How vintage picture agency Magnum Photos is reinventing itself for the Instagram age at 70

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The Instagram page of Magnum Photos, the world’s most famous photographic agency, is the point where the old and new worlds of still imagery collide.

Here you find a black and white photo of Audrey Hepburn in a Givenchy wedding dress and veil; a spectral beauty performing the worldly task of making herself a hot drink on the set of the 1957 film Funny Face. The shot by Magnum co-founder David 'Chim' Seymour has been shared with the agency’s growing army of 1.6m Instagram followers. Nearly 24,000 have 'liked' the picture.

Against the odds, Magnum is on the verge of its 70th anniversary. For decades its existence has been as perilous as those of the great war photographers who made its reputation. But its financial fortunes have been revived with the new relevance of still pictures in an era when two billion people carry a decent camera on the phone in their pockets.

Magnum offers its Instagram followers the opportunity to engage far more deeply with that Hepburn shot than merely hitting the heart-shaped button. They can buy from its new online shop an 11-inch by 14-inch print for $1800 or a copy of one of Seymour’s contact sheets from the same shoot for $249. The internet has created money-making opportunities which Magnum’s founders can never imagined in the days of film rolls, darkrooms, negatives and magazine commissioning editors with generous budgets.

A sparkling start

It was mid-April 1947 when Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and Seymour gathered on the second floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art to launch the collective over glasses of champagne. There was always champagne. The very name of the agency is said to have been coined when the photographers ordered a supersize bottle of bubbly during a gathering in Paris.

The 70th anniversary is a big opportunity for Magnum Photos. It will publish a commemorative book of its work, and create a travelling exhibition which will begin in New York before heading around the world. There will be public presentations of Magnum work in London, Paris and New York. And there will be parties and there will be champagne.

The agency will be revisiting some of its most famous projects, notably A Russian Journal, which was published in 1948 and combined John Steinbeck’s words with Capa’s photographs in an exploration of life inside the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Magnum will also be commissioning new work to demonstrate that its particular ways of working have a value in making sense of the modern world.

The hope is that the agency can expand its online audience (now at 3.5 million followers across social media), and encourage more of these new followers to buy its pictures, thus allowing Magnum to commission more projects. “It becomes a virtuous circle,” says Magnum executive director David Kogan. “You don’t need [to monetise] a particularly high proportion of the 3.5 million people following you to change Magnum’s business model.”

Kogan joined the agency in 2014 and compares his role to that of a chief executive. “I run the global business,” he says. A former head of Reuters Television, Kogan is a serious photography collector, especially of Capa, and he arrived at Magnum at the behest of the agency’s President Martin Parr, the English documentary photographer.

Magnum, as a money-making operation, was in serious need of reform. For much of the agency’s lifetime, Kogan says, it has “lived a hand-to-mouth existence”.

In the sixties, when the public was fascinated by the Vietnam War and the US civil rights movement, things were easier, he says. “Magazines around the world would spend vast amounts of money in sending specialist photographers to cover extraordinary stories. It was a golden period of work and a golden period of money.”

Photojournalism loses its sparkle

But decline began as early as the late-seventies, with a shift away from the photojournalism, in which Magnum had its roots, towards something closer to art. Photographers began to regard book publishers and art galleries, rather than newspapers and magazines, as their means to earning a living.

The more recent travails of print journalism have been catastrophic to the ambitions of many serious news photographers. In Vietnam, war photographers could earn “tens of thousands of pounds” in commissions, says Kogan. “Today if a photographer was being commissioned by a major newspaper brand they would be very fortunate to get paid more than $1000 a day – and that’s for conflict zone coverage.”

But while he admits that “the economics of Magnum compared to even 20 years ago has massively changed”, the impact of changing technology on the news industry has created opportunities for the agency to become “more proactive”. If newspapers and magazines will not run photo essays, Magnum will commission its own work through content directors based in its various offices (London, New York, Paris, Tokyo and possibly more to open soon). “If photo desks are being run down Magnum is still going to exist and cover what we believe is important,” says Kogan.

Magnum’s website was relaunched in May to “show a completely different face to the world”, Kogan says. In October, Magnum released 22 picture stories to its site and generated 533,000 page views and 232,000 site sessions from users. Twice a year – in June and November – it holds five-day sales of $100 postcard-sized prints, hand-signed by the photographer. “If you happen to have the greatest brand in world photography – which we do – and some of the greatest photographers and a huge archive, you should be able to connect with this whole new group of people who think the still image is important,” says the executive director.

The first vertical on the website is headed “newsroom”. It features contemporary photographic essays including Matt Black’s work on the American poor, The Geography of Poverty, which gives a vivid insight into the disconnected communities in the heartland states which proved so influential in the US election. Another photo story, Reverse Migration: Going Back to Ghana by Nikos Economopoulos, deals with a lasting theme of Magnum’s. The agency’s founders met while covering the Spanish Civil War and for years afterwards Magnum explored the issues of exile and migration. On 18 December it is planning new work to mark the International Day of the Migrant. “If ever there were a time for Magnum to exist it’s the refugee and migrant story,” says Kogan. “That’s in our DNA, that’s how Magnum was created.”

Magnum still works for the small number of magazines that still commission ambitious photo projects, and migration has been the subject of some its most important recent work. On one single weekend in August, the Daily Telegraph devoted its Saturday magazine to Magnum coverage of the migration crisis, and The New York Times Magazine gave over an entire edition of its Sunday magazine to the story of the “Fractured Lands” of the Middle-East, as seen by Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin and the writer Scott Anderson. In classic Magnum style, Pellegrin spent 16 months on this assignment, which resulted in 20 published photographs. He has been travelling and photographing in the Middle East for 14 years.

Another great Magnum photographer, the Canadian Larry Towell, has been at the forefront of covering the Standing Rock North Dakota pipeline story, which last week resulted in a victory for environmental activists as developers were denied a drilling permit. Towell has a long history of covering North American native communities. “Magnum as an organisation probably wouldn’t have realised the story’s weight and importance,” Kogan concedes. “It’s a pleasure that we have a photographer who tells us it’s an important story and we are able to support that.”

Exacting standards remain

Even after 70 years Magnum only represents 89 photographers (and that includes the estates of former members). This is not because young photographers no longer wish to join but because the bar that Magnum sets is so high. Prospective new members require approval from a majority of the full membership, after which they must serve two years as a nominee member and then a further two years as an associate member, during which time their work is repeatedly reviewed. They then require two-thirds of full members to support their own application to attain the highest level.

There is no place here for the photographic equivalent of the one-hit wonder musician who records an all-time classic and then disappears. Magnum members must remain at the top of their game for years. The youngest current nominee is 27.

What makes Magnum most special – and this is particularly important in an age of unprecedented public scepticism over media ownership and vested interests – is the autonomy of the photographers who work for it. Not only has it taken them many years to attain their status but they are not beholden to media owners. “Magnum is a co-operative of immensely strong-willed photographers,” says Kogan with a laugh. “They are not answerable to me, nor to Magnum, and they sure as hell are not answerable to another organisation. They are answerable to themselves as individuals. That’s how it was created and that’s how it continues.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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