Photographers like to joke that becoming a member of Magnum is tantamount, in the rigour of the initiation, to joining a religious order. Not for nothing do critics deride the agency as a closed community of self-righteous monks scorning heathen outsiders. Acolytes accepted on probation may claim membership of the order, but have no privileges and must prove their worth while undergoing rigorous assessment and instruction from older members. After two years they are required to submit a portfolio of work to move on to the next stage and become a novitiate in preparation for taking their final vows as a penitent and fully fledged member entitled to vote at the annual convocation. Fortunately, none of the usual monastery rules regarding chastity and obedience apply.
The annual convocation of Magnum photographers takes place towards the end of June each year, rotating between the major Magnum offices in New York, Paris and London.
Part business meeting, part social gathering, part therapy session, part family reunion, part tedious debating chamber, it is axiomatic that it is held against a background of crisis, since Magnum is always embroiled in a crisis of some kind, and it is almost a tradition that at one point or another the meeting will deteriorate into a furious shouting match, if not worse.
Many and colourful are the stories about Magnum’s incendiary meetings. One year the shouting got so bad that Erich Lessing, who is a professor of photography in Vienna and was then in his sixties, was obliged to clamber on to a table, stamp his feet and bellow at the top of his voice to try and restore order. Another year Bruce Davidson and Burt Glinn, both long-standing Magnum colleagues based in New York, could be found on their feet, leaning over from opposite sides of a table, noses inches apart, veins bulging, screaming at each other. Observers vividly remember Davidson, who was in his fifties, accusing Glinn, who was in his sixties, of being a `prostitute’, an apparent reference to Glinn’s willingness to take on corporate work. A different disagreement, the details of which few can now remember, left Erich Hartmann looking as if he might be the sole surviving member after everyone else had threatened to resign en masse and in high dudgeon. On yet another occasion, when Philip Jones Griffiths refused to attend the meeting in New York, a delegation went round to his apartment intent on kidnapping him. Unfortunately Jones Griffiths is a burly Welshman built like a rugby forward and all attempts to bundle him into the elevator on the eleventh floor of his building failed. Jones Griffiths’s grievance was that he disapproved of a decision to move the New York office into new premises in Spring Street, SoHo, and consequently vowed never to set foot inside the place. Since the meeting was being held in the new office, he naturally felt honour bound to absent himself.
Eugene Richards was so appalled by the experience of his first meeting that he could have left the agency that very day. `There were tirades that went on for hours and there was a sort of pleasure in the abuse. This kind of behaviour among such a sophisticated and talented group of people was quite shocking. And it went on and on. It was an eye-opener and I didn’t understand it: such malevolence, such negativity seeping into the institution and the quality of the relationships. It was very sad that such bitterness would persist for so long that it developed into paranoia and fear.’
`It takes several years of meetings to begin to have a clue as to what is going on,’ explains Alex Webb, a Harvard graduate who joined Magnum in 1974. `You can be listening to someone speaking and you begin to realise he is referring to something that could have happened fifteen years ago, some great grievance that is still sitting there and you can’t understand why. Why all the anger, what’s it about?’
`I often thought Magnum would self-destruct,’ says Lee Jones, who was New York bureau chief in the 1960s. `There were always lots of fights, people walking out, doors slamming. Rumours ran rife that so-and-so was resigning, or had already resigned, and then they would turn up next day in the middle of dinner. Sometimes the photographers would literally throw tantrums, he on the floor and drum their heels or bang spoons on the table.
`The history of Magnum is full of murders. They always kill their kings; they killed anybody who tried to run them. It’s probably why they’re still around. The things that most organisations offer are money or power or glory. In Magnum money has always been problematical, power is something that was never allowed to rest in one person’s hands for very long and glory most certainly had to be shared. A great many people have come in, rolled up their sleeves and tried to get the place straightened out, but it always fell apart when they tried to do it.’
The annual general meeting in 1996 was held in Paris, at the Magnum offices in Passage Piver, in the distinctly unfashionable 11th arrondissement. Before the meeting a black-bearded Iranian member who goes by the single name of Abbas circulated a memorandum warning of problems ahead: `As we are about to celebrate — with some complacency — our 50th [anniversary], the main danger we are facing is not money, shrinking markets, shifting organisation and a tough outside world. The danger is within ourselves: it is mediocrity. Wa salaam.’
