43 responses to “Magnum Photos: The Changing of a Myth”

  1. Oh man, can’t wait to get back to the hotel to see this.

  2. Ivars Krafts says:

    The video is certainly worth watching. While it didn’t give me answers as to where I may want to go with my photography, it did clarify some questions I need to address. Thank you for the link.

  3. Jason Timmis says:

    Perfect timing for a Thursday night. Definitely worth the hour! Thanks for posting.

  4. Dominic says:

    Thanks for sharing this Daniel. Hadn’t seen this video before and worth the hour.


  5. Steve Caddy says:

    Oh man, I’d forgotten about this but I love Larry.

    I love the tenderness and timelessness and desolation in The Mennonites. I cried reading his handwritten transcripts in The World from My Front Porch.

    Isn’t Martin Parr beguilingly intelligent?

    • Smogranch says:

      Mennonites is MAYBE the best essay I’ve ever seen. It’s what I think about when I think about reportage. Real world, “Old school” where as he says you work at your own pace and not “with a monkey on your back.” Eight years.

  6. I loved this. Keep your personal work personal and whatever your personal style is it’ll come through in the work.

    On a side note: I’ve always loved the fact that Capa had to play the ponies to keep the boat afloat.

  7. lionelB says:

    Fifteen years and already it looks like pre-history.

    A comedian called Al Read had the by-line “Introducing us to ourselves”. I think that sums up the essence.

  8. Mike says:

    Thanks, Dan, I’m a Magnum fan but I hadn’t seen this before. I love Philip Jones GrIffiths, he loved to talk and was eloquent, passionate and certain in his arguments; but I always thought that he would be able to play Devil’s Advocate on any subject and be equally convincing.

    Do you know the back story about his photograph of the U.S. marine giving a wounded Viet Cong soldier a drink from his canteen? (about 15:17 into the video). It goes something like this … The V.C. soldier has been wounded in the stomach and has a bowl tied to his abdomen to hold his insides in place. A stomach wound makes the victim very thirsty and he’s asked for a drink. The other U.S. soldier in the photograph says to let him drink water from the paddy field but the soldier giving the drink says “Any man who can fight for two days with a bowl tied to his stomach can drink from my canteen and I’ll be proud of it”. This may sound familiar as the scene and words were used in the film Apocalypse Now, with Robert Duvall giving the drink; only to quit doing so when he hears the words “Surf’s up!”. When P. J. Griffiths complained about the theft (to, I presume, Francis Ford Coppola he was told “So sue me”. He didn’t.

    I too love the scenes with Larry Towell, he is so rooted to the land and understands why it is so important to people. Because of this he is ideally placed to photograph the landless and those who have had their land taken away from them such as in Palestine. Lose the land, lose your identity: many of us in the West have lost our connection to the land and thus to our fellow creatures that co-inhabit the world.


    • Smogranch says:

      I’ve always felt one of the “issues” we have in the US is too many generations away from the land. I was with an eight-year-old who couldn’t identity a cow. First thought it was a horse, then sheep then had no idea.

  9. Steve Caddy says:

    That’s a very insightful last sentence Mike, I’m inclined to agree.

    The thing I found fascinating about the scenes from the doco featuring Larry were how ‘present day 80s’ it looked. Even the scenes with the Mennonite families, the homes, the rope swing, all in that 80s VHS color. But his photographs have this incredibly timeless look. The story is one of poverty and destitution, but it’s rendered with a really romantic eye. Of course, that eye could just be mine and not Larry’s at all, it’s hard for me to say.

    But definitely one of my favourite essays of all time, and it includes some of my favourite single images of all time too — the women crossing the dirt road in the wind, clutching their hats, the little girl curled up asleep among the harvest; and Phiadon did the production a real honour in it’s printing and binding. It’s a worthy and suitable package.

    • Smogranch says:

      There are only a few essays that come to mind when it comes to anything remotely close to that essay. Minutes to Midnight being one of my other favs.

