They don't call it "shooting a picture" and "capturing an image" for nothing. Documentary photography is aggressive, and the professional collective Magnum Photos has been among the most eloquently aggressive purveyors of that genre for decades.
"In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art makes that point with about 50 photographers and more than 150 of their works from the late 1940s to the early 1980s.
Magnum at one time was the most prestigious news photo service in the world and is still probably the most venerable. (It's certainly among the most expensive, as St. Petersburg Times photo editors can attest.)
It was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour (called Chim) and George Rodger. All had attained semi-legendary status working the front lines of World War II. But Capa felt ill-used by the agent who peddled his work to news outlets and by the outlets themselves whose editors bought the negatives and acted as if they owned the lives of the photographers.
He suggested to his friends and colleagues a business cooperative that would market and manage their work, allowing them to choose their own assignments. The photographers would only sell - to the highest bidder - limited rights to use the image. The photographers would own it, via the negative, and could sell rights to its use multiple times. It was a radical idea, but the stature of these four made it work. Soon other distinguished photojournalists began signing on, and within a few years, Magnum was a powerhouse, its members able to cherry-pick only the best and brightest rising stars.
And you can see why. This exhibition contains some of the most memorable black-and-white news photographs of the last half of the 20th century. They remind us of how war-torn, violent and misery-ridden those decades were. The photographers roamed the world to draw wider attention to famine in India, revolution in Cuba, rebellion in Northern Ireland, diaspora in Africa, and urban despair in the United States.
Many of the Magnum photographers hoped that by bearing witness to atrocities, the world would reach out in compassion. Sometimes it did. Werner Bischof's portfolio of starving women and children in India brought international aid, for example. And they often helped, as the best photographs do, to clarify instantly a cultural, political or social point of view. Marc Riboud's photograph of a young woman in a 1967 Washington, D.C., peace march offering a flower to rifle-brandishing soldiers illustrated the national divide more immediately and powerfully than any essay.
Magnum photographers have been interested in things other than misfortune, especially as their ranks grew and a diversity of styles and predilections were sought. Elliot Erwitt, who could take on serious issues with the best, loved to catch people in unintentionally amusing situations. Richard Kalvar found humor in everyday street scenes, as did David Hurn, who documented a session of senior calisthenics in Sun City, Ariz. What these and many other photographs in the show have in common is an impressive sense of composition, the ability to know, in Cartier-Bresson's words, "the decisive moment" for clicking the shutter.
All was never sweetness and light inside the Magnum "family." Two of the guiding lights, Capa and Chim, were killed during the 1950s on assignment in war zones, and Cartier-Bresson took on more the role of eminence gris than hands-on leader. Without their glue, many rivalries and artistic differences erupted and eroded Magnum's stability and its members' drive. As the century grew older and television became an important source of information, the demand for still photography diminished. Many members, seeking additional income, took on commercial projects such as annual reports or corporate ads that created a rift with purists in the agency. And there was the usual ebb and flow of talent as some photographers left to pursue other ventures.
Magnum continues to attract top photographers today, though it isn't nearly as influential as it once was. Nor is this a new exhibition; it was organized by Magnum in the late 1980s to celebrate its 40th anniversary. "In Our Time" often feels like a stroll through an annotated history.
But it's quite a walk and you're in great company.
Find a good read about the founders, all fascinating men, and the history of Magnum in the "In Our Time" catalog on sale in the Ringling gift shop for $49.95.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Our Time
Subtitled "The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers," the exhibit is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through Aug. 12. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $15 adults, $13 seniors and $5 students. (941) 359-5700 or www.ringling.org.