting them for billboards, postage stamps, posters, and other imagery in support of their cause. In 1981 Meiselas (b. 1948) published her landmark book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979, combining photographs, historical documentation, and the personal testimony of Nicaraguans in an attempt to “overcome the sensational quality of fragmentary news reports by placing these events in the context of an evolving political process.” Retracing her steps, she returned to Nicaragua in 1991 for the film Pictures from a Revolution, and again in 2004 for the project Reframing History, an installation of 19 mural-size enlargements of her original photographs at the sites where they were first made, reigniting discussions about the past and reconsiderations of dreams once held of a better future.
For some Magnum photographers, picture stories published in magazines and newspapers represent just the first stage in the development of a much larger project. Some consider the book the ideal platform for extended visual narratives. Conceived independently and conducted outside the traditional framework of photojournalism, books have become a mainstay of documentary practice and an integral part of Magnum’s creative repertoire. Since the agency’s founding, Magnum Photos has published dozens of group projects, and its members have collectively produced over 1,000 volumes that together form both a history of Magnum and a history of the modern world.
Initially drawn to their traditional folk music, Josef Koudelka (b. 1939) photographed the nomadic Romani people—or Gypsies—of Czechoslovakia and Romania for nearly ten years. Most of the photographs in his seminal 1975 book Gypsies were taken in Eastern Slovakia between 1962 and 1968. In his sensitive study of these communities, Koudelka examined the remnants of a threatened way of life after government efforts to assimilate the Gypsies confined them to grim settlements lacking basic utilities or sanitation services. Something of a nomad himself and forced to seek political asylum after escaping the Czech Republic early in his career, Koudelka has often lived as his subjects do, fostering a shared experience and sense of respect that is discernible in his photographs.
In the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age,on view through January 5, this photograph is presented with four others from the series, as well as a copy of Koudelka’s book, one of several pioneering publications by Magnum photographers highlighted in the exhibition. There were few publishers for photography books during Magnum’s first decades, but when photography gradually gained widespread acceptance as an art form in the 1970s, publishing houses began to embrace the medium. Photographers aspiring to use the book form to give a more sophisticated account of world events and personal journeys now had more models to guide them. These books employed complex sequencing and innovative combinations of images and text; they displayed a nuanced understanding of layout and design and a standard of printing quality not previously associated with works of reportage.
Robert Capa (1913–1954), proclaimed “The Greatest War Photographer in the World” by the Picture Post in 1938, famously created some of the only surviving photographs of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in 1944. When his rolls of film arrived for development at the Life magazine office in London,a darkroom assistant was told to rush the processing to get the photographs to New York for publication in the next issue. The assistant placed the newly developed film in a drying cabinet on high heat, melting the emulsion on three of the four rolls. Luckily, ten images from the fourth roll were not entirely destroyed and appeared only “slightly out of focus,” the title Capa would cleverly give to his memoir in 1947. The blurred photographs became known for their sense of drama and immediacy, as Life’s story captions falsely attributed the blur to Capa’s trembling hands.
In the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on view through January 5, this photograph is presented in a way that shows both the front and back of the print. Visitors are able to see the stamps, inscriptions, reference numbers, and notes that trace the trajectory of this individual press print, one of nearly 200,000 recently donated to the Ransom Center. Also on view are four additional photographs from the larger group that constituted Capa’s D-Day picture story, facsimile versions of his handwritten captions submitted to Life magazine, and copies of the June 19, 1944 issue of Life showing how the story was published.
Three years later, Capa and his close friends Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour founded the Magnum Photos agency in the penthouse restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Photographer William Vandivert also joined the group but left after about a year.) These were photographers who had experienced a catastrophic war and were united by their belief in a shared obligation to be the historians of their own causes. Magnum Photos continues to be fully owned and supported by its members, numbering over 100 since its founding in 1947, with offices in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo.
Photography department intern Josephine Minhinnett contributed to this post.
Enjoy a day of photography at the Ransom Center’s open house on Saturday, September 28 from noon to 5 p.m. Join us for activities including “jet-setter” tours of the current exhibition, Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, gallery activities, and mini-tours of the conservation department. Attendees will have the rare opportunity to learn how staff of the Ransom Center preserve and conserve collection materials, including photographs.
