What Planet Are You On?

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Book Review

Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World by Geoff Dyer and Steven Hoelscher  (University of Texas Press)

City Stages by Matthew Pillsbury (Aperture)

Some of the finest poetry of Wallace Stevens expresses the constant struggle between representing things as they are, capturing moments that accord with something independent of the mind – moments, one might say, of cast-iron existence where no metaphors or tropes attach themselves to this level of material being — and, on the other hand, the alluring inclination to mediate experience with subjective positions of contestable value. In ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ he writes of ‘form gulping after formlessness’, the need to impose some order and pattern on restless, multiplex reality.

Photography is like the late poetry of Wallace Stevens in that it too battles with the conflicting drives of representing what is there, in all its necessary incongruity, and depicting a mediated slice of life that tells us more about the photographer than the photographed. When Magnum first established itself, co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of ‘ a respect for what is going on [in the world] and a desire to transcribe it visually’. What was going on was war, first in Spain and then across Europe and the globe, and war begat Magnum with the idea amongst a small group of Left-leaning photographers in 1947 for a cooperative that would allow them to take and disseminate pictures free of control from commercial and military organizations. The experience of conflict  had brought home to the Magnum founders the importance of pictures in conveying to non-combatants what happened when  war was unleashed and two of them (Robert Capa in the First Indochina War and David Seymour in the Suez War) would die in the course of their chosen careers. Another one of the co-founders, George Rodger, gave up war photography after taking pictures at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, appalled that he treated ‘this pitiful human flotsam as it were a gigantic still-life’. What shocked Rodger was that ‘I could look at the horror of Belsen … and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop. I said this is where I quit.’

lifeThe concentration camp, its dead and its survivors were there before Rodger’s eyes but so was his camera and when he put one up against the other something else came into play.  What Wallace Stevens said, in the same year that saw the formation of Magnum Photos, is as true of the photograph as it is of a poem: ‘What our eyes behold may well be the text of life but one’s meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of reality.’ The tension between the photographer as a reporter and as an artist lies at the core of the best work residing in the Magnum archives for as Philip Jones Griffiths put it, ‘There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life’.

A good example of this, just one of the many excellent photographs  in Reading Magnum, is Thomas Hoepker shot of five New Yorkers chatting and looking relaxed in a sunny park in Brooklyn while across the water plumes of smoke rise over the site where, two hours earlier, the World Trade Center towers had stood. Notwithstanding the later statements of two of the people in the photograph that they were in a state of profound shock at what had happened, the picture stands as both the depiction of an event and a meditation on it. There is a frame created by the photographer with the camera’s lens and another frame that encloses our perception of the photograph. These two frames do not overlap and the meaning of a picture (not that every picture has one), lies in the gap between them. Whatever the subjective feelings of the young people in Hoepker’s shot, we bring to it a certain understanding of the USA as a body politic with imperial might and a largely unquestioning citizenship and this enframes our thoughts about this  picture taken on September 11. The gap between the frames comes from an immanent antagonism, pointing to what is non-assimilable in the reality itself, and this is what brings home the causticity in the photograph’s perspective.


Magnum flourished in the decades following World War II, the heyday of picture magazines, when an issue of Life carried over 200 photographs. Magnum  supplied not only Life (with a circulation of six million) but Look, Paris Match, Picture Post, National Geographic and others.

MM_JJThe cooperative’s  photographers learnt to control how their work was used, specifying captions and railing against the cropping of their pictures, aware of their middle-class audience but striving to be different – as in Eve Arnold’s unconventional photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses –  because of their social and political consciousness. One of the chapters in Reading Magnum is devoted to portraiture, a genre that rarely unsettles  but one where engaged photographers could undermine the sense of safety that traditional portraiture creates between viewer and subject. David Seymour’s picture of a child drawing her ‘home’ in post-war Poland is an early example of this.