With these portentous words to chew on and chew over, members gathered in the courtyard at Passage Piver on a warm and sunny Thursday morning for the first session, which was due to start at 10.30 but was promptly postponed because a number of the French photographers were due to attend a ceremony at which Robert Delpire, director of the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris, was being invested with a medal. Chris Steele-Perkins, the president of Magnum, announced that the meeting would now start at one o’clock sharp.
With his white T-shirt, baggy cotton trousers and sandals without socks, Steele-Perkins set the informal tone for the occasion. Multi-pocketed waistcoats and variations on a safari theme were favoured by other members. But no one could mistake the fact that this was a conclave of photographers, for many of them had Leicas hanging round their necks and amused themselves by taking pictures of each other. Larry Towell, who firms in rural Ontario when he is not working as a photographer, turned up in a straw hat, striped shirt, braces and jeans, while Micha Bar-Am, who has covered every war in the Middle East since the foundation of Israel, would have looked like an Old Testament prophet, with his luxuriant beard, had it not been for his combat jacket and tinted spectacles. Jean Gaumy, the French vice-president, bears a striking resemblance to a mischievous pixie and darted about with a video camera to produce a filmed record.
Usually only those members who are sulking or are on unavoidable assignments miss the annual meeting, even though it often means travelling halfway round the world. But travel is nothing to these people; it is an integral part of their lives as professional photographers and getting to Paris is a lot easier than reaching many of the places in which they find themselves. Indeed, not long after chairing the meeting, Chris Steele-Perkins was in Afghanistan with the government forces just outside Kabul when a rocket-propelled grenade failed to explode right in front of him.
The meeting did not, of course, start at one o’clock prompt because by then a buffet lunch had materialised in the courtyard with cold chicken, salads, some fine cheese, an excellent red wine and, curiously, two bottles of Pernod which remained primly unopened. But at two, after much cajoling, the members were assembled in a darkened ground floor studio for the traditional opening event, an opportunity for members to show what they have been working on during the previous twelve months. `Please make it very tight’, the agenda pleaded, `as there are a lot of people, around 30 slides per presentation.’
Chris Steele-Perkins kicked off with a selection of bleak pictures of the homeless he had taken as part of a project he was working on with a London charity. As the carousel clicked, the wretched faces of the urban dispossessed stared out from the white wall on to which the pictures were being projected. They were followed by scenes of crime and violence in South Africa, competitors at the Paralympics and British football supporters. Steele-Perkins’s presentation was received with a polite ripple of applause.
For the next hour or so those present were whisked around the world, mostly with images in black and white, which is the preferred medium for those who consider themselves to be serious about photography. (It is also an enigma for ordinary folk: why would anyone want to photograph an indisputably colourful world in monochrome? If colour film had been invented first, would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?)
Thomas Hoepker showed the destruction of the rainforest in Borneo and Sarawak; Patrick Zachmann showed the elections in Taiwan, the Mafia in Russia and the funeral of Francois Mitterand; Nicos Economopoulos showed the Greek Orthodox religion struggling in Israel, Serbia, Albania and Monrovia; Abbas brought along pictures from Israel and the Philippines, part of a major project on Christianity around the world; John Vink had been working in the mountains of Guatemala with Medicins sans Frontieres — `I kept the project cheap,’ he explained. `I only spent $300 in six weeks’; Larry Towell showed a portfolio on a Mennonite community in Mexico; Elliott Erwitt presented a typically wry selection from a new book called Museum Watching; David Hurn showed Welsh landscapes, portraits and lifestyle; Martine Franck had photographed children in Nepal and India considered to be reincarnations of deceased lamas; David Harvey gave his presentation on Spanish culture in Cuba; and Ferdinando Scianna showed a moving set of pictures of invalids clinging to faith and hope on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
As a demonstration of a truly international organisation it was impressive in every way, not least in the backgrounds of the presenters, who were: an Englishman born in Burma; a German living in America; a Frenchman; a Greek; a Belgian; an Iranian living in France; a Canadian; an American born in Paris to Russian immigrants; a Welshman born in England; a Belgian raised in America and married to a Frenchman; an American and an Italian.
