Set up as a co-operative affording its members control of their own work, Magnum stands for the possibility of individual fulfilment through shared endeavour, its unique cast of characters between them bearing witness to the momentous events of the 20th century and beyond, elevating and defining the medium in the process.
Founded in 1947 in the uncertainty and tentative optimism of peacetime, the agency’s longevity was far from assured, and when in 1952 its then president Robert Capa wrote a report reflecting on Magnum’s first five years, his assessment was brutal. ‘Looking back,’ he wrote, ‘it is perfectly clear that by every rule of reason and economy, this thing should never have been started, or at the very least, it should have ceased existing a long time ago.’
As new picture magazines joined established titles such as Life and Paris Match, the period immediately after the war heralded a golden age of photojournalism. Even so, photographers had few rights and Magnum pledged to free them from the tyranny of editorial constraints, allowing its members to retain copyright, and control how their work was used. Hardened by their experiences of war, and convinced of the possibilities afforded by lightweight and discreet 35mm cameras, Magnum’s founders were determined that photographers should be free to tell their own stories.
In true Magnum style the story of the agency’s foundation has been heavily mythologized. Supposedly gathered at MoMA to christen their new organisation in champagne, only Capa and William Vandivert were in New York in the spring of 1947, along with Rita Vandivert and Maria Eisner who between them would run the Paris and New York offices, while Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour were all on assignment. Committed to reporting on world events, but also to wider human interest stories, Magnum embodied a spirit of humanism borne out of the trauma of war, in common with international institutions that emerged at that time, from the UN and NATO to the IMF.