Think of a major event in the past 70 years and the chances are that a photographer from Magnum will have been there, and immortalised it on film. From D-Day to Tiananmen Square, 9/11 to the election of President Donald Trump, Magnum Photos has borne witness, often providing the most iconic images to encapsulate these seismic moments.
Founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour, the agency is a co-operative run by its members. As such, it has been known both for its incredible photographic prowess, but also for the moments of drama and in-fighting encountered behind-the-scenes at the agency as the photographers have navigated the changing shape of photojournalism over the decades and tried to keep the group financially solvent.
It has faced one of its greatest challenges in recent years, as the impact of digital technology has forced Magnum to re-evaluate how it makes its money, and to diversify. In 2015, David Kogan arrived as executive director and set the co-op on a path that would fully embrace the opportunities of the digital landscape.
“To a certain extent it’s mirrored the evolution of the publishing industry as a whole,” says global digital director Anne Bourgeois-Vignon, who joined the agency from Nowness not long after Kogan, of the change at the agency. “The bottom’s fallen out of the [editorial] market, and everyone knows that, whether you’re a journalist or a photographer or a filmmaker, budgets have gone down across the board. Of course that’s had an impact on the livelihood of photographers.”
Magnum has adopted many strategies to shore up its position going forward but one of the most significant has been the decision to take control of its own content. In the past two years it has begun commissioning and financing its own assignments, selling the results to newspapers and media outlets but also running them online and on social media via its own platforms. Major projects so far have included an expansive look at both migration and the current climate in France. In 2016, the organisation received funding from the Google Digital News Initiative to help further develop its online platform.
“We have developed storytelling on our own terms,” says Bourgeois-Vignon. “I came over from Nowness to set up the new digital platform Magnum runs. That is basically a space for Magnum photographers to tell their own stories in the way that they want to tell them. We don’t want to rely on the editorial market entirely. It’s a really interesting exercise for us. Like many publications out there we have thought quite carefully about what our publishing programme is and why we do it…. It’s a varied publishing programme but it reflects what Magnum does as a whole.
“Magnum had kind of forgotten about making content for a little while,” she continues. “Our new Executive Director really put content right back at the heart of Magnum, putting funds towards making content. So we invested again into letting photographers go and make that work, which is something that had kind of been lost…. That’s been really put back at the heart of the whole machine.”
The site features a ‘Newsroom’ strand, highlighting new stories as well as revisiting work from the archive that may be newly relevant due to current events. “Sometimes history repeats itself,” says Bourgeois-Vignon, “or some of the things we have covered in the past seem to inform or dovetail with things that are going on today.”
There are also sections highlighting exhibitions featuring Magnum’s work as well as the group’s commercial projects. Another lucrative strand for Magnum is print sales, which may come through exhibitions but also from cheaper limited edition sales, such as the ‘Square Print’ sales which have seen carefully chosen prints by the photographers sold for just $100 for one week only. Another of these sales is planned by Bourgeois-Vignon for June this year.
Bourgeois-Vignon recognises that some of Magnum’s work can prove difficult in the print sales market, which might typically favour light-hearted or ‘beautiful’ work. But she points out that Magnum does have plenty of that too. “Even though there’s very visible difficult work at Magnum, because we do cover conflict and we do cover poverty and famine and disease … there’s always been a true diversity of styles,” she says. “You also have, to go back to the beginning, Philippe Halsman doing the ‘Jump’ series with fashionable people jumping at parties. Just like today, we have a real plurality of stuff.” Plus, Bourgeois-Vignon also points out that there are niche collectors who are interested in the tougher images the co-op produces.
Other areas of diversification for Magnum have included a renewed focus on education and a generally more outward-facing approach. “Photography has more prevalence now than ever before,” says Bourgeois-Vignon. “We as an audience make more photographs than ever before, and in that way people seem to be interested in the origins of photography and who is making photographs, and what it takes to make a great picture.
“I really want us to become thought leaders in the photographic space, talking about what it means to be a photographer today,” she continues. “I want to invite more people to think with us about what photography means today, to intervene on the archive, to curate the archive with us.
“Magnum was traditionally a b-to-b company, and it’s slowly transforming into a consumer-centric company, where that consumer is a professional picture buyer, or a fan of photography. For me the big challenge is how do we achieve that transformation and really showcase what we do for consumers, from education to having prints available to buy, to being a media company … that’s a really exciting challenge.”
This new, open attitude does go against the atmosphere sometimes generated by Magnum in the past, where the agency could at times feel a little aloof. Bourgeois-Vignon acknowledges this. “I used to be a photo editor and a commissioning editor, and it’s true that sometimes in the past 10-15 years I have seen Magnum as a bit of an ivory tower. Sometimes information was hard to access and if you didn’t have the inclination to go and search for it, it might have been quite difficult to get in touch with Magnum. So you’re right, we are making a massive effort to outreach to our community. And it’s clearly paying off – the growth on social media has been insane.”
Magnum Photos now has over 4 million followers across social media, and the past two years has also seen the introduction of seven new ‘nominees’ to the agency (new members are chosen by the current members of the agency and for their first two years are known as nominees before they can apply to be associate and later full members). “There’d not been that proof of engagement with bringing on new members for a little while, so that’s definitely a sign that things are on the up,” says Bourgeois-Vignon.
Paramount though is always maintaining the agency’s rigorous standards. “Every photographer within Magnum has an individual style and a different way of developing their work,” she emphasises. “But for us, what’s really important is developing extremely high quality content.”
Magnum Photos is holding a number of exhibitions and events across London from May-July to celebrate its 70th birthday: more info at magnumphotos.com. It will also be publishing a book, Magnum Manifesto, with Thames & Hudson to mark its 70 years, priced £45; thamesandhudson.com