Revolutionizing Photojournalism, Again
Revolutionizing Photojournalism, Again
Since its 1947 founding, the legendary Magnum photography co-op “has never really been in the business of making money,” says its managing director, Mark Lubell. And for much of its history, he says, it “has done a very good job of not making any." But as a result of its recent sale of nearly 200,000 prints by more than 100 photographers — including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and Rene Burri — to computer billionaire Michael Dell's MSD Capital, Magnum, for the first time in its history, has a big chunk of money to spend. And the public will benefit as well, as the result of the collection's loan to the Ransom Center at the University of Texas,where it will be on display for five years. But a mystery remains: just how much is the Magnum photo trove worth?
No one involved with the sale will say, though the prints have reportedly been insured for $100 million. That insurance figure is likely based on a “blockage discount,” according to Vivian Ebersman, director of art expertise at AXA Art Insurance Corporation. (She did not insure or appraise the collection, but has done so for other large archives.) In other words, “the market value of lots of photographs is less than each one would be individually,” she explains. “The theory is that if all the photos were put on the market at one time, the market would be flooded, so the value would come down.” Equally remarkable is what that $100 million means regarding the value of the images themselves, for which Magnum has keenly retained the rights. These include shots that long ago entered our national image bank, and which are each worth a small fortune due to their fame: Elliot Erwins picture of a black man drinking from a water fountain labeled "colored"; Capa’s shots of GIs landing on the beaches of Normandy; Thomas Hoepkers 1966 portrait of a rather vulnerable-looking Muhammad Ali, right fist extended to the camera.
Lubell, who joined Magnum in 2004 and assumed his post in 2006, came from a background in private equity. He describes his idea to sell the prints as “the 101 of business.” Magnum, he says, was a strong brand but had limited funds, and the changing media landscape — which involved dwindling photo assignments and a diminished licensing business, once Magnum’s traditional revenue streams — spelled “a perfect storm” for the organization. So Lubell looked around the co-op, he says, and asked himself, “What are the opportunities here?”
He found his answer in the organization’s archive, which effectively documents the history of photojournalism, charting the careers of its most-famous practitioners and providing a visual history of the 20th century. Hard to grasp in today’s globalized world, too, but evident in the collection, is the extent that Magnum photographers traveled to shoot their stories; many prints in the archive depict such once hard-to-reach locales as Cuba and Russia, then guarded behind the Iron Curtain. The backs of the prints — marked with stamps, bar codes, and even handwritten notes — furthermore tell the story of the business of photojournalism as it was practiced before digital photography and the Web took over. (The archive ends in 2003; in 2004 Magnum began distributing images digitally.)
After having the archive formally appraised, Lubell developed a three-year “turnaround business plan” to move the co-op away from the revenue streams it had traditionally relied on. Magnum’s 51 members and 13 estates voted for the plan unanimously. The collection’s iconic images are sure to be a major draw. But Ransom Center curator David Coleman points out the value of the collection’s many photos of historically significant events that, for various business or aesthetic reasons at the time, never received much exposure. Seen alongside the iconic images, the lesser-known pictures might function the way that B-side tracks do for musicians, providing a deeper, more rounded understanding of a photographer's work than just the greatest hits. Coleman cites the example of Cartier-Bresson, whom he hadn’t realized had photographed Martin Luther King.
These deep-cut photos also reveal a truer reality about Magnum’s journalistic objective, and, in so doing, offer historians a more nuanced glimpse into the major stories of the 20th-century. Magnum photographers, Lubell explains, were more than parachute journalists who bombed in for the money shot. He cites the example of Burt Glinns 1959 photo-essay of the Cuban Revolution, which is included in the archive. Many of the images, like those of Fidel Castro waving to crowds in Santa Clara, are incredibly famous. But they only tell part of the story. “Glinn stayed 11 days with Castro in the mountains,” Lubell points out — resulting in dozens of images of the Cuban leader and the people around him. Those that didn’t make iconic status, so to speak, might provide new insights into Castro's character at the time, according to Lubell. In addition, the photographs that were produced in copious prints after they were taken will give historians information about the stories that Magnum expected to be most in-demand — thereby telling us more about what were considered hot-button issues at the time.
Although he declined to go in to detail about how the company plans to use the proceeds from the sale of its archive, Lubell says that some money will go toward a Web initiative that will give photographers a platform to distribute content. Funds will also be devoted to helping photographers reach field destinations for stories and see them through long-term — the kind of journalism that was once Magnum’s bread and butter. For instance, photographers will be sent to Haiti over the next 12 to 18 months to document the nation’s effort to rebuild. After the initial tragedy subsides, “everyone leaves,” Lubell says, and because the aftermath isn’t headline news, coverage of continuing crises typically aren't “funded in traditional media circles.”
As the sustained richness and quality of the Magnum archive indicates, the glory days of the print photo essay solidly belong to another era. But if Lubell and Magnum's stable of photographers are able to provide long-form, in-depth journalism, the co-op just might begin to fill the gap left by those traditional media outlets — the ones for which it once furnished lush photo essays — that continue to fold by the day.