Photo agency's films, stills get new life

HONG KONG — Magnum, the iconic photo agency that Henri Cartier-Bresson once described as “a community of thought,” had its most intimate connection with the movie industry in 1961 when Eve Arnold was given freedom of the set on John Huston’s “The Misfits.”

Not only was the movie a triumph, Arnold’s photo-reportage went further than any before and possibly any since. Her camera witnessed the breakup of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe’s marriage and the mental breakdown suffered by leading man Montgomery Clift.

For years before that, one of Magnum’s most steady money earners was taking on-set photographs. The agency took pictures under the kind of arrangement that gave the producers material for their publicity campaigns and provided Magnum enough exclusive shots to sell to glossy magazines. Typically, this worked better with independent productions rather than studios, which had no desire to lose control to a cooperative of independent photographers.

What is less well-known is that throughout its 60-year existence, many of Magnum’s photographer-owners also had careers in film. Some, such as France’s Raymond Depardon, arguably maintain parallel careers, while others, including co-founder Cartier-Bresson and Jean Gaumy, regarded film and photography as different aspects of a single career in visual expression.

Self-reflective

Magnum in Motion: Photographers and the Moving Image is a major collection of films about photographers, photography and film — all are made by Magnum member-photographers.

A recurring theme to emerge from the series, and key to the modus operandi of the Magnum agency, is the long-term value of visual storytelling.

This marks out Magnum’s its emphasis on self-sufficiency and taking the time necessary to get beneath the surface of a story, as compared with photographers working quickly on news deadlines.

Case in point is “Dying for Publicity,” Chris Steele-Perkins’ video diary about a trip to Somalia where he questions the morality of photojournalism and crosses the line between observer and subject matter to help two children with tuberculosis. The film is as relevant in 2007’s war-torn Darfur as it was when it was shot in 1993.

Rene Burri’s “The Two Faces of China” was made on the eve of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Its documentation of the country’s attempt to sweep away history has powerful echoes today as China sprints ahead as an economic powerhouse.

And Eve Arnold’s film about Dubai, “Behind the Veil,” made in 1969, not only captures a traditional Muslim society just as it begins to become modernized, but also the antagonism between Islamic and Western societies that has been the stuff of news stories throughout the first years of the 21st century.

Though Magnum built its reputation on humanitarian photos and photo-essays, many of the films on show in Berlin demonstrate a more overtly political or campaigning side to their authors than when they use the stills medium.

Gerry Badger, who wrote much of the catalog that accompanies the Berlin series, asks: “Does the film medium itself encourage a photographer to be more political in expression? … is still photography too equivocal in nature to function entirely effectively as a means of making an overt political statement?” He argues that this transformation even applies to Cartier-Bresson, normally regarded as the most artistic of the agency’s founders. Festivalgoers have two of his films on view to help them make up their minds.

Talking point

Stills photographers making movies underlines a point easily overlooked by filmmakers who have never done anything different. “In movies, people talk. A voiceover commentary is much more effective than the caption texts which can accompany still photographs,” Badger argues. “An even more potent filmic device emanates from the fact that the voices of the film’s protagonists can potentially be heard.”

For auds who like what they see — and hear — of the Magnum force, the Motion collection also presents four films about the agency itself. And throughout the Berlinale, several of the photographers, including Depardon, Gaumy, Elliot Erwitt, Susan Meiselas, Philip Jones-Grifiths, Donovan Wylie and Rene Burri, will attend screenings at the Zueghaus Kino and the CinemaxX 6 theater.

But Motion is more than simple festival showcase. For some of the films, it represents a rescue operation, others a return to the limelight.

Section was conceived more than two years ago when festival topper Dieter Kosslick, over a meal with Erwitt in New York joked that Erwitt probably didn’t know where much of its own movie work was to be found. That was when fellow diner Irwin Young, owner of the DuArt laboratory, explained that Erwitt’s movie and many others were currently rotting in his office basement and could do with rescuing. Thus began a recovery, cataloging and selection process,¬†overseen by New York-based journalist Alrun Steinrueck, that auds will share first in Berlin.

Motion will also travel to other festivals around the world including Guadalajara, New York and Thessaloniki.

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