A week or so ago I had a rare trip to London. Rare because although I live within a mile or two of a train station I am not attracted by the place very much and the cost associated with the journey. Occasionally though I am attracted by an exhibition and as Chris Beetles (CB) was showing work by the 62 (should be 63 but there is no work by Philip Jones-Griffiths which is curious) Magnum photographers I incorporated this with a trip to RG Lewis who were selling some of my Nikon equipment to chew the cud. The day had its highs and lows, one of which (not sure if high or low) was being question by the police about taking photographs "for too long in one place".
After the second world war, four photographers saw that there was an opportunity to start a new agency run by photographers. Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson, George Roger and David Seymour wanted to change the way magazines of their generation were monopolising the photographic industry, so in 1947 they set about building a cooperative agency that would be wholly owned by its photographers and who would retain the copyright of their work. During the last 65 years Magnum photographers have contributed many thousands of photographs to the history of photography, often from places of conflict but always with innovation and integrity. The gallery is bright and airy place and the 62 images fitted well in the space, although one or two were awkwardly positioned. Those who have read past postings know my love of the fine art print and it is for this reason I had to see this work "for real". All of the images (I assume) can be seen on the internet ( I have found most of them)but seeing the work as prints with thick matte mounts and classic black frames makes all the difference to my reaction to the image.
There are too many images to go through them all here although some of the iconic work is of note when seen at arms length. It is at that time (not when sat here at the desk with the catalogue) that I get a fleeting connection with the photographer and his image. I am sure everyone is familiar with the HCB image "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932". If you are not then look here and you will see a man crossing an area of water, a ladder in the water and a shadowy figure behind a fence. The man crossing the area is in mid stride and will shortly splash into the puddle. In 1952 HCB published a book called "The Decisive Moment" and the photograph has become associated with this phrase and in a way a genre of photography has followed where the significance of capturing a single moment from the ever ticking clock of time has defined still photography. I have know of this photograph for maybe 20 years but never spent that much time to consider it. Being inches away from a Silver Gelatin print (with a £15,000.00 price tag) at the gallery gave the space and time to examine it and draw my own conclusions as to why this image is a icon of photography almost 100 years after its invention.
There is no singular aspect of course that identifies this image as: fantastic, awesome, sublime etc. From a technical aesthetic it has issues that could be better. The light is very flat, the shadow and mid tones are dark and it is not pin sharp. The slow shutter speed (the main man is blurred) is not in this list as the movement of his limbs contribute to the power of the image. I wonder whether HCB intended this or whether the dull day had dragged down his shutter speed and the speed of the man exceeded his expectations. These are not issues that need to be dwelled upon.The image is surreal. The location is off the beaten track, we know its "Behind" somewhere, it is an area under construction with rubble and a wheelbarrow, it has a circus poster, a shadowy figure and a large puddle reflecting all of these in the water. So, The Decisive Moment, that fraction of a second before the man touches the water. Is this luck is it massive amounts of skill ?, well maybe some or none. Firstly HCB had to be there and this is the crux, you make your own luck by hard work and being in places and occasions where others are not. Sometimes this results in the world class image to be taken, the R Capa images of The Omaha Beach landings, Stuart Franklin's The Tank man, Tienanmen Square etc. Looking at this image and then the rest of the Magnum work in this exhibition this is what strikes me the most. Most of these photographs were of course assignments for the agency, so one would expect to be there but "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare" was a chance made by the photographer because he was there as part of a plan. It is said that HCB would anticipate a photograph by waiting at a location and then work quickly and discreetly when the right juxtaposition of people filled the scene. So here he sees a puddle and waits. The intent is humorous, maybe the splash is what he intended and he took the image too soon, I don't know.
The documentary and reportage images were thought provoking and sometimes sad to look at. People in a crisis and their fate at the hands of oppressors, lonely people and those trying to make a difference to their society always have an untold story. When the photographer left, what happened next ?, did the 11km pipeline in Guatemala bring drinking water ? Man with daughter and kitten 1972, what happened to her ? she would be 45 now.
As photographers, whether working for Magnum or not I think we have a responsibility to respond to whatever we see, photograph it and look after the past with images of today.
Later that day I am watching people, using my Leica, feeling inspired by HCB and his Magnum friends when asked to identify myself by a PC because a security guard thought I had been taking photographs for too long in one place. I offered no explanation.