Young Magnum: The hotshots ready to take their place in history

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Peter Popham views the work of four young photographers at various stages of the harrowing selection process

For more than 60 years, Magnum photographers have been giving the world lessons in how to see: from the piles of corpses inside the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, from the burka-clad women of Srinagar to the teddy boys of Southend, their work opened our eyes to what was going on in the world around us like no one and nothing before.

Collectively, randomly, with fierce and fiercely differentiated gifts, they painted the history of the post-war world with their Leicas, Nikons and Pentaxes. The work was so compelling that having seen, say, Vietnam through the lens of Philip Jones Griffiths or James Dean through the lens of Dennis Stock or a starving Bihari peasant through the lens of Werner Bischof, those subjects and the ideas and debates that surrounded them would never be the same again: without resorting to hyperbole, they materially affected the discourse of our times. k

All that’s in the past tense, in the same way that one talks of Stalin or Watergate in the past tense: Magnum put its stamp on an era – a long one – with such unforgettable gusto that it became part of that era. Yet the founders of Magnum had the foresight to organise themselves in a way that allowed the brand (to use a word many of them would probably cringe at) to survive beyond that long wave of greatness. That is why today we are able to offer  you Young Magnum: four photographers in their late-twenties and early-thirties with the spark of brilliance, the individuality of eye and the ferocious commitment for older members of the co-operative to recognise them as fellow spirits, and haul them inside.

A co-operative may sound a woolly, idealistic mode of organisation, but it has served Magnum well, and it was there from the outset. It defined the group not as a commercial photo agency but as a band of brothers (one or two sisters were brought on board some years later) united in their mutual admiration and determination to do the best work they possibly could, and to hell with the penny-pinchers, the bean counters and the literally minded,  bottom-line-fixated editors back home.

The key event was the Magnum annual general meeting, originally held alternately in Paris and New York, the group’s two principal commercial and cultural nodes in the early days. The bravest of the thousands of photographers who dreamt of joining would submit their portfolios, the members would look them over, people who knew them would say what sort of people they were, then regular members would vote on whether to admit them or not. If one or two were considered incredibly brilliant enough, they would be let in – on sufferance: first as nominees, then, a minimum of two years later and after the submission of a fresh portfolio and another vote at the AGM, k  as associates. Some years after that, after the submission of yet another body of fresh work, the photographers might be promoted to regular members. It was a uniquely  rigorous vetting process, rooted in the determination of members to uphold not only Magnum’s technical credentials but also the humanitarian quality that was just as fundamental a mark of their work.

These are peculiarly troubled times to be a serious  photographer. We are choked with images, coming at us from every direction. Every day with our smartphones  we contribute to the saturation. The image glut kills the tastebuds, we no longer notice what is good, only what is shocking and novel. And at the same time the internet has dealt a double-whammy to the profession. On the  one hand, the shrinking viability of the major news magazines and the dwindling budgets of newspapers mean  that the assignments that were the profession’s bedrock have, with rare exceptions, melted away. At the same time, the new technology has given every green young reporter – and more importantly, their boss – the conviction that, with a cameraphone, said reporter can save the newspaper a heap of money in photographer’s fees.

The result is a plummeting in the quality of published photographs which goes largely uncommented on because, as already mentioned, our palates are jaded. The other result is hungry photographers. But then, there never was a golden age: one of the reasons that Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the rest got together in the first place was to make it harder for the magazines and the agencies to jerk them around. It’s probably harder than ever today for a serious photojournalist to make good money, but money was never the driving motivation. Passion was always the primary ingredient. And that, at least, is unchanged. 

Bieke Depoorter, nominee Now 26

Depoorter is one of the youngest ever to be elected to Magnum. She is also the only one of the four photographers featured on these pages that I was unable to track down. It’s not surprising, looking at her work. The bio note on her website states simply, “In search of family intimacy she spends the night at people’s houses.”

