Magnum PA

01:00 Sat 02nd Mar 2002 |

Q. Not PI

A. Photo agency not private investigator. You're thinking of Thomas Sullivan Magnum, eponymous hero of the Hawaii-based detective show, which ran from 1980-8.

Q. OK. So what is Magnum PA

A. Magnum Photos is a prestigious international photographic cooperative. It is wholly owned and controlled by its members and markets itself as the first photographers' cooperative. Originally based in Paris, an office was opened in New York soon afterwards, followed by London and then Tokyo.

Q. And it is actually run as a cooperative

A. It is. The photographers, who all take a share of the organisation's profits, meet every year during the last weekend in June in either New York, Paris or London. At these meetings they discuss Magnum's affairs and consider the election of new members. Membership of Magnum is for life or for as long as the photographer chooses, and no member photographer of Magnum has ever been asked to leave, though some have dropped out.

Q. When was it founded

A. The agency was incorporated in the spring of 1947, with initial capital of less than $2,000.

Q. And who were the prime movers

A. Magnum was founded when photographers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and David 'Chim' Seymour, who had been friends before World War II, were reunited unexpectedly in Paris at the war's end. Capa had found fame as a war photographer in the 1930s with his work during Spanish Civil War, while Cartier-Bresson was better known as a Surrealist. Between them - and along with fellow founder members William Vandivert and George Rodger - they conceived the organisation as a fraternal forum for professional photographers as well as a training ground for young talented persons and as an association that would combine the support of a group with much individual freedom for each photographer.

All felt a need to be independent from the magazines and journals for whom they worked. Up to this time if a magazine commissioned work from a photographer, the copyright to the images was with the magazine. Under the rules laid out by Magnum, the photographer kept the copyright of the work.

Magnum was, from its inception, an international enterprise and has been called 'a miniature United Nations', as each of its charter members assumed responsibility for the coverage of a different geographical area. Capa was the only roving photographer, while Chim covered Europe, Cartier-Bresson covered India and the Far East, Vandivert covered the United States (although he dropped out soon afterwards) and Rodger worked in Africa.

Capa was initially the 'leader', though after his death in French Indo-China in 1954 - he was blown up by a land mine - Cartier-Bresson became the father figure.

Q. How many photographers are on its roster now

A. Werner Bischof and Ernst Haas were the first new Magnum members after the founders, and they were soon followed by Eve Arnold, Burt Glinn, Erich Hartmann, Erich Lessing, Marc Riboud, Dennis Stock and Kryn Taconis. There are now sixty-odd members. You can find a full list on the Magnum site at

Q. And what do Magnum say about themselves

A. They say that it is 'the idiosyncratic mix of reporter and artist that continues to define Magnum, emphasising not only what is seen but also the way one sees it'. So now you know.

Q. Was it the first agency of its kind

A. No, that was the Black Star Photo Agency, which was founded in 1935 in New York. There are now many photojournalism agencies throughout the world, some of which specialise in particular fields, such as the London-based Panos Pictures, which deals in developmental and Third-World issues.

Q. And what's the significance of the name Magnum

A. You'd think it might be something to do with 'shooting' a camera rather like shooting a Magnum gun, but no. It's actually named after the 1.5-litre champagne bottle - perhaps the one drunk to celebrate the founding of the cooperative

Find out more about Black Star at

and Panos at

See also the answerbank article on Lee Miller

For more on Arts & Literature click here

By Simon Smith

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