At four o’clock it was time for the first business meeting in a borrowed room on the opposite side of the courtyard. Eve Arnold, diminutive, silver-haired and slightly stooped, arrived just before it was due to begin and was warmly welcomed by everyone with kisses on both cheeks, rather like a much loved Jewish mother turning up for a big family reunion, which in a way is what she was. She took her place at the long table in the centre of the room and those unable to find chairs sat around the floor and leaned up against the wall or squatted on a flight of stairs leading to an office above. This proved to be something of a nuisance since the office above was a production company auditioning for a television commercial and throughout the meeting a procession of astonishingly beautiful young women picked their way up and down the stairs, causing considerable distraction and much nudging and eye-rolling.
The first business was to hand out a green report containing the previous year’s figures. This was initially studied with enormous concentration, not because everyone present was suddenly taking an interest in the balance sheet, but because the report listed what each photographer had earned. `Of all the paper that is going to be pushed around this weekend’, one member whispered, `this makes the most interesting reading.’
The news that Chris Steele-Perkins had to impart to his colleagues was uniformly bad. Magnum, he said, was facing the worst crisis in its history. It was different from the crises that are always raised at every annual meeting: this one was life-threatening. Unless urgent action was taken, Magnum would collapse. The figures continued to go down relentlessly. Assignments, both editorial and commercial, were decreasing every year. The archive, the so-called `gold mine’ that everyone said Magnum was sitting on, was not being sufficiently exploited, particularly in America, which was the biggest market in the world. The debts incurred by the New York office were now no longer sustainable, but none of the offices was working properly. A new, radical business strategy had to be devised, and additional Magnum funding identified, if Magnum was to stand any chance of surviving …
The members received all this with remarkable equanimity. It was immediately clear that Magnum meetings were unlike any corporate meeting anywhere in the world. While Steele-Perkins was talking, people wandered in and out, whispered among themselves, read newspapers, took photographs and occasionally nodded off to sleep. Philip Jones Griffiths remained engrossed in Private Eye more or less throughout.
`When I look at the consolidated figures,’ Steele-Perkins continued, `I find it very depressing that a lot of the new members are only earning peanuts, making $9,000 or even less. With the offices not working properly, we have not much to offer them. What we are saying to them is, give us your money and get screwed and they should be thanking us. Is that what we are offering new photographers?’
Jones Griffiths looked up from his magazine for a moment to offer the following: `Everything that has happened in the world of photography we did first and here we are bankrupt and divided and on our knees and our competitors are millionaires. Why? Everyone think on that before they go to sleep tonight.’
`How can we be efficient and make concrete decisions in the next days?’ asked Gilles Peress. `We must have a business plan.’
`Every year we make plans and rules,’ complained Thomas Hoepker, `and every year they are forgotten as soon as we walk out of the door.’
Patrick Zachmann said the structure of the agency had to be made lighter to make them all more free. If you ask younger members if they are satisfied with the structure, they are not.
`We’ve never been businessmen,’ Leonard Freed put in. `If it’s a business, let’s hire businessmen to run it. We are out photographing, that’s what we do. Why ask us to make business decisions?’ Freed was wearing a T-shirt which resonated curiously with the despairing nature of the debate. Written across his chest was `What does it all mean? What is the purpose of it all?’
A young Belgian member, Carl De Keyzer, complained that he had been in Magnum for six years and had only had five or six assignments.
`We don’t just fail in one area,’ Jones Griffiths put in, this time not bothering to look up from his magazine; `we fail in all areas.’
`People keep blaming each other,’ Martin Parr, one of the most successful of the London members, pointed out. `But if you are not selling pictures, maybe your pictures are not good enough. If you want to do a project, you have to set it up yourself. You can’t blame everyone else.’
Burt Glinn swore that running the New York office for the last year had been the hardest year of his life.
“When I came to my first meeting,’ said Patrick Zachmann, `I thought we were going to talk about photography and photographic issues, but all we talked about was business, even though we are not businessmen.’
At this point Chris Steele-Perkins asked for views from those members who had so far not spoken and Georgui Pinkhassov, a quiet Russian attached to the Paris office, volunteered the information that thus far he had rien compris. He was ashamed because he did not speak English and he did not want to talk in banalities.
