In honor of all the great events taking place this week surrounding the Magnum Symposium: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, (including a lecture by Alec Soth – tonight!) we want to draw your attention to an incredible book edited by our own Dr. Steve Hoelscher: Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World (UT Press, 2013).
We sat down with Dr. Hoelscher a few weeks ago and chatted about the ins and outs of putting together such a rich, complex book about this storied institution. Reading Magnum was a four-year project, which, in comparison to most academic projects, is light-speed. The book is not a catalogue, though its publishing coincides with the Magnum exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center, Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age. With the arrival of the Magnum collection of photographs at the Ransom Center in 2009, Dr. Hoelscher began work on this far-ranging consideration of the historical, political, and cultural context in which Magnum has worked since its founding in the wake of World War II.
Instead of focusing on Magnum’s photographic “geniuses,” the book takes a decidedly more contextualist approach to the archive. Dr. Hoelscher did not want to represent a hermetically-sealed vision of the photography world; he wanted to bust things open and make connections across photographers, time periods, and subjects. To add depth to the work, Dr. Hoelscher contacted a diverse group of scholars to contribute essays to Reading Magnum: Alison Nordstrom, Barbie Zelizer, Frank H. Goodyear III, Erika Doss, Robert Hariman, and Liam Kennedy. The work is theoretically informed, but style is paramount and clarity key. It is also, as you can see from just a couple of the spreads, incredibly beautiful.
According to Dr. Hoelscher, Magnum was in many ways the post-war geographic information system, and place as much as narrative defined the Magnum project. Magnum photographs published and re-published around the globe constructed a certain understanding of the world in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. While many of the photographs featured in the book look at the horrors of war, there are also examples of photographs that addresses the quotidian, street life, stardom, and Civil Rights struggles. Scattered throughout the book are illuminating “Notes from the Archive” sections that give a behind the scenes look at the process of photographic distribution as well as “Portfolio” sections that highlight themes that wind through the archive: portraiture, geography, cultural life, social relations, and globalization.