Arts: What women see in conflict

The great Magnum photography agency was a feminine enterprise from the first.
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The Independent Culture
The sub-title of the "Magna Brava" exhibition, Magnum Women Photographers, suggests male domination in the great collective agency whose very name has lost its champagne connotations to become associated with an automatic pistol. But closer examination provides evidence to the contrary. The photographers whose work is on show - Eve Arnold, Martine Franck, Susan Meiselas, Inge Morath and Marilyn Silverstone - may be crucial to Magnum's public face but women have been present at the agency since its inception. From Rita Vandivert and Maria Eisner, Magnum's first presidents, women have been central to its operation. A powerful female presence continues.

As to the photographs themselves, it's natural to expect a female perspective. We find it in Arnold's intimate and unintrusive view of the lives of Chinese women. Her image of a female militia member training in Inner Mongolia is a startling variation on the subject of young women's relationship to horses.

Our expectations may also be satisfied in Silverstone's portfolio of images from India, Tibet and Pakistan. Their tenderness makes it no surprise to learn that she abandoned photojournalism to become a Buddhist nun. Her recent death led colleagues to dedicate the "Magna Brava" book to her memory. But what are we to make of Meiselas's reportage from war zones? Could anyone tell, just by looking at her image from El Salvador, that it was taken by a woman? She never sentimentalises nor does she render horror aesthetic; her eye is as steely as her nerve.

Perhaps our expectations are renewed by the everyday poetry in Martine Franck's studies of an island community just off the Irish coast, or by the elegance of Inge Morath's portraits of the famous and the unknown in New York. It is striking how often the qualities of respect, intuition, sensitivity and delicacy become apparent. We find correspondences, too, with the work of great photographers, male and female, throughout the history of photojournalism. For those qualities which were once so exclusively associated with women are the ones which count most in photography. The artists in Magna Brava all happen to be women, but the femininity they celebrate is the essential femininity of photography itself. In that light, it is almost surprising to remember that some fine practitioners of the art happen to be men.

`Magna Brava': Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200) to 30 January

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