Magnum Photos: Sharp shadows

70 years of bravery, frailty, comedy and tragedy, immortalised on streets, railways, beaches and harbours

Drawing Board
“USA, Colorado, 1955” © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

In the late 1940s, Robert Capa told Henri Cartier-Bresson that enough was enough with all the arty stuff. The two young guns of photojournalism were setting up their own agency, Magnum Photos, and Robert thought Henri, a budding Surrealist, needed to get his head out of the clouds. Magnum photographers, they agreed, were to have their feet firmly on the ground. And their beat was the street.

Street photography has been around since Eugène Atget’s 19th-century images of Paris on the cusp of modernisation. But it really became a genre, like Instagram is now, in the wake of the Second World War, when a generation of combat photographers returned home still hungry for drama and spectacle. And while the hotspots of the mid-20th century—Cuba, Korea, Vietnam—provided the big-ticket gigs for Magnum photographers, everyday grist could be found on the pavements, sidewalks and strips of London, New York and Paris and Tokyo.

The fruits of these walks have been compiled in a new book, Magnum Streetwise (Thames & Hudson, £28), edited by the photographer and curator Stephen McLaren, which surveys 70 years of bravery, frailty, comedy and tragedy, immortalised on streets, railways, beaches and harbours by the agency’s diverse membership. “Street photography revels in the incongruous, the implausible, the inconstant and the ineffable,” writes McLaren in his introduction. The practise also requires a bold mindset, he observes: “For the truly committed street photographer, acting suspiciously is an occupational hazard. It rewards gamblers and those with sharp elbows.”

Cartier-Bresson claimed that “thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph”. A kind of muscle-memory is involved in taking shots on the fly. But there are patterns. Certain subjects reappear: the guileless antics of children, the clash of urban tribes, random acts of tenderness. And when we talk about street photography, we are talking about streets we generally wouldn’t want to live on. This is the topography of poverty and conflict.

A great street photograph demands a double take of the viewer. In Streetwise we see cockerels perched on heads, surfers in Munich and Santa Claus on the subway. Notwithstanding his friend’s advice, even Cartier-Bresson continued to pursue the ridiculous. In one of his final photographs he captured his own shadow lying alongside those of a row of trees. At their most profound, such photographs are windows on the absurd theatre of life; at their crudest they are click-bait for the eye.

Magnum Photos was always a cosmopolitan enterprise. Its four founding fathers were a Hungarian (Capa), a Frenchman (Cartier-Bresson), an Englishman (George Rodger) and a Pole (David Seymour). For a coterie of mavericks, they could be rather prescriptive: photographs had to use only natural light, be shot in black and white and printed uncropped.

Magnum is a strange mix of art, storytelling and business. It is a cooperative, which provides a sense of security in the gig economy navigated by photographers. It created shortcuts to editors, commissioning across a sudden proliferation of news magazines in the post-war years. Assignments were complemented by personal passion projects. And sometimes the boundaries blurred.

The genius of the agency lies in how its members, from the outset, ploughed the intersection between humanity and geometry. These Leica-wielding flâneurs found intricate forms in the grids of roads and the dot-matrix of pylons and buildings; they also pinpointed the daily dramas staged in this maze. McLaren, memorably, describes these photographs as “light sketches”, the modern equivalent of 19th-century watercolour pads, a medium for dashed-off impressions fixed on the move.

Roving photographers can be professionals or amateurs. Both are subject to questions of authenticity. Street photographs are presumed to be unstaged. But where are the lines drawn? Does the presence of a camera act as a spur to events? For some, the purest form of street photography is that of Vivian Maier, the Chicago nanny who took roll after roll of film, covertly, on the streets of the Windy City. The democracy of her lens had no particular objective; she did not even develop her film. It was the opposite methodology to Magnum’s.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a second generation of Magnum recruits brought humour and artistry to the form. Elliot Erwitt, still working in his 90s, has always seen the funny side of New York. He has a particular penchant for photographing Manhattan’s canine population, giving us bulldogs hanging out on brownstone stoops, dachshunds in repose, chihuahuas dwarfed by their owners. Dogs, he noted, are “just people with more hair.” They are given the same reverence as kissing couples and delinquent boys. Erwitt’s pictures condense emotion into a beautiful arrangement.

