Robert Capa’s black-and-white photographs of the 1944 invasion of Normandy are so iconic they emerged from history with their own moniker: “The Magnificent Eleven.”
Though Capa — who was the only photographer embedded with the Allied troops during the Normandy invasion — took 106 photos of the D-Day action, only 11 images survived.
In a darkroom accident, a teenage assistant in the London office of Life magazine ruined all but half a roll of film, in a rush to develop the photos.
But Capa’s photos visually define the D-Day invasion for many, and they have become the very definition of the iconic image.
So have many by Magnum Photos photographers.
A cooperative agency established and operated by Capa and other photographers in 1947, Magnum empowered its members creatively and economically — its policies and practices gave photojournalists unprecedented independence at a time when photography still had not gained widespread artistic or journalistic credibility.
And yet organizers of the massive exhibit “Radical Transformations: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age” would just as soon you not fixate on the iconic status of the more than 400 photos on display.
“None of the early Magnum photographers thought their work would be ever collected or ever exhibited as art in a museum,” says Ransom Center curator of photography Jessica McDonald.
Press prints were never intended as a final product, McDonald points out, much less an artistic product. Instead, they functioned as commercial objects, distributed to magazines and newspapers after the film was developed (usually not by the photographer) in the Magnum offices in Paris or New York.
As the exhibit reveals, the blank verso of the photo prints bear labels taped on, various stickers affixed or a photographers’ names ink-stamped in red. Corners are bent; edges are torn.
“It’s important to recognize these photographs as objects with a utilitarian purpose,” says McDonald.
“Radical Transformations” is the first exhibit since the collection of 200,000 Magnum photos landed at the University of Texas’ Ransom Center in 2010.
MSD Capital — the private investment firm for the family of Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Inc. — purchased the Magnum collection in 2009 for an undisclosed sum and subsequently housed it at the Ransom Center, UT’s stellar photography archive and rare book library.
At the exhibit’s opening last month, UT officials announced that the Magnum Photos collection — now valued at $200 million, according to UT — had been officially donated to the Ransom Center by Michael and Susan Dell, Glenn and Amanda Fuhrmann and Amy and John Phelan, co-managing partners of MSD Capital. In monetary terms, it was the largest single gift to the Ransom Center in its history.
More than a retrospective survey, “Radical Transformation” illuminates how through its history, Magnum continually shifted its business practices as the business of images shifted.
The exhibit opens with black-and-white photos from Magnum’s early days. And it traces the evolution of the photographic images as they took on more artistic qualities in the 1960s and 1970s, with photographers publishing luminous books of their work to express their distinctive point-of-view just as any artist would.
And yet Magnum Photos is a business: a cooperative agency created by and for freelance photojournalists in order to manage, promote and sell their work.
When in 1947 Capa and his cohorts Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour established Magnum, they sought to challenge the status quo of the photojournalism practice during the golden age of the picture magazines: Life, Look, Holiday, Paris Match and Picture Post, among others.
There was a great demand for photographs: A typical issue of Life in the 1950s, for example, could feature 200 images.
But publications nevertheless demanded that photographers surrender their negatives and copyright privileges, relinquish any editorial input or say when it came to cropping and often going uncredited once an image was published.
Magnum changed all that.
Instead, their members operated with contracts that guaranteed them copyright over their work and ownership of their negatives. (Some original early contracts are included in the exhibit.) Photographers also operated as independent authors, creating their own photo essays rather than taking an assignment from an editor.
And forget absolute impartiality or the decorum of journalistic impartiality. Magnum photographers perceived themselves as outsiders.
“None of the early Magnum photographers would’ve said they were objective about what they were photographing,” McDonald says. “They saw themselves as witnesses to events and causes they believed in.”
The picture magazines mostly fizzled by the end of the 1950s. But Magnum continued to morph, launching a documentary film division and encouraging its members to shoot film along with their still work.
In a cunning juxtaposition, a small viewing room in the exhibit screens Elliott Erwitt’s short 1971 documentary about the Kilgore Rangerettes drill team, “Beauty Knows No Pain” alternating with Martine Franck’s short, “What Has Happened to the American Indian?” from the same year.
“Radical Transformations” ends with an entire gallery devoted to the websites, iPad apps, podcasts, “Magnum in Motion” online videos and other digital products and methods the agency now produces all in its continued efforts to monetize and control the visual output of its members.
Today, Magnum’s online store — store.magnumphotos.com — offers a bevy of products.
And, of course, many of those products feature iconic photographs.
“Radical Transformations: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age”
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays (Thursdays until 7 p.m.), noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Exhibit continues through Jan. 5, 2014
Where: Ransom Center, University of Texas campus, Guadalupe and 21st streets
Tours: Free guided tours 6 p.m. on Thursdays, 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays
Information: 512-471-8994, www.hrc.utexas.edu
Alec Soth: “From Here to There”
What: Magnum photographer Alec Soth presents a visual lecture on his most recent work exploring community life in its uniquely American varieties.
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 23
Where: Belo Center for New Media, 300 W. Dean Keeton St.
“Magnum Film Series”
When: 2 p.m. Nov. 3, 10, 17 and 24
What: A four-part series on Sundays in November features films and videos by and about Magnum photographers
Where: Prothro Theater, Ransom Center
Published to coincide with the current exhibit, “Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World” (University of Texas Press, $75) is the first book to examine the Magnum Photos collection in its entirety.
Edited by Steven Hoelscher, “Reading Magnum” features more than 275 images and highlights some the most salient themes that emerge in the collection, including war and conflict, portraiture, cultural life and social relations.