Magnum Photos is an international photographic cooperative owned by its photographer-members, with offices in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo. According to co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually."
Founding of agency
Robert Capa, David "Chim" Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and William Vandivert (all photographers), Rita Vandivert and Maria Eisner were the founding members of Magnum in Paris in 1947, based on an idea of Capa's. Seymour, Cartier-Bresson and Rodger were all absent from the meeting at which it was founded. (In response to a letter telling him that he was a member, Rodger wrote that Magnum seemed a good idea but, "It all sounded too halcyon to be true," when Capa had told him of it and, "I rather dismissed the whole thing from my mind".) Rita Vandivert was the first President, and head of the New York office; Maria Eisner the head of the Paris office. The plan was for Rodger to cover Africa and the Middle East; Cartier-Bresson to cover south and east Asia; Seymour and William Vandivert to cover Europe and the United States, respectively; and Capa to be free to follow his curiosity and events.
Magnum is one of the first photographic cooperatives, owned and administered entirely by members. The staff serve a support role for the photographers, who retain all copyrights to their own work.
The Magnum cooperative has included photojournalists from across the world, who have covered many historical events of the 20th century. The cooperative's archive includes photographs depicting family life, drugs, religion, war, poverty, famine, crime, government and celebrities. Magnum In Motion is the multimedia offshoot of Magnum Photos and is based in New York City.
Although it has been asserted that the name "Magnum" was chosen because the founding members always drank a bottle of champagne during the first meetings, Russell Miller writes:
It was . . . presumably agreed by those present [at the first meeting] that Magnum was a fine new name for such a bold new venture, indicative as it was of greatness in its literal Latin translation, toughness in its gun connotation and celebration in its champagne mode.
Elections of new members
In the early years of Magnum, membership had generally come about by the personal invitation of Robert Capa. However, in 1955 a three-stage membership system was set up that continues to this day and is described below. Until 1953 there were also a large number of stringers who used Magnum but were not members.
Magnum's photographers meet once a year, during the last weekend in June, in New York, Paris or London, to discuss the cooperative's business. One day of the meeting is reserved to review potential new members' portfolios and vote on admitting individuals. An approved applicant is invited to become a 'Nominee Member' of Magnum, a category of membership that provides a chance for members and the individual to get to know each other, but that includes no binding commitments on either side.
After two years of Nominee membership, a photographer may present another portfolio if wanting to apply for 'Associate Membership'. If successful, the photographer is bound by the rules of the agency, and enjoys its facilities and worldwide representation. The difference between an Associate Member and a full Member is that an Associate is not a Director of the Company and does not have voting rights in the corporate decision-making. After two more years, an Associate wanting to be considered for full membership presents another portfolio of work for consideration by the members. Once elected as a full member, the individual is a member of Magnum for life or for as long as the photographer chooses.
No member photographer of Magnum has ever been asked to leave.
In February 2010, Magnum announced that Michael Dell's venture capital firm MSD Capital had acquired a collection of nearly 200,000 original press prints of images taken by Magnum photographers. It had formed a partnership with the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin to preserve, catalog, and make photographs available to the general public. In September 2013 it was announced MSD Capital donated the collection to the Ransom Center. A preliminary inventory is available for researchers who wish to use the collection.
Magnum is working with Tagasauris to crowdsource the tagging of Magnum's digital archive. The project allows volunteers to get early access to the (untagged) photo archive, and provide descriptive tags to the images.
A notable accomplishment of this effort was the discovery of a set of "lost" photos in the Magnum archive, from the shooting of the movie American Graffiti. This was achieved through a combination of human tagging and machine intelligence: the crowdsourcing identified individuals in separate photos (e.g., George Lucas, Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, and Mackenzie Phillips), and the machine process reviewed data to reveal what was common among them. The film American Graffiti was one suggestion. Tagasauris found nearly two dozen 'lost' photos taken on the filmâs set that were available (but not discoverable) in the Magnum archive. "Computers couldnât ID humans in the photo but humans couldnât know the context."
- America in Crisis. New York, NY: Ridge Press; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. ISBN 9780030810206. Text by Mitchel Levitas, edited by Charles Harbutt and Lee Jones, photographs by Eve Arnold, Cornell Capa, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, Burt Glinn, Philip Jones Griffiths, Charles Harbutt, Danny Lyon, Constantine Manos, Donald McCullin, Dennis Stock, Mary Ellen Mark and possibly others.
- Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History by Russell Miller. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8021-3653-2.
- Magnum Stories by Chris Boot. London: Phaidon, 2004. ISBN 0-7148-4245-1.
- Our World In Focus. London: Trolley Books, 2004. ISBN 1-904563-22-8.
- Pop Sixties by Magnum Photos. New York, NY: Abrams, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8109-9526-0.
- Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World, edited by Steven Hoelscher. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-292-74843-9.
- Magnum In Motion
- Magnum Foundation
- Official Magnum site