So far this Belgian photographer has been through Russia with that remit; her “work in progress” finds her making a similar tour of the US . Of the Russian set, she writes, “For three periods of one month I have let the Trans- Siberian train guide me alongside forgotten villages, from living-room to living-room.”

Each night she shows people she encounters a piece of paper on which is written, in Russian, “I am looking for a place to spend the night… I prefer not to stay in a hotel… I don’t have a lot of money and I want to see the way people live.”

And so we find ourselves inside these randomly accessed homes. This is photography without rules of self and other, private and public: we have couples hugging in bed, a naked woman pouring water over herself in the snow. But we also have Depoorter - reflected in mirrors, stared at, grinned at, given the finger …

In this photography of total abandonment, another young Magnum gun shows the way.

Olivia Arthur, associate

Magnum photographers are defined by their individuality of vision, but also by their privileged access. The young British photographer Arthur goes where no Magnum man ever penetrated: behind the veil of Saudi Arabia.

Yet even after she had persuaded these women to open their doors to her, there was to be no grand concession to the intruding eye: not only did they remain shrouded from head to foot, but they averted their faces to protect their modesty.

When Arthur did photograph their faces, she subsequently developed the resulting print under reflective light, leaving a mass of tiny silver spots over the subject’s face.

These stratagems indicate a willingness to honour the subjects’ privacy, which is a new theme in the repertoire of an agency better known for its readiness to thrust the lens as close as necessary. Arthur, who studied mathematics at Oxford and photojournalism at the London College of Printing, was voted an associate of Magnum in 2008.

“Magnum was all the photographers we were shown through college, everyone we looked up to,” she says. “I think photographic storytelling has become even stronger because of our saturation in images: photographers these days are being pushed to think more about what they have to say with their images.”

Dominic Nahr, nominee

When I catch up with Nahr, he is in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: two days before, a recently formed rebel militia poured into this city, seizing control of it after a fire-fight.

Nahr, who is based in Nairobi, had no magazineassignment to cover the new conflict but he didn’t hesitate to jump on the first available plane.

That’s partly the Magnum effect, he says. Born in Switzerland, he was raised in Hong Kong, which is where he became a photojournalist. He was working regularly for Time magazine when he was invited to submit his portfolio to Magnum, and elected a nominee.

And everything changed. “It was a bit more of a rollercoaster than I expected,” he says. “Just the pressure of being in the same agency as people I’d looked up to ever since becoming a photographer pushed me to develop my work. I really had to think about what I’m doing.

“The Magnum mentality has made me step away from assignments and lookfor pictures that you want to take, that resonate.” When he arrived in Paris for a Magnum meeting he had nowhere to stay, so he mentioned that he was thinking of sleeping in the Magnum office.

“Jean Gaumy,” the French photographer, “ immediately pulled open a drawer and handed me a pillow and sheet. It was an interesting night, going through the archive.”

Peter van Agtmael, associate

"I applied to join Magnum in 2008," says Van Agtmael, “at the last minute. I thought maybe I could meet a few photographers and get some feedback on my work.

Some instinctual part of me was also confident that I was ready, but it was largely buried in doubts and insecurities. A few weeks later I got a text message saying I was in.”

The “instinctual confidence” is understandable: though he is only 31 now, this is a photographer who is very sure of what he is doing. You would think that the horrors and longeurs of war would have been done to death over the past century-and-a-half, not least by a whole line of Magnum greats, but Van Agtmael has found a new way to shoot war, understated, discreet and subtly powerful.

“Magnum was a big part of why I became a photographer,” Van Agtmael says. “I was searching for identity and something clicked into place in college when I started taking pictures.

The vague plans I had of following a prescribed path gave way to an immediate obsession. “I think it's a vibrant time in Magnum today. I’m a pretty sceptical person by nature, especially of hallowed institutions, but I’m profoundly moved by the work that’s been created in the years I've been there. Magnum can frustrate me at times, but it also feels like home." 

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