By Mark Tungate
A man leaping a puddle, his double reflected in the mirror of water. A falling soldier with his arms spread like a crucifix against the sky. When you think of Magnum Photos, pictures like these, taken respectively by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, are likely to spring to mind. Which is only to be expected, because Cartier-Bresson and Capa were among those who founded Magnum as a cooperative in 1947.
But Magnum is not an archive, and still less a museum. It’s a living, breathing agency that continues to make a huge contribution to photography as an art form. Photojournalism may be part of its DNA, but its photographers also do plenty of commercial work.
Just ask Fiona Rogers, Magnum’s global business development director. “We’re obviously very fortunate that we have such an incredible legacy,” she says. “But there is a perception problem, and it’s something we’ve been trying very hard to educate people about. We represent a far broader church than you might think. Alongside photojournalists we have photographers who are more conceptual, more playful. We also do a lot of work with brands. In many ways we operate just like a regular agency.”
In fact Magnum has been doing corporate and advertising work from the very beginning. “We did some of the first work for Ford, some of the earliest campaigns for IBM. It was very much in the cooperative spirit we stand for. I'd imagine that one of the reasons that Burt Glinn was doing corporate work in the forties and fifties was so that Capa could go to Indochina.”
© David Alan Harvey/Magnum Photos for Magnum Photos x Fujifilm: Home
Names on Magnum’s contemporary roster of clients include Macallan, Fujifilm (above) and Dior. “We’ve seen a need for less polished, more authentic content: for genuine storytelling, which is what we as a brand represent.”
Magnum represents more than 50 active photographers, while its total list embraces over 90, including the estates of those who’ve passed on.
You can ask Fiona anything about Magnum’s recent past – as somebody who’s worked there almost since graduating, she’s unlikely to get caught out. After studying photography she worked at a small gallery, and one of the friendships she formed there led to an internship at Magnum. This evolved into a stint selling prints, and finally to the cultural department, where she worked for ten years on touring exhibitions and acquisitions, among other things.
“In 2007 I set up our education department, which was really about recognising that we had a consumer audience that wanted to engage with our photographers, and that we could help to bridge a gap in more traditional learning techniques.”
Initially this meant organising workshops, as well as partnering with photography festivals and universities. More recently, in early December, Magnum launched an online education programme.
This is part and parcel of the agency’s evolving image. It changed the face of photojournalism in the 20th century, but over the past few years it has been adapting its offering to the needs of the 21st. The online programme is just one facet of a long-term digital transformation.
For example, you might imagine that a photography agency as revered as Magnum might sneer at Instagram – but nothing could be further from the truth.
“We’ve been on a very interesting journey over the past four and a half years, mostly driven by our CEO David Kogan,” Fiona explains. “He came from a journalistic background – he’d worked at the BBC and Reuters – and he had a slightly different vision of Magnum. He saw it as more than just a pure B2B agency.”
At that point Magnum had been, in Fiona’s words, “playing around” with Instagram to get the measure of the platform. Without really trying, it had attracted almost a million followers. “David realised there was an untapped online audience we should be exchanging with in a more meaningful way.”
The traditional media giants that had been Magnum’s bread and butter for decades were on the wane. “So we began asking ourselves if we really needed to wait for The Guardian or the New York Times to pick up on our stories. Why couldn’t we be our own publisher?”
The result was an online editorial platform, launched two and a half years ago, nder the direction of Anne Bourgeois-Vignon, previously creative content director at Nowness “It’s gone from strength to strength. We can publish the stories we care about on it. We’ve also been commissioning our photographers to go and make work for it, which enables us to support them in a different way.”
Income is derived from e-commerce: photography books and prints, including the popular annual “square print” sale. “In a way we’re just giving people what they want. It creates accessibility. Magnum has always been perceived as quite an elitist brand, and I’m quite keen to move away from elitist to aspiration – and of course inspirational.”
Instagram is part of that, she adds. “It’s amazing to me that a kid who discovers photography thanks to his smart phone can follow the history back and find us. We’re a brand that’s nearly 72 years old, so we embrace this input from a younger audience.”
Magnum has yet to sign up its first Instagram photographer – but it has signed up young talents thanks to its educational program; Fiona mentions 22-year-old Lindokuhle Sobekwa from South Africa as just one example.
© Lindokuhle Sobekwa/Magnum Photos
One obvious question is whether Fiona is still a photographer herself? “No, I left it behind shortly after I graduated. I decided I was a better nurturer than I was a practitioner!”
Talking of nurturing, outside Magnum Fiona’s passion project is Firecracker, a platform showcasing women photographers, which she set up eight years ago. “Thanks to Magnum and other projects I was involved in I was meeting amazing women photographers, and I was frustrated that there didn’t seem to be enough opportunities for them. It started as a very basic website, but then we started offering an annual grant. When it began it felt like a very necessarily platform, but more recently the conversation has changed and our industry is becoming more diverse. Hopefully one day soon we won’t even need Firecracker.”
For Magnum itself, the evolution continues. In February it’s due to launch a site highlighting its commercial work, aimed at advertising and branding audiences. That sounds like a space worth watching.