Magnum Degrees (Phaidon Press) is the enormous book from Magnum, the photographers’ co-operative founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, among others, in 1947. There are simply too many great photographs here for easy looking: 500 pages of compelling images serve in the end to tire one out. The book is proof of the narrow range of documentary photography, despite Michael Ignatieff’s claim in the introduction that these photographs make us “see the world again, in all its astounding complexity.” For there is no complexity in this book: rather a relentless simplification and filtering of the world, which is what photography is largely all about. Ignatieff proclaims the “universality” of great photography and offers an unnecessary and ridiculous defence of Steichen’s “Family of Man” exhibition of the 1950s, which is what this book resembles most, and that resemblance is its greatest weakness. As we page on through the endless stream of images, we are forced to ask: for whom have these pictures been assembled? And the answer is: for the people who are not pictured in the book. The table of contents defines the narrow world of Magnum photography: revolultion, post-Soviets, Hungary, child victims, refugees, Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, Haiti, etc. The smug and hip design—all lower case, tiny unreadable type, captions every which way—guarantees that only the hip elite will even be able to read it. This book is evidence that the photography of Magnum is largely a matter of marketing: defined by a marketplace and designed for a marketplace.
July 23, 2007
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