Photography: Tokyo stories

Magnum photographer Georgui Pinkhassov marries art and reportage to capture unexpected beauty amid the bustle of the Japanese capital.
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The disparate band of photographers who belong to the celebrated Magnum photographic agency tend to have one thing in common: they don't think of their pictures as art. And any talk of art photography offering new, if more oblique, ways of seeing the world is usually dismissed out of hand. In 1996 the great Welsh photographer and veteran of Vietnam, Philip Jones Griffiths, spoke up for many when he thundered, "We are not artists."

Why should Magnum embrace art? It has been on every frontline in nearly every conflict since the Second World War, bearing witness to our achievements and triumphs, follies and disasters in some of our century's greatest images. Two new books show both how far Magnum has come to embrace new realities and how much it likes, in the end, to stay resolutely the same.

In one corner, find a new anthology of Eugene Smith's black-and-white photojournalism. The jacket image on this monumental slab of a book is of a grim, begoggled steelworker, one of the unnamed, unsung achievers who have shaped the skylines of our century. The title says it all: The Camera as Conscience. This is the ethos at the heart of Magnum, which has for more than 50 years fostered debate and pricked consciences the world over, speaking up, as Russell Miller, the agency's biographer, put it, "for those with no voice".

In the other corner, find a very different entity. It is Sightwalk - a title for the Zeitgeist if ever there was one. It is a slim collection of highly coloured photographs of Tokyo - 25 of them, one per page - which are the work of another Magnum photographer, Georgui Pinkhassov. The jacket appears to be a sort of plastic snakeskin in bold purple; tracing paper overlays each image. It is beautifully designed in the modern style of photographic books. There are no captions, just a selection of words placed randomly at the start of each section: "lunch, sunlight, marblewall, entrance, newspaper". Sightwalk is defiantly an art book. Beguiling, calm and unhurried, it is a beautiful collection of photographs, with a tranquillity that recalls the great designer Fornasetti's praise of Clifford Coffin's photographs of Rome: "I love them! The isle of elegance he creates is like a rockpool in a Zen garden." Sightwalk's biography gives us the details of its creator in 10 words. These are the five salient ones: "Ex-Muscovite living in Paris."

Magnum tends not to favour the work of its colour photographers, preferring that of its black- and-white practitioners, even though many of its members - Eve Arnold and Ernst Haas, for example - have done great things with both. But Magnum, I suspect, has not seen colour photography of this iridescence since Martin Parr applied for membership. Readers of this magazine will know Parr's satirical, voyeuristic photographs in vivid colour - he perches uncomfortably on the art end of the Magnum bench with perhaps only Pinkhassov for company.

A fuller biography of Pinkhassov, from the London office of Magnum, tells us that "he always manages to renew our perception through a particular detail, a play of light or reflection, capturing a certain spirit of place." He is, it continues, an innovator and an "artist in photography". At last. One wonders what Cartier-Bresson, the last of Magnum's founding members, makes of the tracing-paper overlays and purple snakeskin. He is, after all, the man who quivered with rage at his first encounter with Parr's photographs. "You are," he said to Parr, "from a completely different planet." Pinkhassov is resolutely from our planet and Magnum should take pride in his off-kilter approach.

Born in Moscow in 1952, Georgiu Pinkhassov has been with the Magnum agency since 1988. Longtime readers of this magazine will remember his photo- essays on Russian intervention into Lithuania, "Facing the Tanks", and "Noble and Proud of It: Russian aristocracy facing up to the realities of life in contemporary Moscow". Cineastes will recall that he was the stills photographer on Tarkovsky's Stalker and may know already that he trained as a film technician and worked at the Mossfilm studios as an assistant cameraman. Like many of his colleagues and predecessors at Magnum, he also does corporate work, including annual reports for the French post office and Electricite de France.

It must be difficult to make Tokyo sing out so dramatically, since so many have done it so well before - not least fellow Magnum photographer, the late Werner Bischof, and the artist-using-photography Paul Graham in his exhibition "Empty Heaven". The temptation must be to portray the lunatic display of urban life or the collision of old and new, tradition and advancement. But Pinkhassov revels in the ordinary - snatched moments Cartier-Bresson would be proud of: the floral prints of two women's dresses, a child seen from high above, standing on a pebbled floor, the play of sunlight on the textures of stone and water. What Cartier-Bresson might approve less is his kaleidoscope of techniques and devices, a strong visual language of shining focus and imbalance, blur and foreshortening, excusable to purists perhaps only if accidental and on the beaches of occupied Normandy.

Robert Capa once told Cartier-Bresson that if he called himself an artist he wouldn't get any assignments but "call yourself a photojournalist and you can do what you like". The quiet Russian proves that you can marry both and keep your integrity intact

`Sightwalk' is published by Phaidon Press on 15 November, price pounds 35. `The Camera as Conscience' is published by Thames & Hudson, price pounds 48.

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