`That won’t disqualify you here,’ Glinn quipped.
When Gilles Peress offered to translate, Pinkhassov embarked on a long and emotional speech about what it meant to him to be a member of Magnum, how much he was stimulated by membership and how much more cultured he had found his Magnum colleagues than those unfortunates who worked for other photo agencies. `I am looking for someone in Magnum,’ he finally concluded, somewhat mysteriously, `who will be on my side against the world.’
Chris Boot, the bureau chief in London warned the members that they had to decide collectively which way they wanted to go. `You could decide to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary by closing Magnum down. The first question is whether there is the collective will in the organisation to work together and reach the market potential.’
`Options,’ said Chris Steele-Perkins, summing up, `will be put on the table and you will have to decide. It’s your company.’
With these words, the meeting adjourned for the day, leaving everyone just about enough time to prepare for the party which is always held on the first evening. No stranger attending the crowded party on the roof of the Paris office that might would ever have guessed that Magnum had a care in the world. It was a wonderfully warm evening with the last rays of the sun bathing the surrounding rooftops in a pink glow. Taittinger champagne flowed, appropriately by the magnum, the buffet was magnificent and spirits were high, to judge by the animated conversation and the laughter. Only later did Paris bureau chief Francois Hebel admit that Taittinger had donated the champagne in return for a Magnum member photographing the bottle.
Friday was the big day for the presentation and assessment of portfolios from photographers aspiring to join Magnum and from those wishing to move up a level from nominee to associate and from associate to full member. All young photographers are welcome, and indeed encouraged, to show their work to Magnum at any time, but to join the agency the work has to be seen and approved by a majority of members at the annual meeting. A leaflet advising aspirants how to present a portfolio to Magnum is hardly encouraging: it points out that successful applicants will only be invited to become a nominee member — `a category of membership which presents an opportunity for Magnum and the individual to get to know each other but where there are no binding commitments on either side’ — and that in each of the last five years no more than two applicants have ever been successful. Some years none made it.
The meeting was due to start at 10.30 on Friday morning and so it started promptly at 11.30, with Steele-Perkins muttering dark threats about what he intended to do if people couldn’t keep to the schedule. The morning was occupied by presentations from Donovan Wylie, a Belfast-born associate applying for full membership, and from Luc Delahaye, a young Frenchman hoping to move up from nominee to associate. Both, by coincidence, showed photographs from the bitter fighting in Chechnya earlier that year. Wylie bolstered his portfolio with an offbeat photo essay of Russians going to the polls, while Delahaye included more war pictures from Bosnia and Rwanda, among them some terrible shots of bodies being tipped into a mass grave by bulldozers, and a quirky set of pictures taken with a hidden camera of people travelling on the Metro in Paris.
Thirty-three-year-old Delahaye was a popular figure in the Paris office and was talked about as a worthy successor to Robert Capa. By the time he had joined Magnum in 1994, he was already a veteran of Beirut, the fall of Ceausescu in Romania, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Rwanda. Only a few months after being elected as a nominee he was arrested by the Serbs in Bosnia and held blindfolded for three days, during which he was tortured and frequently told he was going to be taken outside to be executed. He was only released after Magnum put pressure on the French foreign ministry to take action.
The discussion over the relative merits of the pictures submitted by Wylie and Delahaye was animated and occasionally heated. If there were any reservations about Delahaye’s work it was only that it conformed too closely to Magnum’s bulging archive of war pictures. `I’ve seen so many pictures in war situations,’ sighed the voluble Italian, Ferdinando Scianna, `that I’m starting to think I have seen them all before.’
London member Peter Marlow tended to agree. `How many people have to die,’ he asked, `for someone to become a member of Magnum?’
James Nachtwey, Magnum’s best-known and most experienced war photographer, argued persuasively that while the world suffered from war it had to be covered. He was supported by Stuart Franklin, the British photographer who took the famous picture of the student standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square: `I think Luc is documenting history in an eloquent and forceful way, not just for us but for the world.’
The argument then moved on to the struggle between art and journalism, Magnum’s tendency to reincarnate itself and its doubtful willingness to consider truly innovative work seriously. `What kind of photographers do we want?’ Patrick Zachmann demanded. `Those who reassure us by taking the same kind of pictures we are taking, or those doing really new work?’