While it remains a cooperative owned and run by its member photographers, the nature of Magnum has changed considerably over the years. There is now a rigorous application process and there is a lengthy review process before a photographer is accepted into the club. Unfortunately, the kind of consciousness that informed the co-founders and many of the early members has been diluted and this is best exemplified by the sorry tale of Martin Parr’s admission into the Magnum collective. Parr has become hugely successful in the commercial sphere, his bank balance aided no doubt by the cachet of Magnum membership, but  he gained his reputation poking derision at ordinary working people by setting them up in their own homes to ridicule their choice of furniture and décor and, to drive home the sarcasm, having supercilious captions added to the pictures he took of them. There is a cruelty to his collection Signs of the Times  so let’s be cruel in return and say that its photographs, to borrow a barbed remark by Hegel, bear the same relation to disclosing social reality as an empty purse has to money. Parr has now polished up his style and gone international, while his use of high colour saturation has become passé. There was, thoug, spirited resistance to making him a member of Magnum and at the time Philip Jones Griffiths wrote this letter to fellow members:       

I have known Marin Parr for almost 20 years and during that time I have observed his career with interest. He is an unusual photographer in the sense that he has always shunned the values that Magnum was built on. Not for him any of our concerned ‘finger on the pulse of society’ humanistic photography. He preached against us and was bold enough to deride us in print while his career as an ‘art’ photographer mushroomed…. closely linked with the moral climate of Thatcher’s rule. His penchant for kicking the victims of Tory violence cause me to describe his pictures as ‘fascistic’ … Today he wants to be a member. The vote will be a declaration of who we are and a statement of how we see ourselves. His membership would not be a proclamation of diversity but the rejection of those values that have given Magnum the status it has in the world today. Please don’t dismiss what I am saying as some kind of personality clash. Let me state that I have great respect for him as the dedicated enemy of everything I believe in and, I trust, what Magnum still believes in.


It would seem that most Magnum photographers no longer do believe in what the cooperative once stood for as Parr obtained the two-thirds majority necessary for membership (apparently by a single vote).

Reading Magnum does touch on the controversy – quoting what Henri Cartier-Bresson said to Parr when they encountered one another – ‘I have only one thing to say to you. You are from a completely different planet — but doesn’t address the question as to what extent Magnum has now departed from those values and beliefs that made it such an incisive landmark in the history of photography. Magnum was always a commercial operation, protecting the financial interests of its members, but it was also something more. Now it is just another photo agency.

The development that Magnum has undergone is symptomatic of a broader change in the understanding of photography, one that looks less at what the picture reveals (‘the text of life’ that Wallace Stevens spoke of) and more to how the photographer mediates a moment of lived reality. The two dimensions are always present and at best produces a creatively vital dynamic, a coming together of contradictory forces that creates the gap wherein meaning resides. With the growing ascendancy of fine-art photography and the notion that the camera is the artist’s palette, something important has been lost.

Matthew Pillsbury’s City Stages celebrates what could be called a ‘mobilist’ view of the world: fluidity rules supreme, a fluent but blurred continuity is at the heart of what seems stable and solid. His photographs of apparently fixed places, like railway stations, museums and living rooms render them, or at least the people who inhabit their spaces, in a state of flux as if revealing the sub-atomic physics underlying what we perceive as secure and established. The place is New York but not as we know it for the city is inhabited by spectral figures that only approximate to fully constituted human beings. ‘These photographs are more about the evanescence of our lives and show human beings as fleeting essences that are moving through a landscape’, says Pillsbury who achieves his sci-fi effects with black-and-white 8 x 10 film with very long  — from a few minutes to an hour — exposures.


There is no denying the ability of these photographs to draw in the attention of the viewer, forcing attention on the juxtaposition of highly material objects, like the concrete buildings that line the course of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, with the ghost-like masses that pack the pavements with their ethereal presence. They insist rather than invite reflections on time and a fabulous  instance of this is Dinosaur Coming to Life, taken at the American Museum of Natural History. Philosophically intriguing, it illustrates the question of how we grasp the meaning of a time pre-dating the human species. What we call dinosaurs are said to have existed before the emergence of  thought, before there was any relation between the human world and what was not human, and yet we are governed by what Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude calls correlationsim, ‘the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other’. Yet with this dinosaur in the museum, in all its naïve realism, we are confronted with a being that existed before thinking, before there was any givenness. Does this make the skeleton that of a dinosaur only for humans or do we reassure ourselves that we can think what existed anterior to thinking? Pillsbury’s photograph, reversing the passage of time, undermines a process of retrospection like this, asserting the form of something predating human thought as more solidly real and present than the blurred images of the people in the museum.


Matthew Pillsbury, Dinosaur Coming to Life, © Matthew Pillsbury, Courtesy Bonni Benrubi Gallery

Impressive as City Stages is, it intimates a virtual reality light years away from the experiential reality of those photographers who made Magnum into something very special. If Matthew Parr came from a different planet to Cartier-Bresson, then Matthew Pillsbury comes from another universe.









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