Commemorate your visit by posing in a photo booth inspired by the golden age of travel.
On the plaza, enjoy the music of the 1950s and 1960s with GirlFriend. Food trailers including mmmpanadas will have snacks available for purchase.
The first 100 guests will receive a gift bag that includes items from Austinuts, Tommy’s Salsa, Dr. Kracker, Texas Olive Ranch, and more. Maine Root sodas and KIND bars will provide complimentary treats.
The Ransom Center’s pop-up store will feature a merchandise sale, including glass water bottles inspired by the Center’s windows and Magnum Photos-inspired t-shirts, postcards, and publications. Attendees will have the opportunity to win a prize package that includes signed books.
Special thanks to these sponsors and participants: Austinuts, Dr. Kracker, KIND bars, Maine Root Soda, Texas Olive Ranch, and Tommy’s Salsa.
Photojournalist Susan Meiselas broke tradition when she photographed the “people’s revolt” in Nicaragua in color. In 1981, black and white was still the accepted medium in which to depict conflict. Yet, she described the choice as best capturing “the vibrancy and optimism of the resistance.”
Learn more about Meiselas’s photograph and how it influenced Donna DeCesare, award-winning documentary photographer and University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of Journalism. DeCesare writes about this and other images from the current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, noting their impact on her photography and teaching.
Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on display at the Ransom Center from September 10 through January 5, explores the evolution of Magnum Photos from print journalism to the digital age, revealing a global cooperative in continual flux, persistently exploring new relationships between photographers, their subjects, and their viewers.
On this Thursday, September 26 at 7 p.m., DeCesare speaks about her new book Unsettled/Desasosiego, which explores the effects of decades of war and gang violence on the lives of youths in Central America and the United States. A book signing follows.
DeCesare was recently honored with a Maria Moors Cabot Prize from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Magnum Photos collection, which contains nearly 200,000 press prints of images taken by world-renowned Magnum photographers, has been donated to the Ransom Center. The gift was made by Michael and Susan Dell, Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, and John and Amy Phelan.
Mr. Dell is Founder, Chairman and CEO of Dell Inc. Messrs. Fuhrman and Phelan are Co-Managing Partners and Co-Founders of MSD Capital, L.P., the private investment firm for Mr. Dell and his family.
In 2009, the Dells, Fuhrmans and Phelans purchased the collection from Magnum Photos. Since late 2009, the collection has resided at the Ransom Center, where it is being preserved and made accessible for research.
The collection, more than 1,300 boxes of photographic materials, has been integrated into the university’s curriculum, accessed by students and scholars, and promoted through a variety of lectures, seminars, and fellowships.
“The establishment of the Magnum Photos collection at the Ransom Center gives the work of these photographers new life,” said Stephen Enniss, director of the Ransom Center. “This photographic collection will be an invaluable resource, for decades to come, for students and scholars and all who wish to understand the cultural and historical moment through which we have recently come.”
The Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, draws from the vast collection of prints, exploring the evolution of the photo agency from the post-war golden era of the picture magazine to the digital age. Organized by Ransom Center photography curators Jessica S. McDonald and Roy Flukinger, the exhibition includes more than 300 photographs, plus a selection of contact sheets, documents, tear sheets, magazines, books, films, videos, and other multimedia. It is on view through January 5.
Complementing the exhibition is the Ransom Center’s symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.” The October 25–27 symposium brings together photographers, curators, and historians to discuss the ways in which Magnum Photos has continually reinvented itself from the moment of its founding. Symposium participants include Magnum photographers Christopher Anderson, Bruno Barbey, Michael Christopher Brown, Eli Reed, Jim Goldberg, Josef Koudelka, Susan Meiselas, Mark Power, Moises Saman, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Alec Soth, and Chris Steele-Perkins.
Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World is the first publication to examine the Magnum Photos collection itself. Published by University of Texas Press in September and edited by Steven Hoelscher, academic curator of photography at the Ransom Center, the book explores prominent themes in the collection—war and conflict, portraiture, geography, cultural life, social relations, and globalization—and includes evocative portfolios of images.