It was finally left to Ferdinando Scianna to put his finger on what was going on. `While we are talking about them,’ he announced, `what we are actually doing is talking about ourselves.’
In the end, Delahaye was accepted as an associate. Wylie’s application for full membership was rejected, but it was agreed he should be asked to stay on as an associate and apply again later. Both men were sitting outside in the courtyard waiting for the decision. David Hurn, a long-standing and respected member who was a friend of Wylie’s, was designated to break the bad news to him, while everyone else fell on the alfresco lunch buffet laid out on trestle tables.
Wylie seemed philosophical about it. Indeed, it is no disgrace to be passed over for membership since it is far from an infrequent occurrence. Sebastiao Salgado, one of the most illustrious names to be working in Magnum in the 1980s, failed on his first attempt to become a full member, although he admitted it hurt at the time. Peter Marlow recalls walking round New York in a fury muttering `Bastards, bastards’ under his breath after being told he was `not ready’ for full membership.
In the afternoon it was time to consider the portfolios submitted by would-be nominees. They were spread around on tables in the studio and were mercilessly scrutinised. None provoked much enthusiasm and most were dismissed as not worthy of serious consideration, even though they represented the best of the work tendered to the individual offices. Only one submission generated any heat — a portfolio by a woman photographer of intriguing colour pictures of ordinary Russian families at home, staring directly into the camera. They were in some ways strangely compelling, the kind of pictures that instantly make you want to know more about the subjects, but they had nothing to do with photo-journalism and thus immediately aroused the animosity of the photo-journalists, while the `art photographers’ waxed enthusiastic.
The debate quickly returned to the topic of the morning, Magnum’s unwillingness to accept genuinely original work, and soon everyone was talking at once, their voices rising to try and make themselves heard. When Philip Jones Griffiths boomed `WE ARE NOT ARTISTS’ there was complete uproar, with many members on their feet shouting, some quivering with rage. Sadly, the argument turned personal when someone said that the photographer concerned was a `bit pushy’; Eve Arnold ventured the view that if she was admitted she would be divisive. So then they began to quarrel about why it was that the personality and character of women applicants was always taken into greater consideration than when men were being considered.
In the end it was academic, since only three names got through to a final short list and only one, a young Italian, was deemed acceptable to the majority.
The final meeting of the day was to discuss the photographers’ contracts. By then Magnum’s lawyer, Howard Squadron, had shown up at Passage Piver. Squadron is a highly regarded corporate lawyer in New York who numbers Rupert Murdoch among his clients. He has been the legal adviser to Magnum since the 1950s, more out of affection than out of any hope that the agency will ever be able to pay his fees. He is an unashamed fan, a close friend of many of the photographers and describes the annual meeting as his `marvellous annual lost weekend’. He enjoys the adventures of the photographers vicariously. He still talks about the meeting when Burt Glinn arrived straight from Cuba after accompanying Castro on his triumphant entry into Havana, while other photographers arrived from covering the revolution in Hungary and war in the Middle East: `I remember looking round the room and thinking what a very remarkable group of people they were.’ Squadron has handled most of Magnum’s numerous divorces and he and and his family have, he says, been photographed `up, down and sideways’ by members.
The lawyer sees his role in the agency as somewhere between a rabbi and a business adviser, helping the photographers to figure out a way of doing whatever it is they want to do. `Essentially the same issues are discussed at every meeting,’ he explains. `The first is how to run an agency when the bosses are constantly travelling all over the world, the second is money; the third is competition between the offices and the fourth is philosophy, the direction Magnum should be taking. Because photographers are concerned with the creative aspects of their work, they are neither interested nor involved in the nuts and bolts of corporate management and are not very business oriented.’
Squadron candidly admits that he is `stunned’ that Magnum has endured so long. `It is extremely difficult to run what is essentially a profit-making business on a non-profit basis. I think it is held together by a rather special glue — the commitment of the photographers and their conviction that the only way they can protect their rights is by staying together.’
