Posts tagged: magnum

We are always being influenced

By , February 4, 2016 3:36 pm

No matter how hard we try to pretend that we are doing things our own way, the fact of the matter is that there is very little we do which is original. Almost all the photographs we take will be informed or influenced by others we have seen in the past. Often that influence is gentle, almost hidden, but occasionally it is quite blatant.

Consider, for instance, this image which I took at a wedding shortly before Christmas. It was long service and I was exploring the rear of the church with a newly acquired (and utterly sublime) 56mm f1.2 on a Fuji X-Pro 1, when I saw a young girl playing with the votive candles, as I pulled the viewfinder to my eye I already new it was an image I had seen before.

Girl with votive candles

Girl with votive candles. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2015

The image it conjured in my mind was by the photographer David Seymour (aka Chim), of a girl called Tereska. The original caption for the photo said:

“Children’s wounds are not all outward. Those made in the mind by years of sorrow will take years to heal. In Warsaw, at an institute which cares for some of Europe’s thousands of “disturbed” children, a Polish girl named Tereska was asked to make a picture of her home. These terrible scratches are what she drew.”

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum 1948

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum. 1948

Clearly they are very different subjects, with one traumatised by war and concentration camps and the other presumably having had no experiences other than a safe a secure upbringing, and I am not trying to draw specific parallels between the two. But equally it is clear that the compositional elements of the older photograph by David Seymour of Magnum were informing the decisions I made as I moved to take that photograph in December.

Photographs – René Burri

By , June 12, 2009 8:02 am

BOOK REVIEW:  René Burri – Photographs

There are some photographers you really ought to know better, but don’t. They go quietly about their work, unassuming, not wanting to do the obvious or offend their subjects. René Burri is that photographer. A man not afraid to talk about the untaken photographs; the images missed because he chose to miss them. His is a considered approach, one that has resulted in many iconic images and a deserved reputation among his colleagues as one of the giants of twentieth century photodocumentary.

A Magnum veteran, it is unsurprising that he should have sought to publish a major retrospective of his work, and still less surprising that he should do so through Phaidon, masters of the photographic monologue who have published over 15 books by Burri’s Magnum colleagues.

Born in Zurich in 1933, Burri came into photography almost by accident. From childhood he was unquestionably artistically inclined, his mother saved wrappers to help feed her son’s demand for drawing paper, and his attendance at Zurich’s well regarded art school was almost inevitable. Burri, however, was initially turned off photography by the pungent smells associated with the darkroom, and it was only when he saw the lighting rigs of the studio, and their inherent Hollywood glamour that his thoughts turned to the possibilities photography might offer.

A naturally inquisitive man, Burri found Switzerland claustrophobic: the mountains obscured his view of the world beyond. Furthermore, the methodical order and neutrality so often associated with Switzerland, and ingrained in Burri during his training by the esteemed formalist, Hans Finsler, became something Burri wrestled with all his life. The struggle though, was not to break free from its strictures, but to harness its potential as a tool to be used so effectively in his work.

This retrospective is a celebration of Burri’s personal work. In common with many photographers he disliked the restrictions associated with commissioned work, and continues to see the camera primarily as a means of personal expression. Nevertheless he took such assignments based on his need to pay the bills, and naturally they provided many of the opportunities to further his quest for personal satisfaction, and importantly led to long associations with a number of publications, in particular the Swiss periodical Du. Indeed, the closing chapters of the book detail Burri’s many exhibitions and publications, and tantalisingly reproduce a handful of magazine spreads – the only colour reproductions included.

The book is cleverly designed, having the feel of a catalogue, but the permanence of something more special. It is a testament to Burri’s remarkable and unassuagable eye that after nearly 500 pages the reader is left wanting more, and knowing that what has been revealed is only a taste.

René Burri Photographs, Phaidon Press, 378 Duotone and 44 colour illustrations, 448pp, Hardback, £59.95, ISBN 0-7148-4315-6. www.phaidon.com

This review was originally written for the Photographic Journal

The Fat Baby – Eugene Richards

BOOK REVIEW: The Fat Baby – Eugene Richards.

Every now and again someone has an idea so blindingly obvious it is difficult to see why it has not already been done.

Take the Magnum photographers for example.  They spend their lives chasing stories; stories are their raison d’ètre.  Sure they publish books on particular stories:  Larry Towell has The Mennonites, and Paul Fusco has RFK Funeral Train.  They even have collective books on given stories, like New York September 11, and Arms Against Fury, but generally they are retrospectives.

The Fat Baby is the new book from Eugene Richards, one of the brightest stars in the Magnum firmament.  It bucks the trend with something really unique: a retrospective of stories.  Rather than put together a large coffee table tome of great images taken out of context which would undoubtedly sell, Richards has chosen to publish the original stories as he took them, with his own notes or text alongside.  This may not be ground breaking stuff, but on a book of this size (432 pages with some 300 duotone images) it feels as though it is.

Richards’ work is powerful, poignant and eloquent.  The images stand on their own merits in isolation, but put into the context originally envisaged the effect is magnified.  They really do become greater than the sum of their parts.

Now sixty years old, Richards is well established as one of the leading exponents of the photoessay, and could easily have chosen to use work from throughout his distinguished career.  Any such retrospective would have been well received, but one suspects that he might look upon the retrospective as the preserve of retired photographers.  Make no mistake; Eugene Richards is very active, and The Fat Baby draws only on his considerable pool of recent stories. 

Arguably Richard’s greatest achievement, and indeed the reason he is able to gain access to groups of people who might otherwise be hostile to his advances, is the manner in which he gives voice to other people’s stories without being judgemental.

While there are many photographers who view “concerned photojournalism” as an invitation and means to voice their own views, the real genius of Richard’s narrative is the manner in which he presents deeply moving stories and leaves the reader to form their own opinion.  This is no small achievement, and one suspects it is a large part of his reason for producing the book.  While his Magnum credentials give him considerable clout when it comes to the use of his images and captions, he nevertheless often finds his photographs being used as mere illustrations to accompany text, which can put a completely different slant on a story to that which he may have intended.

The Fat Baby is a collection of 15 essays, with subjects ranging from gay parenting issues in Tuscon (Here’s to Love), to the famine suffered by the villagers of Safo in Niger (The Fat Baby – from which the book takes its name).

By reproducing the notes and keeping the original narrative of the stories together, it invites the reader to consider the issues: it provokes a response.  No one who professes to support what documentary photography is about should ignore The Fat Baby.  It is a monumentally important book.  Not simply because it is well produced, but because it actually gets back to the root of why pictures such as these are made in the first place.

The Fat Baby by Eugene Richards, £59.95/€90.00, Phaidon Press, March 2004.

This review was originally written for the Photographic Journal

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