“CUBA. Havana. Old city. French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1963” © Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

The Swiss photographer René Burri had a similar take. A telling photograph in Streetwise is his shot of Cartier-Bresson at work in Havana in 1963 (above). Burri catches the balletic pose—part sniper, part dancer—of his mentor bracing himself to take a picture of a subject tantalisingly out of frame. It is a portrait of a craftsman, delivered in a Cubist composition of legs, pavements and shadows (Burri insisted that his greatest inspiration was Picasso).

Other members pursued their own agendas. The American photographer Bruce Davidson, whose humanistic work detailed mining towns in South Wales and protest marches in Alabama, claimed: “I am in the picture, believe me. I am in the picture but I am not the picture.” His photograph of a priest delivering pastoral care on the blocks of Illinois exemplifies the camera as social apparatus.

Davidson also helped usher in the era of colour, which began to bleed into the contact sheets during the 1980s. Martin Parr, a member since 1994, has become the audacious face of this shift, with his gaudy flashgun shots of Britain’s chip shops, bus stops and burger bars. Parr’s taste for the prosaic—“I was really enjoying exploring the bland,” he remarked—has since become a staple of style magazines. Cartier-Bresson thought Parr’s work was insincere, others thought it was just plain ugly. As McLaren tactfully puts it, Parr had “no desire to cleave to aesthetic credos”.

As Magnum Photos grew, factions formed and spats sparked. Membership is by invitation only, and four-fifths male. A boys’ club, some say. But the agency has endured and adapted. With the notable exception of the New York Times, newspapers now have little interest in photojournalism. The lucrative photo-essays, for Time, Life and other periodicals, have dried up, replaced by coffee-table books and commercial work. Throughout its history, however, street photography has remained a staple of the agency’s practice.

The genre’s strong narrative thread has provided some profitable repurposing. Penguin Books recently mined the archive of long-time Magnum member Harry Gruyaert, the Belgian photographer whose images of shady cafes and murky alleyways were lit up with primary colours. His vivid, seamy scenes of Brussels and Paris now illustrate perfectly the covers of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret mysteries.

Magnum’s street work has some mileage yet. New members have brought their, sometimes radically different, signature styles to unfamiliar turf. Russian-born Gueorgui Pinkhassov creates dreamscapes out of Tokyo’s railroads and neon-heavy nightclubs, his frames dappled with light from a kaleidoscope of windows (see page 51). And the Norwegian photographer Jonas Bendiksen, who interned in the Magnum office as a teenager, brings his glacial perspective to Istanbul commuters and Black Sea bathers.

“GEORGIA. Abkhazia. Sukhum. 2005.” Although Abkhazia is isolated, half-abandoned and still suffering war wounds due to its unrecognized status, both locals and Russian tourists are drawn to the warm waters of the Black Sea. This unrecognized country, on a lush stretch of Black Sea coast, won its independence from the former Soviet republic of Georgia after a fierce war in 1993. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

No one exemplifies this creative new wave more than the British photographer Olivia Arthur. Her shots of Dubai’s racetracks and fish markets discombobulate with double exposures and reflections. They convey, she explains, “what it is like for a stranger to confront this place, where people live in their own little lifestyle bubbles and rarely interact with other social classes and ethnic groups.”

“U.A.E. Dubai. Workers unload sharks from vans at the Dubai Fish Market, 2013” © Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos.

Arthur has created a Dadaist take on a city of great wealth and immense misfortune. “The sense of belonging is not strong there,” she observes. Her work illustrates this detachment: figures melt into the environment as they clean fountains, unload trucks and walk through sandstorms. No doubt a young Cartier-Bresson would have approved. This is real—yet surreal—life on the street.   

Magnum Streetwise: The Ultimate Collection of Street Photography, edited by Stephen McLaren, is published by Thames & Hudson, £28.