Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Magnum Photo Agency: ‘No rules, just photographers telling stories’

'No rules, just photographers telling stories’ is essentially the Magnum Agency motto.

Their vast online archive is crammed full of images of momentous world events in the past 65 years; fall of the Berlin Wall, the Spanish Civil War, Tienanmen Square, the mass mourning at Princess Diana’s funeral, and any modern conflict – Chechnya, Iraq, Arab Spring. Then it’s not just events but well known individuals; actors on film sets, politicians of all persuasions and who could forget that Afghan girl with the green eyes? Their international reputation enable them to document NGO aid missions, raise awareness of health issues and provide photo-commentary to what might otherwise be overlooked by the traditional press.

Set up as a photographers’ collective in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David 'Chim' Seymour, they were determined their work should remain their own rather than giving up control of copyright and context to magazines for which they were working. In setting up their own agency (named after a magnum of champagne), they could not only license the images and control how they were used but go on to use spare funds to ‘support the production and the independent vision of its individual photographer members’.

Membership remains necessarily exclusive and incredibly difficult to achieve. Notionally with no collective rule book there is no limit on the number of members however it would seem difficult to maintain cohesion of the collective with too many people. Not only that but the resources of the staff that support the photographers are limited to 4 relatively small offices – London, New York, Paris and Tokyo – which is already stretched to the limit.

With such a disparate group of creative individuals it’s inevitable they should occasionally find themselves in difficulties. The richness of the archive also presents issues because there’s a danger of it becoming a mere historical record. With that in mind they employed their first CEO in 2011 with the intention of turning Magnum into an organised, global operation, combining its historic strengths with a modern dynamism. A change in the way that the public consume images means a change in the way they are having to ‘sell’ their product – by partnering with publishers such as Thames and Hudson, creating exhibitions/catalogues, running events and carrying out special, cultural projects. The results of these projects are published as photo-essays, freely available on their website.

Unlike a public, national or cultural collection, this archive is totally commercial. Where other archives may not have the resources to make material searchable and available, it is essential here that the original photo is scanned, retouched, captioned, processed, stored and purchasable online as soon as possible. In comparison to the V&A photo archive which has 20% of the collection online, Magnum has over 80%. The massive amount of work involved has led to creative solving of problems which on the face of it seem quite radical and unorthodox to information and archival professionals. Magnum sacked its keyworders and decided to employ crowd sourcing instead. They are working with Tagasauris and members of the public sign up to tag photos. By offering incentives such as exclusive to access to new images, paying a penny a picture, it seems - with careful quality control - like an effective method of assigning metadata to pictures. Apparently this is working well.

Having no real constraints in terms of traditional archive methods and being alive to making the most of the collection means that Magnum has a lot to teach others about turning a commercial profit. The historic collection though it exists in a physical format, is rarely accessed and even being dispersed. To reduce valuable space, parts of their archives are now in academic collections and iconic individual images have been sold to collectors. With no collective rules and no checks on what their talented members can record, the power of this organisation is extraordinary. Anyone can snap a moment but the professional will always tell a story in way that will be remembered.

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