  10. joe dupont says:

    Thank you for the video. It was very much worth watching and has greatfully made me aware of Larry Towell. I went to the Magnum site and looked at his project with the Mennonites and was overwhelmed with the quality of his work. There is also a very informative interview with him by the Canadian Journalism Project (http://j-source.ca/article/visionary-photojournalist-ahead-his-time-qa-larry-towell-canada’s-first-member-magnum-photos). I see a kindred spirit between you and him in your photographic approach and results. Keep working and inspiring.


    • Smogranch says:

      I met him in LA a year or so ago. Seemed like a nice guy. Been looking at his work since I was in school, so I’m sure it’s had an impact on me.

  11. Great Documentary! Maybe one day I’ll be part of Magnum! lol

  12. Mike says:

    What I love about Larry Towell and Trent Parke is that they not only document our time, but they do so with great photographs. Some people make good documentary essays, using photography, but the photographs are more illustrations than great photographs. With Larry Towell and Trent Parke you can see the love they have for their craft. Something for me to remember and emulate.


  13. mike a says:

    Thanks for sharing that, I enjoyed it.

  14. bob soltys says:

    Thanks for posting this, Dan.

    The late great Dan Fogelberg, God rest him, talked about the damage cutting ourselves off from the land causes.


    Check out Larry’s “Mennonites” CD in the Magnum store.

  15. Mike says:

    Looks like Larry Towell’s Leica won’t advance the film. I read somewhere that the vibration in the cabin of aircraft when flying can loosen screws in cameras, and if the screw becomes proud of its seat it can cause the film advance to jam. I don’t put by camera bag in the overhead storage on planes, I rest it on my feet! All this talk of his Mennonites book is going to result in another book for the bookshelf; which is full already.


  16. Patrick Dodds says:

    The video was interesting in the sense that it showed how things used to be, in another age. It felt a bit like hearing about the Victorians when I was a child, that’s how detached from today it felt. Maybe things will come full circle and the Magnum way of doing things (in depth, over time, serious) will return – it’ll take a different attitude towards money though, and society doesn’t seem any closer to getting this in perspective as the years roll by.

    • Smogranch says:

      There are still plenty of people working this way. Both in Magnum and out. The rest of thew work being done is for the now, and it looks it and feels it. AS a culture we are dumbing down at an alarming rate. If someone is waiting for society to do this work it will never happen. What distinguishes this work is the people willing to do it for no other reason than they feel the need. All of the highest selling images in the world are celebrity images, in terms of dollars, far beyond anything the art or documentary world has produced. That should tell you all you need to know.

  17. Mike says:

    Tells me all I need to know: the cult of celebrity and money talking.


  18. Totally agree. I think these little gems like Mennonites and midnight live in a special place in my heart.
    It really shows you just how talented Trent Parke is. I mean, a two year road trip is what it took for him to do minutes.
    It took me 10 years to do my book and all I got was a 3 hour phone call with the big boys. And a try better next time.
    It takes time to do quality anything.

    I wanna get a tire swing now.

  19. Mike says:

    Eric, I read recently that J.K. Rowling had the first Harry Potter book rejected by about 10 – 12 publishers before she had the book finally published. We think “great photography” they think “Will it make money?”. Of course a publisher will soon go out of business without making a profit, but some publishers and many magazines and newspapers take the easy celebrity reporting (fiction) route. No-one is taking a risk and pushing the envelope.
    Many years ago I had a photo essay – ten years in the making – returned from a national newspaper after they had held on to it for about four months. My portfolio was just posted back to me and was leaning on the front door when I came home from work as it was too big to post. When I contacted the newspaper they said, “sorry, recession, only work by staff photographers etc. etc”. When I bought the newspaper the next weekend the magazine had a full-page ‘reportage’ on the Top Ten Toasters. But I’m not bitter, I’m not twisted.

    It’s interesting that Magnum and others are still searching for a new business model and yet their website has not changed much over the years. They still offer books for sale but the last time I looked they posted them from the U.S., and the postage to the U.K. was almost as much as the book. They don’t seem to be even aware of the print on demand market and the ability to print low volume zines of serious, quality, work and to be able to advertise it on a well-run blog that writes about serious photography and advertises directly to a visually aware audience. Daniel is going to produce a zine soon and I’m going to buy it. If you do the same I’ll buy yours too. Hey, I may be on to something here!

