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Since 1947, Magnum Photos has represented the tremendous talent of renowned photojournalists across the globe. Shortly after World War II, a group of photojournalists and editors, including the legendary photographers Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, first conceived the notion of a cooperative photo agency. It's rumored that the name Magnum was chosen in reference to the enormous quantity of champagne that was often consumed during these early meetings. In the years since, Magnum photographers have documented nearly every world-changing event and solidified the agency's reputation as one of the foremost purveyors of exceptional photojournalism in the world.
The new book Magnum Streetwise chronicles this deep legacy of street photography at Magnum and reveals how the agency's photographers have not only documented the world around us — but also changed the way we look at it. Here, the book's author, writer and photographer Stephen McLaren, discusses with BuzzFeed News the history of street photography and shares with us a selection of work from the Magnum archive.
How has street photography evolved since its start and how does Magnum fit into this history?
In the late 19th century, photographers in Paris began to use lighter cameras and faster films to record public life and that’s basically where we start the street photography story. From there, move through the 1920s and ’30s where the notion of taking candid photographs in a public space became more commonplace. The decades following produced some of the greatest street photographers in history — people like Weegee, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Joel Meyerowitz.
The 1994 book Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz is probably the best account of how we got from there to here. Where I come into the picture is to look at how Magnum photographers fit into that overall time frame and chronology of this tradition, which essentially starts after the second world war with Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the founding members of Magnum. He’s really the touchstone of Magnum’s embracing of street photography.
I’m interested in how Magnum’s offices have served as locations for some of the best street photography work in history. Street photography was invented in Paris, but it quickly moved on to places like New York, London, and Tokyo. So given the fact that Magnum has offices in these cities, I thought was an interesting way to look at how those places have manifested approaches to street photography with their own spin. These are the four cities that have the strongest heritage in that regard.
I tried, where possible, to highlight a single body of work per photographer. I usually find that it’s not a good idea to do an overall survey of someone’s life work over the course of eight pages or so. I was also specifically looking for bodies of work that have been underrepresented. So I was trying to inform our readers of work that perhaps they hadn’t come across before.
In terms of subject matter, I’ve found after combing through many photographer’s archives that they’re often working on similar themes. I thought it would give a bit of context to show where photographers have found common ground in the past and perhaps used different styles, approaches, and technical skills to bring a broader look at the same topics. It’s another way of broadening the book out to show the collective endeavor, rather than just individual portfolios.
Do you have a favorite body of work featured in the book?
Pretty much all of them! These are all passion plays for me so it’s kind of hard to pick one over the others. I was surprised to learn of the work of Inge Morath, who was a female photographer working back in the ’50s. I learned that she completed a huge body of work in Spain, and that it hasn’t really been seen in recent decades. The fact that it was a woman going about doing this work in a place that was then a male-dominated fascist state is really quite incredible. To see her working very candidly with great speed and artistic expression was an eye-opener for me and probably one of my favorite portfolios in the book.
Since BuzzFeed News is based in New York City, do you have a favorite series from the Big Apple?
Bruce Gilden’s work over the decades in New York City is peerless. There are several recently discovered images by him in the book. I always look at what Bruce is doing and has been doing since he was shooting Coney Island back in the ’70s.
But then we also have some really interesting work from Raymond Depardon, who’s a French photographer who came to Manhattan in the mid-’80s and had a very interesting experience, despite not being able to speak English. He used a very wide-angle lens and brought back some very interesting photographs. And certainly there’s Bruce Davidson’s work of the subway in the ‘80s. Those were obviously perilous times to be shooting so overtly, so that body of work is one of the masterpieces of the street photography genre.
What do you hope people will take away from Streetwise?
I hope people will understand that the street photography impulse to go into the world and take candid pictures primarily for one’s own personal artistic expression is something that’s still artistically valid. It’s something that continues to tell us a lot about the world around us, and it’s something that’s ultimately very difficult to pull off well.
Do you have any advice for the novice photographers who hope to one day reach the caliber of the photographers featured in this book?
My advice is to improve the technical chops first. The people in this book are so in tune with the tools they’re using and with the environments they’re in. To reach this level of skill, you have to be unsatisfied with the first thousand photographs you take — the good stuff comes from your second thousand images. Very few budding photographers are willing to put in this amount of time.
The formula is technical chops, plus hours committed, plus artistic know-how. Finally, those things all come through with a heck of a whole lot of hard work. Lastly, it’s looking through the archive of the best work that’s been done before you. I don’t think you can be a great street photographer without seeing what’s gone before and what is being regarded as exceptional work.