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James Dean, D-Day And More: Iconic Photos Find A New Home

Magnum Photos, one of the most renowned cooperatives of photojournalists, shares its name with an extra-large bottle of champagne. And it has reason to pop a bottle. Earlier this month, the international agency's New York bureau sold its entire archive of press prints to Michael Dell (as in Dell computers). Magnum will not confirm the sale price, but the archive is insured at $100 million, according to The New York Times. Listen to the story here.

Although you may not be familiar with the name Magnum, you've probably seen its photos: Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech; James Dean traversing a rainy Times Square — cigarette dangling from his mouth, hands thrust in his pockets; D-Day troops invading Normandy beaches. Founded in 1947, the cooperative has been home to some of history's greatest photojournalists, from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Steve McCurry. So why would Magnum be willing to part with so much of its past — more than 180,000 prints spanning more than a half-century?

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The shelving of the Magnum archive at the Harry Ransom Center contains more than 1,000 boxes. (Pete Smith/Harry Ransom Center) hide caption

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The agency, always notoriously protective of its copyrights, was able to retain those copyrights in the transaction. The sale included only the prints that were formerly distributed to magazines and newspapers and are no longer used. MSD Capital, the private investment firm of Michael Dell, made the purchase, and the photos are being housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin for the next 5 years.

As Magnum photographer, and current president of the cooperative, Alex Webb put it, "Magnum's past is enabling Magnum to have a future." A large portion of the sale revenue will go directly to the photographers — the owners of Magnum, because it is a cooperative. But for the first time in its history, the agency itself has also made a profit. Some of the money will be used to develop digital distribution of photos, and some will go to new programming for young photographers and for the perpetuation of in-depth documentary photography.

Magnum photographer Eli Reed documents David Coleman, Ransom Center curator of photography, processing the incoming collection. (Pete Smith/Harry Ransom Center) hide caption

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"It's beyond measure what's in these boxes," said David Coleman, curator of photography at the Ransom Center, emphasizing that the archive is more than just "iconic" photos. Magnum photographers and Coleman alike are excited for the ways in which the collection will be used. For the first time, it is now open to the public, to be examined by researchers, studied by students, featured in exhibitions and used in workshops with Magnum photographers.

Mark Lubell, managing director of Magnum, quoted photographer Josef Koudelka to explain that the motivation behind the sale — aside from the capital gain — was legacy:

The amazing photographer Josef Koudelka did a seminal body of work on gypsies. And he told me one time, 'You know, the gypsies have this expression: You are only dead when the last person that knows you dies.'

With the archive already open to the public, the people in these photographs will have new life: the soldiers at D-Day, the Civil Rights protesters, celebrities and politicians — and hundreds of thousands of history's anonymous bystanders. And, as a result, Magnum will have a new life, too.

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