Iconic Magnum Photos Find A New Home

James Dean walks in Times Square i i

James Dean walks through a rainy Times Square. Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos hide caption

itoggle caption Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos
James Dean walks in Times Square

James Dean walks through a rainy Times Square.

Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos

Earlier this month, billionaire Michael Dell bought the print archive of the Magnum Photo Agency, a collective of photographers co-founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1947, and loaned the prints to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The photographers still retain copyright to their images, but now anyone who visits Austin can hold the iconic images.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

When it comes to the defining moments of the past half century, many of them have been captured on film by the photojournalists at Magnum Photos. The agency was founded in 1947 by the father of modern photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and three of his colleagues. Among them Robert Capa, famous for photographing U.S. troops as they stormed the beaches of Normandy.

Magnum photographers documented civil rights demonstrations, the war in Vietnam, the earthquake in Haiti. Earlier this month, the agency's New York bureau parted with a bit of its illustrious history: It sold its entire archive of press prints.

NPR's Claire O'Neill explains why.

Mr.�DAVID COLEMAN (Curator of Photography, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin): Oh, my gosh.

CLAIRE O'NEILL: David Coleman is like a kid in a candy shop.

Mr.�COLEMAN: You can't stop looking at these photos once you start opening the boxes. It's like Pandora's box. You can't put the lid back on.

O'NEILL: Except the stuff in these boxes won't unleash havoc upon mankind. Coleman is the photography curator at the Harry Ransom Center, a research library at the University of Texas in Austin. He is happily thumbing through the center's latest acquisition, perhaps the most monumental acquisition in photo history, more than 180,000 press prints spanning half a century.

Mr.�COLEMAN: This collection is just tremendous. You get the point of view of photographers from all over the world going all over the world in the second half of the 20th century. So it's broad and it's deep and it's beyond measure, really, what is in these boxes.

O'NEILL: Magnum's photography is often described in one word, iconic: that National Geographic cover of the Afghan girl with bright green eyes; James Dean walking through a rainy Times Square, hands thrust in his pockets; Martin Luther King sweating as he delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech; D-Day landings, Marilyn Monroe, the Civil Rights Movement; photos by Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Elliott Erwitt.

So why would Magnum sell them?

Mr.�MARK LUBELL (Managing Director, Magnum Photo): The reason for doing this was to have some capital improvements made, and now we're in a much better position than we were before.

O'NEILL: That's an understatement. Mark Lubell, the managing director of Magnum, would not reveal the archive's price tag, but according to the New York Times, it was insured at $100 million. Most of the revenue from the sale will go straight to the photographers, although some of it will go to new outreach programming and to improve its digital distribution system.

The buyer was MSD Capital, the personal investment firm of Michael Dell, as in the computers.

Mark Lubell explains.

Mr.�LUBELL: The Dell group was very exciting to me because they said: We see ourselves as custodians of this work. We will be honored to take care of this piece of history. I knew I could go back to the membership with that kind of offer.

O'NEILL: By membership, Lubell means the photographers, the owners of Magnum. The agency is a collective, and its goal is to find work for the photographers but also to protect the copyright of their images, and they'll retain those copyrights, which is one reason why the photographers were willing to part with the prints, that and then there's legacy.

Ms. SUSAN MEISELAS (Photographer): Magnum is multigenerational.

O'NEILL: Photographer Susan Meiselas heads up some of the agency's new initiatives to foster emerging photographers and to encourage the traditions of documentary photography.

Ms.�MEISELAS: We've lost all of the founders of Magnum, and we feel like these are incredibly important histories. I mean, this is how we know ourselves. It's kind of deadening to work on a screen all the time. We've become little robots. I think when you open up boxes, it depends on where your imagination can take you, and the physicality of material was very valued by this culture.

O'NEILL: Those physical objects, the prints, were what Magnum distributed to newspapers and magazines for years. Now that the agency has gone digital, the prints are being opened to the public for the first time for exhibitions, lectures and workshops with the photographers, for researchers and students of history, photography, journalism, anthropology.

And of the three photographers I spoke with, none of them seemed very sad to let the prints go.

Alex Webb, Magnum photographer and current president of the agency, explains the general sentiment.

Mr.�ALEX WEBB (President, Magnum Photos Agency): The sale of this enables us to explore ways of doing things differently in the future, and that's a big deal for us. In other words, we may have to find different kinds of platforms for presentation of images on the Internet and be able to afford to do it. So on some level, Magnum's past is enabling Magnum to have a future.

O'NEILL: Managing director Mark Lubell quotes another Magnum legend.

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

O'NEILL: 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 new life too.

Claire O'Neill, NPR News.

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