Magnum force

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For all that George Rodger is one of the finest photo journalists and adventurers this country has produced, he's also one of the most enigmatic. In all of his most celebrated imagery, on show now at the Barbican Art Gallery and including pictures of the Blitz, Paris in the Liberation and, most absorbingly, a documentation of the Nuba tribe of southern Sudan, there's an extraordinary reluctance to elevate the photographic medium into anything more than its most basic principle. "It has really always just been a question of wanting to see the rest of the world and how other people live," he said in 1981. "Photography was just a convenient passport." It's the sheer size of the photographic output that astounds: born in Cheshire in 1908, Rodger had joined the British merchant navy in 1927 and sailed twice round the world. This was when he started taking photographs and sealed his fate - as an adventurer with a photographic eye. After several years as a freelance, including travelling the entire length of Africa, he was assigned to cover World War Two for Life magazine. It was a commission that yielded some of the best images of Londoners coping in the Blitz, Paris in the Liberation and, finally, the first pictures to be taken of the atrocities in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp - an experience he has tried hard to forget ("It was contrary to all principles of humanity") and which ended his war-reporting days for good. At 81, Rodger is, together with Henri Cartier-Bresson, the only surviving founding member of the Magnum Photo Agency - which started business in 1947 with the aim of supporting photo journalists in their personal projects. The agency provided Rodger with the passport he'd been waiting for - to return to Africa where, together with his wife, he lived among and studied the Nuba tribe in the mountains of Kordofan. The pictures he came back with include one of his most famous, that of the wrestling champion (left), and show Rodger at his best - "allowing myself to be quietly absorbed into a way of life".

George Rodger: a Photographic Journey runs at the Barbican Art Gallery, Level 8, Barbican Centre, EC2 (0171-382 9104) to 27 Aug