MAGNUM: THOSE OTHERS WHO LIVE IN OUR TIME
Photofile 34, December 1991
FITTING THE LEGEND
The legend of the Magnum photo agency revolves around two heroic figures: Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Capa was an itinerant who invented for himself both a new name and a charismatic persona. He’s the one who is said to have said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Capa “hated war buy he had to be there; his photographs were protests, those of a passionate pacifist.”1
I was therefore surprised to read that during 1954, just before he stepped on that fatal landmine in Indochina, Capa predicted that photojournalism was finished and the future for photographers like him lay in TV.2 Since
then, of course, photojournalism, as embodied in Capa, has become redolent with goodness and ‘truth’, whereas TV news has become associated with the trivial and prurient. The Jekyll to Hyde vision of Robert Capa transmogrifying into Derryn Hinch therefore seems slightly scandalous.
Cartier-Bresson and Capa complemented each other. They were “structure and movement, culture and nature, water and fire”.5 Cartier-Bresson was an aesthete with a surrealist heritage: “he was detached, he recorded serenity and peace, and he was the first to see the romantic mystery of everyday things.”4 He carefully enunciated an artistic philosophy of’the decisive moment’:
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.5
In the USA this fed into the formalist aesthetics of 1960s and ’70s museum art photography. The scandal of Capa’s interest in TV, and the art-historical periodisation of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, prompts the question of why didn’t photojournalism just go away like Capa predicted? Why isn’t In our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers a historical show like the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ other blockbuster, Masterpieces from the Guggenheim? Why is Magnum presented as a potent lineage, still producing “some of the world’s most celebrated photographers”?6
CRITICISING THE LEGEND
It’s not as if the Magnum tradition hasn’t been the object of criticism for many years. From the 1950s onwards, the problematic semiotics of ‘truth’ in photojournalism became a favourite object of critique for cultural theorists like Roland Barthes.7 Meanwhile, historians of art photography had extended the ‘tradition’ of photographic formalism back, far beyond Cartier-Bresson himself, into the nineteenth century and towards the very ‘core’ of photography as an art category. In 1966 the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art wrote: “It should be possible to consider the history of the medium in terms of photographers’ progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent to the medium.”8 Lately, this institutionalised valorisa-
\tion of a picture’s formal architecture and choreography has also been severely criticised for its reductivism.9
Rather than reiterate these perpetual but seemingly ineffective critiques, I want to answer the question ‘why doesn’t Magnum just go away?’ by placing it within the context of our contemporary visual environment. In particular I want to discuss war photography. It is perhaps too easy to conflate the Magnum tradition with ‘war photography’ in general, but a glance at the exhibition confirms that battles of various sorts, be they the psychological battles of the lunatic, or the gun battles of an army, are the paradigmatic Magnum subject. After all, battles provide the stock-in-trade of the visual media: visceral immediacy, visual movement, and a ready-made narrative trajectory inevitably leading to either resolution or yet more conflict.
THE THREE AGES OF PHOTOJOURNALISM
As the layout of the show makes clear, the first period of photojournalism – before Capa’s crucifixion – was its golden age. The baddies were bad, the goodies were good, and photographs of war had a kind of virginal freshness about them: “Robert Capa’s camera captures a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in the Front of Cordoba”, read the 1937 LIFE caption to the single nascent image of the Magnum tradition. In 1938, Picture Post upped the ante with a screaming headline “This is War!” for the same series of pictures. Another caption claimed: “You can almost smell the powder in this picture.” These tropes of immediate experience quite deliberately prompted the reader to compare the picture magazine favourably to the rival new technology of live radio broadcast. But Picture Post was also careful to place its readers in an experientially frightening, but ideologically safe, position. It claimed that these “finest pictures of front-line action ever taken…are not presented as propaganda for, or against, either side. They are simply a record of modern war from the inside.” Being down on the ground gave you front-line thrills along with a safe position beyond mere ‘polities’.
By the 1950s, this relationship between the viewer and the viewed had become corporatised. For magazines like LIFE, the “life” referred to in its title was, more often than not, their lives which were lived elsewhere for us to visit. In Henry Luce’s words,
To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things – machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon … to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and to be amazed; to see and to be instructed.10
This kind of journalism used the language of spectacle: it spoke of ‘theatres of war’, ‘picture stories’ and events on ‘the world stage’. The one stable spot in this life was the Western living room from which our gaze was projected on successive trouble spots flaring up randomly around the world – as though we were somehow off its surface. The ‘world’ revealed to us may have been as far away as China, or as close as Harlem, but it never intruded on our own domestic sphere – the middle class living room where LIFE magazine was first stacked on the coffee table and then underneath the TV set.
The actors on this stage were diverse: they were the poor or the rich, the young or the old, the insane or the powerful, and the quaint or the radical. Their differentiation not only followed the marketing logic of’something new every week’, but the inchoate diversity of those who lived elsewhere also marked their Otherness from us. In their unstable difference they helped define our singular identity.
