Picks and Pans Review: In Our Time: the World as Seen by Magnum Photographers

updated 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

by William Manchester

Magnum Photo Inc. is a collective that was founded in 1947 by seven people—Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Maria Eisner, Chim (David Seymour), George Rodger and William and Rita Vandivert. They were seeking greater independence, intellectual as well as financial, for photo-journalists. This extraordinary collection of photographs taken by members of the collective is the catalog of an exhibition that will tour in 1989-90. But the quality of its reproduction and design make it far more than merely a catalog.

Including the work of such photographers as Elliott Erwitt, Eve Arnold and W.Eugene Smith in addition to Magnum's celebrated founders, the book is a graphic history of the last 40 years. In their vitality and compassion, most of the pictures fulfill Cartier-Bresson's prescription: "There are those who take photographs arranged beforehand and those who go out to discover the image and seize it. One must always take photographs with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself."

There is little whimsy, and when there is, it rarely seems to fit. What we see is page after page of violence, poverty, catastrophe, pain—Rodger's concentration camps (1945), Eugene Richard's crack dens (1988), Leonard Freed's civil rights movement (1963), Eilles Peress's Northern Ireland (1976). David Hurn's lovely photo of junior ballroom dancers in Wales scarcely changes the pace, followed as it is by Martine Franck's anniversary of the World War I armistice (France, 1977) and W.Eugene Smith's relief workers awaiting Andrea Doria survivors in 1956.

The color photographs seem almost to be from a medium other than the black-and-white shots that dominate the book's early pages. Indeed, Susan Meiselas's color work in Nicaragua in the late '70s was criticized for "prettifying" events some critics thought should have been treated in the more sober black-and-white tradition. Today, however, black-and-white photo-journalists seem an endangered species. Such Magnum photographers as James Nachtwey, Alex Webb and Meiselas photograph the battlefields and mayhem of the world in living color.

In the book's text, Manchester's analysis of photography's place in history is often long-winded. Essays by French historian Jean LaCouture and Fred Ritchin, one of the exhibit's curators, are more entertaining, with forthright and lively behind-the-scenes stories about such things as how Capabet on horses with Magnum money. Photo historian Robert Delpire, largely responsible for winnowing the millions of pictures in Magnum's files down to the 400 that appear in the book, admirably handled the protean task. Many of the photographs, of course, are only parts of bigger projects; Bruce Davidson's classic book East 100th Street (1970), for instance, is represented by just four pictures.

If In Our Time inevitably captures only the highlights, though, it is an invaluable, often moving book. It is a tribute to the passions and talents of many of the pioneers of photojournalism, shaped with rare understanding. (The American Federation of Arts/Norton, $59.95)

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