Faculty Research: Steve Hoelscher Interviewed on KUT

Last week, we featured the research of our very own Dr. Steve Hoelscher and his incredible new edited book, Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern WorldDr. Hoelscher was also recently interviewed by UT’s public radio station, KUT, where he offered a narrated look at the Magnum photo archive in two segments that you can find here.  Listen to Dr. Hoelscher talk about the arrival of the Magnum archive at the Ransom Center, the criteria he used to decide which photos were published in Reading Magnum, and how Magnum is adapting to new multimedia photojournalism.

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Faculty Research: Steve Hoelscher on Reading Magnum

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Definitely check out the Magnum exhibition at the Ransom Center, up until January 5, and get your hands on this beautiful book!

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Announcement: Magnum Photographer Alec Soth Lectures Wednesday at UT!

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Photography fans, take note: esteemed Magnum Photographer Alec Soth will be giving a lecture this Wednesday, October 23 in the Belo Center for New Media. You’ll see a selection of Soth’s photographic work alongside his commentary about community life in America.

Here’s an excerpt from a write-up of his current project, the rest of which you can find here:

At the simplest level, the LBM Dispatch project falls into the long American tradition of expedition and road trip photography. Walking in the footsteps of everyone from Timothy O’Sullivan to Robert Frank, Soth and Zellar have headed out on rambling open ended trips and documented what they’ve found. But unlike their predecessors, Soth and Zellar have brought prose much more fully into the artistic end product; the texts here are not addendums or afterthoughts, but integrated parts of the collaborative storytelling experience. While the James Agee/Walker Evans team is certainly once precedent, I think there is stronger kinship here with the work of Wright Morris, where text and pictures were used with nearly equal brilliance to capture the nuances of specific American places and times.

In this particular issue, Soth and Zellar have driven the roads of Colorado, taking in healthy gulps of mountain vistas and frontier spirit. While their trips clearly have a dose of serendipity, these are not really random moments; they’ve done their homework, read their history, and are looking for certain kinds of encounters that will touch on larger themes. This method of building up a narrative is well suited to Soth’s approach to photography; he has never been one to be pigeon holed into just portraits, landscapes, still lifes, or any other type or subject matter, so this kind of vignette-driven storytelling fits well with his natural working style. While rugged snowy mountains and huge storm clouds are an inescapable part of any portrait of Colorado, Soth and Zellar have dug deeper than the stunning landscape, probing the edges of local communities, common folklore, and the undercurrent of violence seemingly inherent to life in this wide open country.

Many of Soth’s photographs in this book are portraits of people and objects, seen with an open, unassuming honesty that allows a sliver of the surreal to slip in nearly undetected: a bearded man stands in front of an enormous pile of antlers, while another sports a plastic mask of Doc Holliday, and a woman in formal riding gear waits for her horse perched on a set of stairs, while another beams in her colonial frontier dress amid a row of parked cars. Often, the still life objects and places are secondary evidence, physical remains with some additional resonance: a tombstone of a famous cannibal, the path leading to the Columbine High School memorial, a bullet hole in the wall at Focus on the Family, a rusted out, pock-marked car in the dust near the home of the Dragon Man, a plastic bear torso at a local archery club. Each image tells its own self contained mini-story, and contributes to the weaving of a larger non-linear tapestry of collective impressions.

For more on Soth, see his website here.

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