The Australian version of the exhibition is divided into decades, and each decade is introduced with a wall panel that parallels advances in Kodak technology (a sponsor) with events on the world stage and then with local events – Phar Lap winning the Melbourne Cup, the opening of the Sydney Opera House, etc. This is peculiar since, as far as In Our Time is concerned, Australia does not exist. But then, as far as In Our Time is concerned, the Western middle class hardly exists either: it is the ground zero from which the world is seen.
In a geo-political sense this is also a form of neocolonialism. Many of the conflicts of world politics are the result of European imperialism. The concerned writers and photographers of the 20th Century have only followed in the footsteps of the Sahibs and Bwanas of the 19th Century. The spectacle of Third World struggle is stripped from the the strugglers within exactly the same power structure as their raw materials were stripped before (and are still stripped). Such global politics have also imploded into the nation state, providing the spectacles of slums or political protest.
Of course, towards the end of this second period of photojournalism the TV camera and satellite dish became much more important than the Leica and the scribbled caption, just as Capa had predicted. Ironically, this allowed photojournalism to clamber up onto some higher moral ground and claim the museum wall and glossy book – rather than the throw-away magazine – as the proper space for its display. As the introductory wall panel for In Our Time states,
In the past couple of decades the photography field has become increasingly complex. The commercial interests of many magazines have tended more than ever to obscure visual information, and in covering news events, photographers have had to contend with manipulated photo opportunities imposed by governments and public relations officials. The generation of photographers who entered Magnum during the seventies and eighties has had to respond to such challenges. A surge in the publication of illustrated books has presented outlets that have been expanded on by photographers who have revealed their major coverages in the form of personal diaries, testaments or extended studies.
Hence we get the third period: the so called New Photojournalism of the 1980s where Magnum photographers like Susan Meiselas or Gilles Peress combined a formal adroitness, only possible after a thorough training in modern art photography, with the conceptual motivation of’concern’ unchanged since Capa. Thus, there is no question of whether In Our Time ‘belongs’ in an art museum. Of course it does. The progenitors of Magnum have been tightly stitched into the history of art photography, and their inheritors fit the bill for a postmodern museum artist: they self-consciously combine ‘quotes’ from both historicised passions and historicised styles. Much of their imagery returns to the surrealist alienation that always lay just behind the origins of photojournalism. Their captions have become cryptic and many of their photographs, for example those taken by Gilles Peress in Iran, are indistinguishable from the sophisticated urban ennui of a Garry Winnogrand.
TWO TV WARS
Magnum may have been able to evade the bad smell of heartless exploitation which has popularly hung around television reporting, in fact it has probably only retained its halo by defining itself in opposition to television, but has it been able to evade the implications of the latest phase in the global trade in images of conflict?
Ken Jarecke was just one of the 750 journalists accredited to the Pentagon during the Gulf War. Though not a member of Magnum, he was under contract to Time. Only twenty-eight years old, his big break had come with a stakeout of Oliver North’s home during the Iran Contra hearings. Journalists
covering the Gulf War were strictly controlled by the Military. They were ‘pooled’ with other journalists and escorted by press officers from either the U.S. Military, the Saudis, or the Washington public relations firm retained by the Kuwaitis. While returning to Saudi Arabia from Kuwait, Jarecke took the picture “Iraqi soldier, killed in a truck on Highway 8 near Nasiriya, Iraq”. In the photographer’s own words:
We stopped at about 9.30 in the morning and photographed some U.S. medics tending wounded Iraqis, although we weren’t supposed to photograph causalities. Then I noticed something: a body lying on the road … Now I thought what I was seeing was compelling. While still in our vehicle surveying the scene one of our Press Affairs Officers told me that making pictures of dead guys didn’t excite him. I told him that it didn’t get me off either… But I told him that if I didn’t make these pictures it would be a distortion of reality … He knew that I was going to make the picture but he had to put his two cents in. Down the road just a little further there was a truck that had been bombed while trying to escape from Kuwait into Iraq. I made a shot of the truck from where I wras standing using a Canon EOS-1 with a 35mm lens … it was a while before I noticed the burned guy in the truck… I changed lens and shot some black and white and colour and got back into our vehicle and we left. I wasn’t thinking at all about what was there; if I had thought about how horrific the guy looked I wouldn’t have been able to make the picture. I just concentrated on the technical problems … I didn’t start thinking of the picture as symbolic, though, until later when I was talking to Jim Helling, the CBS cameraman in my pool … He said he wanted a print of the soldier in the truck. At first I didn’t understand why. When I asked him he said something that really hit me: ‘because that’s the face of war.’ He had realized how powerful the scene was immediately … as a photographer I began to get ticked off about the picture of the burned Iraqi before I even got home. I figured it would never get published in this country. In fact when Associated Press in Dhahran transmitted the picture, some editor in New York took it off the wire. It wasn’t even distributed in the US until my agency got it. But I think people should see this. This is what our smart bombs did. If we’re big enough to fight a war we should be big enough to look at it.”
