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When the volume  Magnum Contact Sheetswas first released in 2011 it was often associated with such statements as “What’s there behind the icons of photography?” or “How photographers made their choices”. At times it would even be linked to a kind of “backstage” viewpoint, in such terms as “the work of a genius”. That’s how the itinerant exhibition that came of it turned out to be - by reflecting the concept and intentions of the book. All these definitions are correct and incisive to the extent they try to describe the agency, images and photographers that have been making history for the past 70 years.

Going back to ubiquitous and immaterial photography, we pondered upon the fact that these images do tell stories we’ve heard of before - for they’re part of our collective imagiunarium. However, they do so in a different way: here we witness the (partial) reconstruction of bits of a past world - a world that had been put aside by icons.

Rene Burri's, images are used as poster for the exhibition and they’re quite explicit in that sense. Here, the icon of an era,  Ernesto “Che” Guevara, , rubs his eyes and appears somewhat relaxed - as if he was at a bar. Our invisible speaker Lara Bergquist from Look interviews him, and we perceive the meddling in his everyday life - as though we were peeping at that of a holy picture.

As we look at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s boys playing amongst the ruins of  torn Siville it almost feels like a premonition on what would occur years later. They appear so easy-going as if they were paying no attention to the photographer whatsoever - utterly unaware of the impact those images would have on our outlook.

One of these contact sheets’ merit is that of downsizing the mythology around photographers as camera-heros. They take it back to more earthly, almost informal levels.

The icon is often created only after its review. Take one of Erwitt's most famous photos - the kiss framed in the rearview mirror. He noticed it only as he was going through the proofs.

On the other hand, there are cases where contingency is overwhelming - see Capa’s powerful D-day images, Barbey’s Parisian May or the takeover of the American embassy in Teheran by Abbas. Details of the “excluded” shoots suddenly re-emerge like missing tiles: the Frison horses in frozen water, the cigarette of a protester in Boulevard Saint-Germain, the rung staircases used during the Khomeini uprising…

Magnum’s member and Cartier-Bresson’s wife Martine Franck admitted she almost felt violating when publishing proofs. Realizing that she was about to show something extremely intimate, she risked “breaking the spell and a destroying a mystery”.

Despite this fear, here the spell is renewed and icons now seem to have more time and room on their hands whilst gaining a completely earthy aura. We know that Che drank coffee that afternoon, Soviet caterpillars were filling the streets of Prague with dust and that the Tour Eiffel’s painter looked to the camera at least once. No wonder that those images now feel closer than ever.

Gabriele Magazzù

Magnum Contact Sheets

Fort of Bard - Bard (AO)

From 21th June to 10th November 2013

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