    There is a children’s playground close to me that has a tire swing (o.k., a health and safety approved tire swing with a metal middle) I wonder how long it would take a 60+ photographer playing on a tire swing on a children’s playground to get a visit from the cops? Maybe no-one will bat an eye!


  20. Mike,

    All of what you wrote was quite interesting.

    Lately, I’ve really loved what Dan has done with pictures and sound.
    I am going to design my Tijuana book through blurb. I really want to put that baby to bed. The problem I have is my TJ work is a big amorphous blob that needs organization. Will keep ya posted. As for now I’ll stick to my blog. I’m jealous of the Smogranch. It’s so good.

    • Mike says:

      I now follow your blog, Eric, and I look forward to seeing Tijuana come to fruition. I love to take photographs, I love chasing the light, but dealing with it afterwards – not so good. Not good at all.


    • Smogranch says:

      I will come to Vegas, document the process and we will edit and produce it.

  21. Mike,

    I hear ya man.

  22. Steve Caddy says:

    Yeah, much to respond to… I do think it’s interesting what Magnum will do to survive. It will need to find an alternate model; I wonder what their arrangement with Leica is. Speaking of Leica, Forbes ran a very insightful interview with Leica’s Head of Professional Photography a while back. The opening comment is telling:

    “Leica had a long history with professionals throughout the 20th century. Most of these professionals were photojournalists. But we realized that in the 21st century, the image of our brand was becoming weaker because Leica was no longer as strongly represented among professionals.

    In today’s professional market, photojournalists are a rare breed, and they are no longer as well paid as in previous generations. For a high-end brand that charges premium prices, this secular trend needed to be addressed.

    We deemed it essential to maintain a strong position in the professional market, but we realized that we needed to fundamentally reinvent our approach. Above all, we needed a product that could appeal to the kind of professional photographers who are able to afford a professional camera. Today, these photographers predominantly work in fashion and commercial photography.”

    When I worked for Lonely Planet we would have regular guest speakers come into the office. We once had a guy who had spent seven years documenting the Myanmar rebels which, if you know anything about Burma, is a ridiculously difficult and dangerous assignment. He managed to get footage of a combat engagement between the rebels and government forces, set in the context of a long term reportage, smuggle it out of the country (an assignment in itself), get himself out, collect the footage and return home safely. But he was never able to sell it — because, he was told, there is no public interest in the Myanmar.

    So new news, and thus, any documentary, must create its own context. The audience needs to be able to tell in the blink of an eye, without being conscious of it, what it is and why they should care. Create a sense of intrigue, tell a story, have an impact, catch them in repose, make them stop and think.

    The scarcest resource of the information age is attention, so any work must be able to reach an audience who has time or inclination to consume it for some reason or another. With media distribution costs approaching zero, it’s possible to learn about anything, instantaneously, the moment that it happens. And we’re dopamine-wired to respond to this immediacy as if it were a drug. It has nothing to do with smarts or ‘values’ and everything to do with hormones and the frenetic pace of the mediascape today.

    I think it’s utterly reasonable to assume that news-media outlets as they stand today won’t be the channel of the future. Especially not for real reporting. Magazines from other industries (fashion and business … Elle, Harpers, Marie Clare) that can remain viable might continue to run human interest pieces that can pay, niche publications will have trouble footing the bill and for a select few there’s Time.

    I have a friend who is hellbent on making a career out of documenting cycling and doing ok at it, but his success has little to do with the quality of his work — which is strong, but not strongly differentiated from the other strong pros following the pro tour. What he’s great at is knowing who stands to benefit from a project he has in mind and making it easy for them to do so. All they have to do is provide access and pay the bill. While most pros covering the Giro d’Italia were processing nightly images for the usual sites, blogs and magazines he followed one team, shooting for three of their sponsors, having identified that they would all benefit from a coherent story could show them coherently supporting the success of a new champion (when the reality was that each of them had simply exchanged money and equipment for a logo on the team livery). What he sold them was the promise of a marketable story, all Europcar had to do was provide a car for three weeks and an advance. Campagnolo provided access to the team behind the scenes and funding for the rest of the project. He delivered the rest: a behind the scenes story based on an intimate look at just one team — a story impossible to sell profitably as ‘news’ to any outlet covering the event itself.

