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Editor of “Reading Magnum” explores Magnum Photos collection

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.

Video: Magnum photographer Eli Reed discusses his career and documentary photography

 

The exhibition Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan is on view at the Ransom Center through December 8.

 

In the above video, Eli Reed, Magum photographer and a clinical professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, discusses his career and working methods.

 

In 2001, Reed traced the path of some of the more than 20,000 “Lost Boys,” as aid workers have called them, some as young as five years old, forced to flee after their families were massacred or enslaved during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Wandering the equatorial wilderness between Sudan and Ethiopia for years on foot, those who survived starvation and disease eventually reached a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, where over 3,000 of them awaited resettlement through a United Nations partnership with the U.S. State Department. Reed’s powerful series documents their journey as they leave the camp and adjust to life in the United States, acclimating to a starkly different culture and a new world of formidable challenges.

 

Additional photographs by Reed from his 1995 series Rwandan Refugees in Tanzania are on view as part of the exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.

 

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“Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan” exhibition opens today at the Ransom Center

In the Galleries: Jonas Bendiksen’s contact sheets

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.”

 

Bendicksen’s contact sheet and final image are on view through January 5 in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.

 

Click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

In the Galleries: Susan Meiselas

Susan Meiselas. “Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
Susan Meiselas. “Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.

 

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 1978July 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.

 

Photographs from Meiselas’s project in Nicaragua are on view through January 5 in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age. Meiselas will speak this weekend at the symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.”

“Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan” exhibition opens today at the Ransom Center

 

Photo of Eli Reed by Pete Smith.
Photo of Eli Reed by Pete Smith.

 

Eli Reed has worked as a professional photographer with Magnum Photos since 1988 and as a clinical professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin since 2005. To Reed, his success directly results from the simple motivating question, “Why would you want to be less than what you can be?”

 

Throughout his career, Reed’s understanding of his potential has been bolstered by his active relentlessness. “You’ve got to do this work because you really want to do it,” he said. “It’s not necessarily going to happen easily. It’s not going to happen ‘just because.” Reed’s combined vision and dedication has driven his career from newspaper journalism to international photography in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

 

Perhaps more significantly, Reed insisted, he knows when to say yes. “You get… in to various situations because of you,” he said, “You make the decisions, and it’s important [to know] when to say yes. We’re all living on borrowed time from the day we’re born to the day we pass away, so what are you going to do before you go?” Reed strives to share this lesson with his students, emphasizing what seems to be his mantra in both photography and life at large: “Awareness is everything.”

 

It was Reed’s awareness that first led him to Sudan in 2001. The photographer was asked to join a film crew to document the Lost Boys, young refugees from the Second Sudanese Civil War. Although he was already particularly interested in Africa, Reed said the opportunity to travel there arose because he was “paying attention,” and he hopes his audience will do the same. The goal of the photo documentary of the Lost Boys, he explained, is “to educate people” and to spark interest in and action on their behalf. A dozen photographs are on display at the Harry Ransom Center through December 8 in an exhibit entitled Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan.

 

Ultimately, all aspects of Reed’s profession stem from a single motivation: to “pass on” information and experience, either through the classroom or professional photography.

 

“I’ve had a really interesting life,” he said, “I’ve seen a lot of people in different situations… and some terrible things happen, and some wonderful things happen, and it’s called the ‘Circle of Life.’ I can’t think of a better thing to do than, not just to share it, but to help people who are going on into this ‘Brave New World.’”

In the Galleries: Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka. “Czechoslovakia. Slovakia. Michalovce.” 1966 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos.
Josef Koudelka. “Czechoslovakia. Slovakia. Michalovce.” 1966 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos.

 

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.

 

Koudelka will speak on a panel at the upcoming symposium “Magnum Photoso into the Digital Age.” The symposium takes place October 25–27.

In the Galleries: Robert Capa

“France. Normandy. Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach.” 1944 © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
“France. Normandy. Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach.” 1944 © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

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.

Registration closes next week for symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age”

Image credit: Jonas Bendiksen, “Russia. Altai Territory. Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed space¬craft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region’s future due to the toxic rocket fuel,” 2000. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos.
Image credit: Jonas Bendiksen, “Russia. Altai Territory. Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed space¬craft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region’s future due to the toxic rocket fuel,” 2000. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos.

The Harry Ransom Center presents the symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.” Scheduled for October 25–27, the symposium is in conjunction with the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.

Twelve Magnum photographers, including 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, as well as Magnum CEO Giorgio Psacharopulo are scheduled to appear in panel discussions with a focus on the cooperative’s evolution and future.

To celebrate the fact that this many Magnum photographers are coming to Austin, we’re giving away a copy of panel moderator Kristen Lubben’s coffee table book Magnum: Contact Sheets (Thames & Hudson). To be eligible to win, retweet information about the symposium on Twitter or “Like” our Facebook post about the symposium on Facebook by midnight CST on Thursday, October 10.

The 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 information, including registration, is available online. Registration closes on Thursday, October 10. Register now.

Panel moderators include Kristen Lubben, Curator and Associate Director of Exhibitions at the International Center of Photography, New York; Anne Wilkes Tucker, Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; David Little, Curator of Photography and New Media at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Stuart Alexander, Independent Curator and International Specialist, Photographs, Christie’s, New York; and Jessica S. McDonald, Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography at the Ransom Center.

The Magnum Photos collection was donated to the Ransom Center by Michael and Susan Dell, Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, and John and Amy Phelan.

Explore the Ransom Center in a photography-themed open house this weekend

Photo by Pete Smith.
Photo by Pete Smith.

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.

The event is free and open to the public.

Magnum Photos collection donated to the Ransom Center

George Rodger, Sahara Desert, 1957, verso. With permission of Magnum Photos.
George Rodger, Sahara Desert, 1957, verso. With permission of Magnum Photos.

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.