In its laconic off-handedness, this is a very familiar account of “How I Made That Great Picture”.12 But in another sense this is also a very unusual photographer’s description, because any sense of the ‘fierce independence’, so celebrated within the Magnum tradition, is almost totally absent. Although he expresses a commitment to undistortedness, Jarecke is resigned to the fact that his images are thoroughly militarised. There is none of the ‘no taking sides’ philosophy of 1937 Picture Post; each of his shots is completely articulated within, and by, Desert Storm. Although his colleague at CBS may have seen the image as a direct equivalent to Capa’s ‘Loyalist Soldier, Spain’, he too realised that it was not destined to shock the world. So he asked for his own print.
The journalistic pool system was the Pentagon’s response to the freedom of movement journalists had enjoyed during the Vietnam War. Although the same freedom existed in previous wars, the popularisation of television was seen to have fuelled the anti-war movement. In the Gulf War the very real likelihood of a growing domestic peace movement was immediately factored into the military strategy. Images were stockpiled and deployed like any other ordnance. Who can forget Stormin’ Norman’s press briefings where the latest Slam Cam footage of a successful Smart Bomb surgical strike was shown on a TV monitor sitting on a plinth like a piece of video art? The Iraqis even attempted to use images ballistically, sending video images of downed airmen, via CNN, to the allies. When photographs of the bruised pilots were solidified out of the flow of the video signal and printed in all their pathetic glory in newspapers throughout the western world, the tactic backfired on Hussein and domestic support for the War effort strengthened.
This image feedback between the two sides goes beyond good old fashioned propaganda because both sides are happy to share the same media conduit. CNN was invited to stay in Baghdad. And the restriction on journalistic activity goes beyond mere censorship. Rather it is a bureaucratised management of images. Plenty of close-up action shots were published, but they were taken during training, not battle. The direct militarisation of the media’s hyperspace extends the development of technological vectors of vision contiguous to technological vectors of destruction, as outlined by Paul Virilio.13 It constitutes an expansion of ‘the theatre of war’ into domestic space and a direct and tactical enlistment of public opinion. It declares a state of emergency in the domain of images and suspends the sanctity of journalistic truth.
As was frequently noted around our dinner tables at the time, for us at home the Gulf War was not a visceral war. It was an abstracted war. The flat plains of the desert became continuous with the green screen of the computer. But another war was shown on our screens about eight months after the Gulf War, and in that war photography’s power to tell the truth and not take sides was triumphant. We saw the suffering of war etched on innocent faces, we saw the horror of war in the form of bloated bodies about to burst their uniforms, we saw the futility of war in the strangely silent aftermath of battles, and we saw the resilient heroicism of war in the details of
camp life camaraderie. As TV critic after TV critic wrote: we not only saw, we felt. In the tradition of Magnum that war was photography’s finest hour. But that war was the American Civil War, fought in the 1860s and telecast by SBS-TV. The TV critics yearned for the pure motives of the freelance photographer trailing after the marching armies in his caravan, they celebrated the ennobling effects of the wet plate’s extended exposures, and they responded to the surreal melancholy of the tableau. They wanted, and they got, a real war. A war totally unlike the Gulf War.
NOSTALGIA FOR OUR TIME
In Our Time was launched on its world tour way back in 1989 when the Gulf War was just a gleam in Saddam’s eye. We can’t expect it to engage with this new politics of the image. But the unprecedented popularity of the show in Australia has to be accounted for in the wake of the War. It seems to have touched off a nostalgia for political spectacle on the world stage. Perhaps this nostalgia is an attempt to restabilise the centre of the world – our own living rooms. We have now become as spectral as those others who once lived in our time. And Magnum is still complicit.
- Gael Elton Mayo, “The Magnum photographic group”, Apollo, September, 1989.
- Fred Ritchin, “What is Magnum?”, In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers^ Andre Deutsch, 1989.
- Jean Lacouture “The Founders”, Ibid.
- Mayo, Op Cit.
- Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment^ Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1952.
- In Our Time, brochure.
- Roland Barthes, Mythologies^ Hill and Wang, N.Y., 1972.
- John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eyex Museum of Modern Art, N.Y., 1966
- Rosalind Krauss, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces”, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Mythsx MIT Press, 1985.
- Fred Ritchin, “What is Magnum?”, Op. Cit.
- “The Image of War”, American Photo, August 1991.
- Dorothea Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget”, Popular Photography, February 1960; Robert Capa, Slightly OutofFocuSiN.Y. 1947.
- Paul Virilio, War and Cinema:The Logistics of Perception^ Verso, London, 1989.