    I wonder then, how does other work pay off? Who has a stake in it? How can they be aligned to subsidise the greater project and make it viable? How does it need to be packaged to engage the audience? A major project these days I think will have to come out as multiple features, a book, an exhibition, a video, an interview … more than just a commission or pitch, because the margins are so thin … because attention is so expensive … because distribution is so fast and so cheap.

    And then, I wonder, has the great work ever been different?

    I don’t recall where I read it but I was struck a little while back by someone saying that much of the great work of the 20th century was done by men and women who either eschewed wealth or were of such means that they didn’t need to directly pursue it. HCB travelled at his leisure. Arvedon rode his commercial success into the American West and took a risk so big in challenging the heroic glory of the Western myth that no gallery but the one that commissioned it would show it on its completion. Koudelka says in one interview that he attained the freedom to follow long term projects by sleeping outside on the ground — that the gypsies would joke that the only person poorer than them was him.

    Outside of fashion and advertising — which many of the great documentarians have supplemented with — I’m not sure that anyone was ever getting rich off of even the greatest photo stories, and the fine art market has never been a reliable game for anyone.

    Here’s NatGeo’s photo editor talking about what makes Dave Allen Harvey a sure bet for the magazine. The picture comes first. Above friends, above family, above relationships, above everything. That’s what it takes. If that ain’t you, go drive a taxi.

    And here’s a transcript from a student of a Magnum workshop with (among others) Larry Towell.

    Q: In a time when everybody has a camera, how would you recommend people who are in this generation or people now trying to make it as a photographer, any recommendations for moving forward when you have a lot more competition?

    Larry Towell: Everybody heard that question? Nowadays when everybody is taking pictures, how do you become a photographer when everyone else is a photographer. This is…those of you who I said we have thirty seconds each, because obviously that’s a long, long conversation.

    Bruce Gilden: I think it’s a short conversation because if you don’t know the answer to that question, I think maybe you are in the wrong field.

    Larry Towell: No the answer was when we talked about..when we started, when I gave my first presentation, it’s about voice, finding your voice. In terms of marketing, that’s a business thing you’ve got to figure out but as…

    Bruce Gilden: You’ve had your 15 seconds…

    Larry Towell: No, I only had 10 seconds, Bruce, I’m sorry…so it’s about that. It’s about finding your voice in that field and then after that we don’t know what the future holds.

    Bruce Gilden: No wait one second…

    Larry Towell: No seriously…

    Bruce Gilden: He was more than 10 seconds…

    Larry Towell: No I wasn’t.

    Bruce Gilden: Anyway I’m being brusque with you, maybe unfairly, but I am actually being quite truthful with you.

    Q: I’m playing Devil’s Advocate because I just want to know…it’s very different when you started taking pictures…

    Bruce Gilden: No, no, it’s not! It’s the same because if you go back to the early 20th century when Kodak first made their cameras, it was for everyone. It wasn’t a rich man’s, you know, field–photography. So it’s always been the same, it’s just faster, ok? I think you have to slow down yourself to your pace and look out there and you’ll see. If you think you have something to say and you, like Larry said, have a voice then it will be fine. If not, then, you know, maybe it is time to move on and switch.

    Eli Reed: Basically you have to do it for yourself. That’s what it comes down to. Finding a voice, that’s one way of looking at it. If you don’t do it for yourself then why? I mean I don’t really care–to tell you the truth–about working. I mean nothing really has changed. I was the worst freelancer in the world because I really didn’t care about so much about…I care about doing some work that meant something for me. That’s what it comes down to.

    Which is really all just supporting evidence to what you said many comment up the thread Smoggy 🙂

    • Smogranch says:

      Great information and great post. We are working on something at Blurb where I would love to turn this into more of a conversation…….thanks for doing this, really added some meat to this conversation. Rode 12 yesterday, SLOWLY, but had a blast.

  23. Dan,

    Can’t wait, I put on the kettle.

  24. Steve Caddy says:

    Sounds interesting Dan. Always keen to hear / talk more.

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