Magnum Photos, which produces the “Today’s Pictures” feature for Slate, marks its 60th anniversary this year. To celebrate, the eminent photo agency is holding a festival in New York throughout June, showcasing documentary films and photographs. Slate ran a gallery of photos of the founders of Magnum last week, and today we have a gallery featuring Magnum photos that changed the world. In a 2005 article, Jacob Weisberg found similarities between Slateand Magnum, writing that both have shaken off the conventions of their respective fields. That article, “Introducing Today’s Pictures,” is reprinted below.
Please take a look at our latest daily feature, Today’s Pictures, a joint production of Slate and Magnum Photos.
For anyone who cares about photography, journalism, or modern history, Magnum is a hallowed name. Founded as a cooperative shortly after the Second World War by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David Seymour, the agency has become almost synonymous with the term photojournalism. Magnum photographers have covered nearly every war, natural disaster, national movement, world leader, and artist of stature over the past 60 years. The work of Magnum members—Elliott Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, Marc Riboud, Eve Arnold, Inge Morath, Dennis Stock, Bruce Davidson, Susan Meiselas, and Gilles Peress, to name just a few—forms a photographic chronicle not just of contemporary history but of modern experience itself. You may not know the photographers by name, but it’s likely that the iconic images that appear in your mind’s eye when you think of “Tiananmen Square,” “Malcolm X,” or “Marilyn Monroe,” were taken under the Magnum aegis.
Magnum’s archive, an extraordinary visual storehouse, forms the basis for the daily gallery we’ll be presenting in Today’s Pictures. You can get a sense of the richness and variety of this material with the introductory survey of classic Magnum photography that begins on the site today and continues tomorrow. Our colleagues at Magnum have chosen one image by each of the 70-plus photographers on their roster. Over future weeks and months, we’ll be offering different selections from these photographers. The daily gallery will present photos that shed light on historical anniversaries, images of recent news events, or sometimes simply a body of work we consider beautiful, meaningful, or urgent. We hope you’ll bookmark this feature and return every day to see these startling and affecting pictures.
Farther down the Today’s Pictures page, below the daily gallery, you’ll find Magnum in Motion’s “interactive essays.” These are projects that individual Magnum photographers have pursued for months or years, presented in a new medium that we at Slate are especially excited about. If you open these essays in the video player Magnum has developed for our partnership, you’ll experience the sensation of watching a short video documentary. But this effect is achieved with carefully edited still pictures accompanied by an audio soundtrack, often the voice of the photographer explaining and commenting on his or her photos.
We will be publishing two of these path-breaking Magnum in Motion essays each month. To begin, we’ve chosen Simon Wheatley’s “Grime,” a stark and disturbing examination of life in London’s public housing ghettos and Alex Webb’s “Crossings,” a haunting study of the culture of our Mexican border, which gives flesh to the immigration issue President Bush has been lecturing about in recent days. These audio-visual essays achieve something we’ve been striving to create since Slate began in 1996: true multimedia journalism of a kind that can be realized only on the Web.
It’s a privilege for Slate to be joining with Magnum to present this distinguished work. Reading about the agency and its history over the past week, I’ve been struck by the parallels between their venerable institution and our much younger one. Like Slate, Magnum grew out the dissatisfaction with magazine convention. Robert Capa and his colleagues were unhappy with the unimaginative way publications like Life used them and their photographs. They formed Magnum because they wanted to write their own tickets: to choose their assignments, express their political views through their work, and retain the rights to their own pictures. Slate is a for-profit magazine, not a cooperative, but it is similarly a place where individual voices, rather than an editorial formula, are central. Slate’s writers and staff are here because of the greater freedom and independence available on the Web, where many of the constraints of print don’t apply.
Another point of convergence is our relationship to conventional news reporting. Both Magnum and Slate might be mistaken for news organizations. But in the main, we leave the job of daily newsgathering to bigger, more expensive operations that are better suited to it. Slate’s role as a magazine is to sort, summarize, analyze, and explain the news. Magnum photographers more often find themselves at the scene of epoch-making events, and a couple, including Robert Capa (the first American journalist killed in Vietnam, in 1954) have died documenting them. But Magnum photojournalists travel to the ends of the earth as poetic interpreters and subjective artists rather than as neutral reporters. Photojournalism and photography as art have always been twin poles at the agency, perpetuating the dichotomy originally embodied by Capa and Cartier-Bresson. Some of the group’s new generation, like Martin Parr, Lise Sarfati, and Alec Soth, work at the more personal and expressive end of that continuum. Their work wouldn’t belong on the front page of an American newspaper, but fits perfectly into Slate, a magazine filled with points of view.
You may ask why we’ve chosen to call this feature, which begins with a Cartier-Bresson image from 1932, “Today’s Pictures.” The name echoes that of Slate’s best-known daily feature, “Today’s Papers,” and expresses our hope that readers will return habitually to check out the new gallery of images we’ll be posting every weekday morning. Many of the pictures will be from yesteryear. But we’ve chosen them because we think you should see them today.