Alec Soth, Martin Parr, and Other Magnum Photographers Road-Trip to Rochester to Document the Rust Belt City

Martin Parr, "Jimmy Zissis, Earl Lee Hardgers Jr. and Alex Tahou, Owner of Nick Tahou's Hots," 2012
(© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos)

What do you get when you throw 10 of the world’s best photographers into a single city for a weeklong binge of documenting? This isn’t one of Ryan McGinley’s summer camp sessions, that’s for sure. The historic Magnum photography collective jumped into the 21st century with an Internet-enabled road trip as part of its “Postcards From America” project. From April 15 through 29, a crew of Magnum members, including Alec Soth, Martin Parr, and Alessandra Sanguinetti, landed in the aging Rust Belt city of Rochester, N.Y., and hit the ground running. While pursuing their muses across the landscape of upstate New York, the team posted their photos as they took them to an active blog. The site continues to feature new shots from the trip as they are edited by the photographers, who have returned home.

The Rochester project originated from an earlier Magnum road trip undertaken last year that stretched from San Antonio to Oakland, Calif. The adventure was meant to bring Magnum into the greater cultural consciousness through avenues other than gallery exhibitions and editorial publications. “Rather than waiting to be commissioned, we just made a decision to do something and hit the road,” Soth told the New Yorker. “We are trying as an agency to experiment with new ways of working together and engaging with our audience.” Why Rochester? Aside from its position as a symbol of American industrial decline, the city is also home to the Kodak film company, which filed for bankruptcy in February of this year, leaving more than 50,000 employees out of work.    

The real-time, improvisational experimentation is the most refreshing part of “Postcards From America.” Through the constantly updated blog (there have been three new posts today alone), it’s possible to catch a glimpse behind the working processes of the world’s most important documentary photographers. In the two-week period, the team moved toward the goal of producing 1,000 final images — 100 per photographer, a far cry from the years-long, intensively edited projects that the artists are accustomed to. The photographs published on the blog are messy, imperfect, and unpolished, but have a gritty immediacy that is too rarely found in long-term documentary photography series.

Photographer Jim Goldberg spent time at a nursing home and shot some touching portraits of Wilbur, a 94-year-old former Kodak worker. Parr brought his signature snide sense of humor to photos of Rochester bars, baseball games, and gas stations. Bruce Gilden contributed deadpan black-and-white portraits of locals, brightly lit and unyielding. Donovan Wylie scaled roofs to document Rochester’s urban architecture of blocky office buildings, parking garages, and empty lots. What emerges is an intimate portrait of a single city that is also a microcosm of America, a place of depth and diversity where anything can be found if you look hard enough. 

Click on the slide show for a selection of photographs from “Postcards From America”