Saturday was devoted to the thorny question of how Magnum is to survive. Chris Steele-Perkins greeted his colleagues like this: `Today is the day. We are in a lot of trouble. Today we have the chance to put it right, or we can just hope for a miracle.’ The New York office had lost $300,000 in the last twelve months and accumulated losses now stood at around $1 million. The loyalty of the photographers was in doubt because they could never be sure when they would get their money. The previous October the New York office literally ran out of money and could not even pay its telephone bill, let alone the fees owed to photographers. Both the Paris and Tokyo offices had also lost money, although not to the same extent as New York.
`The reason New York is such a disaster,’ someone would confide later, `is that the photographers there won’t work together because they all hate each other.’
Francois Hebel and Chris Boot, the bureau chiefs in Paris and London, began explaining a radical rescue package they had devised which would involve setting up a separate company within Magnum — Boot called it M2 — to co-ordinate the global marketing of the archive, including a catalogue. It would require raising new investment but could dramatically improve profit. A key part of the plan, they emphasised, was that the members should be willing to loosen their control of the agency and allow the staff to get on with it.
Howard Squadron, the voice of reason, was sceptical. `What is being suggested here is an entrepreneurial exercise and in general entrepreneurial exercises are run by entrepreneurs and not by committees. This proposal will essentially eliminate photographer control and I would suggest that that is a matter for discussion. Many photographers over the years have been concerned about how their images are presented and marketed. If you embark on this path many of those concerns will have to be put aside if you are going to have commercial success. Every business venture starts with the question: what is the market? If you do not know the market very clearly, you are not going to be able to proceed. Furthermore I think it will be very difficult to borrow the money; I don’t think a bank will lend without a demonstrable track record of commercial success, which you do not have. That brings me to investment. It would be best for the photographers themselves to invest the money needed rather than give away part of the store and give up some control. Quite frankly, and do not take this wrongly, this is not an amateur exercise.’
Uniquely among those present, Squadron could command complete silence and total attention, even from those French photographers who could not understand a word of English. After he had finished, a babble broke out with a dozen different points of view being expressed at once. When Steele-Perkins had restored a semblance of order, everyone was given the opportunity to put their point of view, but Patrick Zachmann, who was sitting on the floor on one side of the room, clearly felt he was not getting a fair hearing: suddenly he got to his feet, shaking his head and muttering something in French, threw his bag over his shoulder and stalked out, his dark eyes flashing furiously.
For a moment there was silence while everyone looked at each other, possibly wondering what had brought on this fit of pique or whether an attempt should be made to persuade him to come back. Eventually Gilles Peress went out after Zachmann, followed by Francois Hebel, followed by Steele-Perkins, followed by jean Gaumy, followed by Bruno Barbey. They all huddled in the courtyard while those remaining in the room read the newspapers or gossiped. `There was no reason for him to walk out like that, slamming the door,’ someone said. `He didn’t slam the door,’ Burt Glinn pointed out; `there isn’t a door.’
Zachmann, who joined Magnum in 1985, is one of the cadre of Paris-based photographers who see themselves as artists rather than journalists. He takes pictures, he explains, to express himself and to try to understand the world and himself better. This has not, however, prevented him from being shot. He happened to be in South Africa, working on a personal project, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Because he was a Magnum photographer and because he thought he might be able to make a little money, he decided he ought to try and record the occasion and so he made his way to the city hall in Cape Town, where Mandela was due to meet the people. Waiting with two other photographers for the great man to arrive, they heard shooting and ran to where the noise was coming from, straight into a confrontation between nervous white policemen and a crowd apparently looting shops. As Zachmann turned the corner the police fired and he took a full blast of buckshot in the chest, legs and arms. He clearly remembers falling and thinking he was going to die and being angry at the injustice of being shot when he wasn’t even a journalist. He was also rather irritated that one of his companions, who clearly was a journalist, took a picture of him before dragging him into shelter and calling an ambulance.
It took about half an hour to persuade Zachmann to return to the meeting, but he would only stand at the back, glowering. He was in time to hear an impassioned speech from Ferdinando Scianna which was hard for an outsider to follow, partly because he spoke from his scribbled notes in a mixture of English, French and Italian and partly because his theme was centred on the need to `free ourselves from our mothers and the kibbutz’. When he finally resumed his seat he received a round of applause, perhaps more for elan than for content.
