Why looking at the best work in the world is important. And fun.

You may or may not remember that several years ago my friend, Will, and I were engaged to make a video about the Magnum Print Collection. The occasion was the long term loan of the collection to the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin by Michael and Susan Dell. Here is the video featuring then curator, David Coleman, and a selection of original prints: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2010/03/video-about-magnum-print-collection.html

That was in 2010. Just this month the HRC opened a show with several hundred wonderful prints made by the legends of the Magnum photo agency over a period of years from about 1955 to about 2008. There is work from Henri Cartier Bresson, David Seymour, Josef Koudelka, Phillipe Halsman, Constantine Manos, Raymond Depardon, and many others. It's an amazing show both for the breadth and for the almost uniform high quality of both the seeing and the prints. If you are a photographer and you live within a day's drive from Austin you owe it to yourself to come and see the show. It's free and open to the public. (Check the hours before you drive in from El Paso...).

I was particularly stunned by how good the technical quality of the photography was, given the allegedly inferior equipment and "image sensors" the master of photography were using sixty or so years ago and yet many of the images seem head and shoulders better than the vast majority of the work I see all over the place today....including work lauded by all the usual sources.

There is one image of three people in a small room by Josef Koudelka that riveted me. I devoured it with my eyes for five long minutes and then returned to it two more times before I finally exited the museum. It's an interior, available light shot of three "Gypsies." A young woman, an old man and an old woman. The composition is perfect. The young women is to the right of the frame and in a plane closest to the camera. She is gazing directly into the camera. Over to the left of the print is the old man with a hat. He is looking at the young woman but he is in a plane behind her which adds a wonderful depth to the image. In the center of the print, in a third plane even further removed is the old woman, bent over a primitive stove. And behind her is the intersection of the two walls of the room and the ceiling which creates soaring diagonals that come forward toward the two other subjects. The effect is full of energy and endlessly compelling. It's a wholly self contained narrative about existence.  And the print is better than 99% of all the digital prints I've seen since the dawn of the digital age. Effortlessly better. Not bigger. Just better. 

Did photographers see better in the 1960's? Was the act of committing precious film ( and miles and days away from more film....) a consideration that drove photographers to a higher level of attention and intention? Pondering this caused me to question almost every piece of photographic art I've seen since 2000. You may not agree with me. You may not like Koudelka's work. But the act of communal viewing in a darkened space with perfect light, with the object of your observation unencumbered by your screen and its limitations may provoke you to experience art at a different level than the screen will ever allow. At least that's been my experience. The print is still relevant. Come see them while you can.
It's a different and wholly inferior art form when confined to an electronic screen. Honestly.

Bonus blog over at RIPE CAMERA: http://ripecamera.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-complete-rationale-for-buying.html


  1. If they "saw better", it was in large part because they didn't have all sorts of gear related distractions. In many cases they spent large parts of their careers with essentially, or literally, the same camera and lenses. Combine that with the large exposure latitudes of B&W print film, and the camera became an extension of themselves. They didn't have to think about much of anything else except "seeing".

  2. It is highly likely that a number of these prints were printed by Voja Mitrovic. See Voja Mitrovic, Printer to the Greats parts 1 and 2 on TOP. His work for HCB, Koudelka, Salgado, and Peter Turnley is beyond gorgeous and is in perfect synergy with the compositions – IMO. A Master Printer from the age of the darkroom; not many left in his class.

  3. " Was the act of committing precious film ( and miles and days away from more film....) a consideration that drove photographers to a higher level of attention and intention?"

    I'm probably mistaken but it was my understanding that Koudelka shot a roll of 35mm every day, regardless of whether he was on a project or not, simply to keep in practice. The guy eats, sleeps, breathes photography to the exclusion of almost everything else.

    1. A fun and fabulously over the top rumor. Maybe a bit of hyperbole. But even if he did shoot a roll a day that's a whopping 36 frames. I watch amateurs and pros around here shoot thousands of frames a day on the most innocuous subjects. My rhetorical question retains its basic validity.

    2. I don't disagree with what you're saying. I was merely trying to make the point that I don't think photographers, back then, were starved of film. It always amazed me how much film certain photographers would get through.

  4. The show is fabulous. It changed my perspective in the moment. Last night it rained. Hard. Now I own a shop vacuum and I'm haphazardly mopping up the water on the floor in my studio.... Better than it could have been.

  5. When equipment and film cost money, each click of the shutter costs you, not just in money, but in time. Under these circumstances, photographers train their eye and heart to judge when it's suitable to click. And there were lots of photographs taken throughout all those decades; most were absolutely banal and lost. These rose to the top because they were exceptional in many ways, plus in those days there was more of a "top" to rise to, in contrast to today's media.

  6. Hi Kirk, I just went to your new (?) blog using the link you provided above, and I subscribed. Just curious, what will the difference be? The three posts on ripecamera are gear related, so will that be your blog in the future for discussing gear? (Sorry to ask... I may have missed an earlier announcement)

  7. Magnum photographs are so great because they were produced by a once-in-a-century assemblage of amazing talents who magically found each other through accident of time, temperament and circumstance--like the Renaissance, or the Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers.
    It's easy to imagine how they must have sat around in Paris between assignments and challenged, nurtured, insulted, annoyed, angered, ignored, commiserated, and otherwise help each other become so much more than the sum of their individual talents.
    They were also working with faster film, and f/2 and f/1.4 lenses on rangefinder cameras that allowed them to handhold shots in unbelievably low light. Plus they had the benefit of almost 100 years of story-telling photographers before them they could look to for techniques, compositional strategies, and inspiration. And, a lot of them were Europeans who grew up looking at great art in their churches and public buildings. Europeans don't have the same idiotic aversion to using their past as part of their art the way Americans do.

    What changed? Two things. First were the deaths in 1954 and 1956 respectively of Robert Capa and then Chim (David Seymour) while on assignment covering wars; if you read memoirs of the time, those two guys getting killed really knocked the wind out of the Magnum photographers. It took a long time for them to really get over it. The other factor was Andy Warhol (and those who came just before and just after him). Rightly or wrongly, his silkscreened Polaroids made beautiful, thoughtful, well-composed photography look silly and overblown by comparison. Warhol made a fortune by reducing pictures, movies...and people...to one-dimensional caricatures of themselves. The rest of the art world followed and that's why the idea of photograph as a window into the world seems as quaint as great-grandma's stereoscopic picture viewer.

  8. I could not agree more; the only way to look at photographs should be in printed form; large is nice, but even small size printed images can be incredibly compelling. I make it one of my objectives to go visit museums when they have photography exhibits (we get great ones in L.A. quite often), and it can be overwhelming.

    you are right, most of today's 'disposable photography' pales in comparison to those old great masterpieces.

    still, if you have not seen it yet, go check out Salgado's Genesis, possibly in the larger, two tome edition. it may not be all film, but it is - in my opinion - the best image collection ever published.

    so, at the end of the day, there is still hope for great photography, regardless of HOW it is taken; what is needed - today as mush as yesterday - is a great subject and an eye that can 'see' it in a meaningful way.

  9. I have a large photo book collection and visit as many photo exhibits as i can get to, but I'm always amazed by other photographers who don't buy photo books or visit exhibits. I'm hooked on the work of Gene Smith. Strand, and Weston, and wonder how I'd work without their inspiration.

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