Founded 75 years ago, Magnum Photos is steeped in photographic tradition, and its members are heralded in particular for their documentation of everyday life from multiple angles, whether seemingly mundane street scenes or highly charged warzones.
Foam in Amsterdam, which is staging an exhibition of Magnum photography, is the first to admit that even the cooperative’s members rarely promote the commercial strand of their practice, despite most of them engaging with this world at some stage in their careers.
Of course, there are the likes of Martin Parr, who gleefully leans into the brash qualities of consumerism and commerce, but by and large, the aura of prestige that surrounds Magnum may seem at odds with the world of commissioned work, a by-product of the perceived inferiority of paid commercial projects ever since photography came to be recognised as an art form.
The show, titled Open for Business – Magnum Photographers on Assignment, brings together members’ commissioned work from the 1950s through to 2019. Not only does it excavate Magnum’s vast archive for less widely known photographs, it also casts a light on the relationship between the two worlds.
Alongside fashion magazine editorials are assignments for government bodies and NGOs, illustrating that a commission can lead photographers to equally grave or poignant territory, and that indeed the lines are often blurred between how we receive an image depending on the circumstances that led to its existence.
Can a piece of work still qualify as documentary photography if an image-maker comes in with an agenda? Is an independent project inherently more meaningful than a commission, even if both tackle exactly the same subject matter? And how does a photographer’s artistic sensibilities change depending on the context of the image? This is the question raised by Bruce Gilden turning his infamously unforgiving flashgun approach on Gucci models rather than the vulnerable people on society’s fringes who typically populate his work.
These questions and many more are thrown up by the show at Foam, which examines the complexity of the photography industry today, when it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate out its different categories, and most photographers need to take on commercial work in order to survive.
Magnum: Open for Business runs at Foam, Amsterdam from May 27–September 7; foam.org