A suggestion that every photographer should ante up $10,000 to help the New York office out of its financial crisis was rejected on the incontestable grounds that many members did not have anything like that kind of money available to put into the pot, even if they felt so inclined. There was also an unpleasant spat between Gilles Peress and Chris Boot, when Peress complained about the accounting in New York and asserted that he could spot mistakes, in `the blink of an eye’. `If we tried to answer all the questions you raise,’ Boot retorted, `it would take up all the time of the staff.’ Peress fixed Boot with a sullen stare as Boot explained that Peress had once asked him to provide all his figures for the previous fifteen years. Peress has since insisted he could not have asked Boot for the figures for the last fifteen years but only those for the last fifteen months in which the photographers did not receive their monthly statements and, that when accounting figures were finally received, they contained substantial inaccuracies.
It was clearly a surprise to all those present that when it was time to take a vote on the rescue package, everyone agreed that it should go ahead. Boot was jubilant. `Do you realise,’ he whispered, `this is a real breakthrough?’ Howard Squadron, a slight smile playing on his lips, said nothing.
By Sunday it was evident that the members were getting demob happy and looking forward to the meeting drawing to an end. There were no fireworks and the debate was flaccid, covering a whole range of issues, from the legal implications of people injured by a bomb in Algeria successfully petitioning that photographs of them at the scene had invaded their privacy, to whether or not Magnum should have its own Web site and design its own screensaver. Jones Griffiths was dismissive. `Will a screensaver make Magnum look like a serious organisation with its finger on the pulse. What next? A T-shirt? The asset strippers will be marketing our toenail clippings in plastic bags next.’
One desultory exchange prompted a rare contribution from the taciturn Elliott Erwitt, who, as one of the very early photographers to be recruited, says he only intervenes in the debate to `protect some of the things that the younger ones are too stupid to understand’. Someone complained that a proposal was unfair. `Well life is unfair,’ said Burt Glinn, `no question about it.’ `Since when?’ said Erwitt.
A journalist who was once commissioned to write a 12,000-word article about Erwitt was warned that it would be impossible because Erwitt had `never spoken 12,000 words in his whole life’. He certainly had only one word — `tiresome’ — to describe the tenor of most annual meetings. `Magnum is a combination of a lot of diverse people who are prima donnas. There are a lot of egos and so there is a lot of in-fighting. I have been a witness to this stuff for the last forty-three years and it gets a little tiresome because a lot of it is the same, but I guess it’s a part of running your own business. If you analyse it, I guess it’s better than working for Time Inc. or Murdoch.’
`The meetings used to be great fun in the old days,’ said Ian Berry. `I used to look forward to them. You know, this crazy gang, with not a damn thing in common except photography, would get together and try to sort out why we’d lost so much money during the year. There were some great characters around and it would always deteriorate into the most marvellous rows.’
During the lunch break Jones Griffiths told a wonderfully malicious and probably apocryphal story about how the New York photographers had once organised a joint project on Paris, much to the fury of the Paris office, which could not abide the idea of American photographers working in their beloved city. When the project was selected for inclusion in an exhibition in Paris it was the final straw. On the night before the exhibition, said Jones Griffiths, Cartier-Bresson organised a van loaded with pictures taken by the Paris photographers, drove round to the gallery, removed all the pictures by American photographers and replaced them with the French pictures. (`Totally untrue’, Cartier-Bresson said later, `Absolute rubbish.’)
Coincidentally, a letter from Henri Cartier-Bresson was read out that afternoon expressing his regret that he could not be present — he was in hospital for a minor operation — but wishing everyone well. Cartier-Bresson, the sole surviving founding member, retains considerable affection for Magnum. Although he has not been working actively as a photographer for more than twenty years he says there is an umbilical cord which keeps him attached to the agency. He points out, with delight, that in the year he was chairman of the board the minutes of the annual meeting note that the chairman was `kindly requested to avoid doing water colours during the meeting’.
`Magnum,’ he says, `is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually. That is why the group has survived. That’s what holds it together.’
`Sure we’re like a family,’ says Elliott Erwitt; `that’s why we tear each other’s throats out.’
`Oh yes, we’re a family,’ says Ferdinando Scianna. `I hate my family.’
Copyright ” 1997 by Russell Miller. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.