Photo Finish: the History of Magnum

Some of the most iconic photographs from the 20th century and beyond have come from one iconic agency - Magnum. Nick Smith delves into the archives.

It was one of the most important moments in the history of photography. In 1947, two years after the Second World War had ended, a group of photographers met in New York to establish the first co-operative agency for and by freelance photojournalists. With its ambitious mixture of reportage and artistic freedom, the Magnum agency was to reflect the post-war feeling of relief and devastation, and would become an intellectual refuge for photographers. One of its founders, Henri Cartier-Bresson, described Magnum as 'a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually'.

Mingladon Air Field, Burma (Myanmar) by George Rodger (1942)
Mingladon Air Field, Burma (Myanmar) by George Rodger (1942)

Many of the co-founders have now become legends, none more so than Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa, who famously said, 'If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough.' Magnum's dynamic leader, whose career was to span five major conflicts, took an uncompromising approach to independent storytelling and was certainly never shy of getting close to the action. His controversial image of 'The Falling Soldier', taken during the Spanish Civil War, is often hailed as the greatest photograph ever made and sums up the Magnum spirit of compelling narrative through powerful imagery. The photo is so evocative that it has the power - as with Pablo Picasso's 'Guernica' - to change the way we think about history. Capa's grainy image of an American GI wading towards Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944 was taken under constant fire, and was, decades later, to influence Steven Spielberg's overall visual style when directing Saving Private Ryan.

We use the word iconic too much these days, but Magnum photographers are just that. No one who has ever seen Marc Riboud's shot of the moment a young woman offers a flower to a row of soldiers will ever forget it. The photographer remembers thinking they were 'more afraid of her than she was of the bayonets'. Taken on a hot Washington late-summer evening in 1967, this simple image of innocent defiance came to symbolise the way a nation's youth opposed the war in Vietnam. Literally, flower power.

Che Guevara
Che Guevara by René Burri (1963)

In Britain, David Hurn's work did more than any other photographer to capture the Swinging Sixties. His 1964 shot of The Beatles working in Abbey Road Studios takes us behind the scenes with the most famous people on earth at the time. Hurn also photographed Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Sean Connery as 007 and Julie Christie on the London Underground.

René Burri was captivated by artists and revolutionaries. His study of Picasso with a birdcage is a rare portrait of the artist as an old man, while his close-up of the young Che Guevara, with his cigar jutting one way and his eyes focused the other, was to make the Swiss photographer world-famous. Burri said: 'A photograph is a moment. When you press the button, it will never come back.'

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Steve McQueen by Raymond Depardon (1970)

Icon after icon. There's Eve Arnold's profile portrait of a deeply pensive Marilyn Monroe, Thomas Hoepker's take on the bare-chested, wide-eyed boxing champion Muhammad Ali in New York. There's Stuart Franklin's image of an unarmed, lone protester in Tiananmen Square, holding back a column of tanks. All Magnum - a name that became the byword for excellence in photojournalism. Today, Magnum is as active as ever, its archive 'a living library' comprising more than 600,000 digital images and one million print photographs.

Belstaff has teamed up with award-winning Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin to create additional pieces for the AW16 adventurers' collection. See belstaff.co.uk for more information

Nick Smith is a journalist, author of Travels in the World of Books and is a member of the Royal Geographical Society.

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