02-12-2011 19:25:15

Magnum Photos: the famous agency resists the recession!

Almost all of them have failed. The photo agencies that were famous one day are either closed or sold. These last ten years have been a complete catastrophe. Magnum, proud and with its head held high, enjoys a considerable and a priceless collection.
A Micmag investigation. Translation Marion Mauget (Granada-Spain)
Magnum Photos is definitely the world’s most famous photo agency. Created in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour as a cooperative, it will soon have gone through 65 years of both success and recession, with some of the world’s greatest photojournalists among its team. Clément Saccomani, projects and client manager at Magnum Photos Paris -the editorial heart of the agency- tells us about the functioning of this one of a kind entity. Interview.

Micmag: How does Magnum work?

Clément Saccomani: “Magnum agency is a cooperative owned by its photographers. It has its own ritual to include new members: the photographers meet once a year in one of Magnum’s four offices. It is their way to talk, to meet: those people share the same vision of photography. Every year, new photographers are tempted to enter the agency. They have to present a portfolio that is going to be evaluated by the photographers. This process helps reducing the number of potential candidates. Afterwards, the members choose a nominee. This nominee will have to keep working on its previous work during one to three years: the idea is that the photographers that are going to join the agency aren’t just one story photographers. They have to be photographers of a photographic life; they have to have their own writing style, their own narrative style. This lasts between one to three years. Then, the nominee shows its work a second time at another annual meeting: if the work is accepted, he will then be an associate member during five to seven years. All together, it is almost ten years. After this period, the photographer can finally be a full member. It is a very long process. We don’t work with freelancers. Getting to enter Magnum’s team is a real investment. It has been a guarantee of quality for 65 years now.

Micmag: What is Magnum’s line of work?

C. S.: “The idea is to tell the world. Today Magnum is represented by people such as René Burri (member since 1969), Josef Koudelka (since 1974), Elliott Erwitt (since 1954), or even really young photographers such as Dominic Nahr (2010’s nominee). It is an orchestra in which the photographers are their own conductor. It is not always easy but it is what keeps the agency healthy and what helps us have discussions not only about the photographers, but about the agency’s management as well.

Micmag: How did Magnum went through the photography recession?

C. S.: “We were quite unsteady for a while, like everyone else. But the difference is that we have archives. Because what help a photographer carry on nowadays are not the photographs that he can take, but the photographs that he already took. It is a question of managing the archives. They constitute a mattress that helps the photographer soften his fall during a recession period… At Magnum Photos, when we say archives, we mean one year after the photo shot. That is why we always try to find distribution means in advance. A book for instance -a monograph devoted to a photographer, joint publications-, or private orders. Afterwards, we try to display our work in exhibitions. Our office in Paris handles 120 exhibitions per year.

Micmag: Jean-François Leroy, Visa pour l’image Founder and Director, said that only about ten photojournalists in the world were able to live from their work…

C. S.: “Well, it is his opinion. It is true that there are ten photo stars. But they are not the only ones who can be creative. Obviously, it is hard to live well, but some photographers find their ways. Nowadays, the most appreciated photographers are those who have not change even a tiny bit their vision, their way of working. Yes, some used to talk about a world where there were only ten photographers, but I did not know this world, and those who did are almost retired now. The point is not to find out whether it was a better world or not. The point is it is over now. Five years ago, you could sell a photograph to the press for almost $7.000, nowadays you would sell it for $70. Therefore, we only have two choices: to cry or to move on and manage to do something else. For instance, if you take a look at what happened during the Arabic Spring in the newspapers, all the images are the same. However, there are not many people covering Soudan, Congo or Uganda. The press does not seem to be really interested. But you could say that it does not really matter, because if you are thinking about whether the press would like it or not, you are counting your chickens before they have hatched. And that is exactly the problem.

Micmag: What do you have to do to remain the best agency in the world?

C. S.: “First of all, we keep on doing photography. And we keep on looking for new ways to do it. There are so many alternatives to find funding, new ways to tell our stories: I-pad applications, the Internet or even images in motion. Forty years ago, the photographer Depardon was already asking for a camera and a microphone… Today, we have cameras that do both, we have digital technology. Let’s keep on innovating; the public has never been so curious.

Micmag: What is a Magnum photo worth?

C. S.: “You have to take many criteria into account. If we refer to a photograph and the art market, some photographers have understood very well how it works: limited editions, exemplary nature of the printings, distribution networks, etc. However, if you refer to the image in general, Magnum’s team will always persists in maintaining the highest standards and the exceptional character of each photograph, either in its journalistic approach or in its conception.

Micmag: Is photojournalism entering the art market?

C. S.: “Yes, and it has been this way for over ten years now. Actually, some quotations are quite interesting. However, I feel a bit skeptical about the amount of money that is reaching the photography market and the art in general. If we are talking about a period photograph of Henri Cartier-Bresson, signed, I can understand. If we are talking about some modern photographs that reach higher quotations than the period photographs, I am more skeptical. It is common to see bubbles appear. I just hope that it will not become a speculative bubble, such as what happened with the Internet. So, is this keen interest in photography real or has it only been given a great deal of media attention?

Micmag: Why this success?

C. S.: “During recession, people tend to invest in the photography market, which usually becomes a safe value.

Micmag: Does Magnum Photos have any interest in contemporary art?

C. S.: “Some of our photographers are more multidisciplinary artists than journalists, even if the one does not preclude the other. Yes, we are heading for the contemporary art market. Our main focus is to carry on taking photographs and that our photographers carry on working.

Micmag: Is it possible to talk about revenue or profits with you?

C. S.: “The principle of the agency is to make photographs, not money. The example that could feat the most is the photographer Abbas (member since 1985). In 2001, while he was in Siberia, he asked himself what could lead somebody to throw planes on tours. This question spurred him to begin a journey all over the world to investigate on the Islamic world after September 9/11. The project culminated in both a book and an exhibition. He spent 8 years investigating. It was a 32 photographs exhibition. 4 photographs per year: let’s not talk about business model. We are not here to be efficient or make profits. We are here to help take photographs. It is essential that we find alternative for our photographers to work.


Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare", 1932, €433.000 ($580.000), photo credit Christie's

Irving Penn, "Harlequin Dress", 1950, €265.000 ($355.000), photo credit Christie's

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