What is Magnum Photos

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What is Magnum Photos

Magnum Photos is a photographic cooperative, agency and archive, owned by its photographer members. With a membership made of up elite storytellers in the sphere where photographic art meets photojournalism, Magnum chronicles our world. With offices in New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, and members living and working in all corners of the globe, Magnum is home to the images that shape the way we think, the way we remember and the way we see.

Founded in 1947, two years after the apocalypse called the Second World War ended, Magnum Photos was born. The four founding members—Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David "Chim" Seymour—were scarred by the conflict, but motivated by both a sense of relief that the world had somehow survived, and a curiosity to see what was still there.

They created Magnum to reflect their independent natures as people and as photographers. The cooperative was formed to maintain photographer authorship, to protect copyright, and to establish storytelling with the idiosyncratic mix of reporting and artistry that continues to define Magnum today.

A Long Story Short

The team’s first move was to divide the world into flexible areas of coverage, with “Chim” in Europe, Cartier-Bresson in India and the Far East, Rodger in Africa, and Capa at large. They had some early scoops: Robert Capa, who the Picture Post had dubbed “The Greatest War Photographer in the World”, was granted an uncensored look behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain with writer John Steinbeck (originally published in "Ladies Home Journal”, and according to John Morris, the Journal's picture editor and later Magnum's executive editor, Capa was paid $20,000 to Steinbeck's $3,000). Another early break was Cartier-Bresson's landmark coverage of India at the time of Gandhi's assassination.

Within five years of its founding, Magnum had also added to its roster talented young photographers such as Eve Arnold, Burt Glinn, Erich Hartmann, Erich Lessing, Marc Riboud, Dennis Stock and Kryn Taconis. Riboud soon followed Cartier-Bresson with his own pioneering work in China. Arnold made iconic pictures of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, as well as some of history’s most memorable portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Taconis covered the Algerian war for independence. Soon after, Rene Burri, Cornell Capa (Robert's younger brother), Elliott Erwitt and Inge Morath came aboard. Magnum was growing.

“Go On, Keep Together”

In 1954, Magnum faced its great existential crisis when photographers Robert Capa and Werner Bischof died in isolated accidents within days of each other. Capa stepped on a landmine while covering the First Indochina War for LIFE Magazine, and Bischof was working in Peru when his car fell off a cliff in the Andes Mountains. Amazingly, both pieces of tragic news reached Matgnum’s offices the exact same day. All were in disbelief. The staff thought there must have been a mistake.

On May 27th of that year, founding member David “Chim” Seymour circulated a letter he addressed to his “Dear Magnum Family” recognizing the devastating loss but urging his fellow members to persevere as a community: “If we are all numb at present, it looks like that soon enough we will have to face it. So we have to go on, keep together, and avoid the stunning effects of our sorrow. Maybe through this we will help ourselves, and find strength to keep and develop Magnum as a home for all of us.”

Then to Now

Magnum did continue developing, adding more and more photographers of the highest caliber, all of whom brought their own way of style and way of seeing into the cooperative. Through the final decades of the 20th century, Magnum photographers were witnesses to the world, making some of the images that help define our collective historical narratives.

Into the 21st century and to the present day, Magnum maintains its role as the world’s elite photographic cooperative. It preserves its rich history while also embracing the changing landscape of media, technology and storytelling. With photographers who worked side-by-side with the founders, photographers who helped establish the medium’s great cultural relevance, and photographers shooting with digital cameras or iPhones, Magnum represents the elite of what photography, was, is and will be.