Magnum Force: The history behind 70 Years Of Sports PhotographyMagnum founded a language every eye could understand. Learn more about the photographic agency and its photographers and visit the exhibition in Austria
When the Magnum photographic agency was set up over lunch one day during the spring of 1947 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, sport wasn’t really in the forefront of its founding fathers’ thoughts.
Robert Capa, William Vandivert, David ‘Chim’ Seymour, George Rodger and Henri Cartier-Bresson had all been war correspondents. Now they were driven by an urge to satisfy people’s curiosity for things other than the horrors of conflict.
To combine their skills as reporters and artists, the Magnum photographers were in search of unusual formats. Part of that meant limiting themselves to the very highest quality and barely 100 photographers have ever been good enough to work for Magnum to this day.
Their work has often been a struggle against the mainstream to which the glossies and other magazines of the day have felt confined.
It made perfect sense that Magnum should be an economic entity as well as an artistic one – the members made contributions they all benefited from – to make them less dependent on their clients.
Even if sport was of almost zero interest to them, especially in those early days, when geniuses like Robert Capa or Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke on the subject, there was no hiding their mastery. Capa photographing wrestlers in Soviet Georgia in 1947 was one marvellous example of him finding his feet.
John Steinbeck, Pulitzer Prize-winner and eventual Nobel laureate, wrote the report for the Ladies Home Journal and was paid $3,000 for the piece. Capa was paid $20,000, showing in just what high regard he was held at the time. (A car would have set you back about $1,500 in those days.)
From a technical point of view, the Magnum photographers had no problem finding their bearings in the world of sports photography. Capa’s well-known motto, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” applied with equal severity to shots taken when under enemy fire and to those taken at horse races, wrestling bouts or baseball games. What you needed in the trenches was similar to what you needed when snapping away on the sidelines: small, quick cameras and sensitive footage.
In his book Images à la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment), published in 1952, Cartier-Bresson spoke of a photographer’s duty to create everlasting impressions of fleeting events and in so doing he hit upon the salient point of Magnum’s sports photography. The aim wasn’t merely to freeze the action so that the beholder could take in the moment again. The aim was to show what was going on behind the scenes.
Far more important was the fact that, even when it came to sports photography, Magnum photographers were still sublime storytellers. Their photographs aren’t the icing on the cake, they are the cake. A single image, with its multiplicity of details, figures, nuances and shade is enough to pull a second, third, fourth layer from an event, thus stimulating the beholder’s imagination and helping them to think an event through to the end.
Magnum photographers have always seen sport as a particular challenge and Jonas Bendiksen is no exception. He often tears himself away from his work as a documentary photographer to capture skiing subjects. And 2014 was no different when he travelled with free-skier Henrik Windstedt, raving afterwards, “The most interesting moments for me are when art meets sport.”
Magnum photographers are also willing to invest greater time and effort and to patiently lie in wait. Thomas Hoepker, who shot one of the most honest pictures of Muhammad Ali, spent almost 30 years shadowing the boxer. Hoepker aimed to become invisible at a certain point, as only then would he be able to catch the suspicious Ali off-guard.
Hoepker’s role model in this approach was probably Magnum colleague Inge Morath. She virtually got under the skin of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits in 1960 to get closer to the actress’s true self. “Monroe knew all the tricks about how to pose,” Morath revealed. But her time came eventually.
The exhibition, ‘70 Years of Sports Photography’, runs from April 5 to May 1 at the architecturally unique Hangar-7, which also houses a collection of historic Flying Bulls aeroplanes and Formula One racing cars. Entry is free.
In addition to the exhibition space, Hangar-7’s Restaurant Ikarus, two bars, outdoor lounge and café mean that it is not just an event location, but also a meeting point for art-lovers and connoisseurs.