"Patterns on the Wall"—It's Slate's Magnum theme for today. (Produced by Kate Phillips. Too bad you can't see these full screen, unless I'm missing a tab somewhere.) Here, our title—"random"—really is apropos. I find it curious that Magnum photographs are now so often compiled into random sets, even in books, when one of the reasons for Magnum's founding was so the photographers could control the presentation of their pictures and make sure they were always presented in the proper context. Magnum photographs now most often seem to be seen out of the context of photojournalistic stories. And sometimes in the context of truly random groupings—such as pictures that include wallpaper.
I was pleased to see so many pictures in today's Slate set by my late friend Erich Hartmann, father of my good pal Nick. Erich, a past President of the agency and by that time an éminence grise, was the one who gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of Magnum New York, one of my better photographic memories.
There's a really very interesting book of Magnum photographs—a treasury, in the sense that it's full of treasures—called In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers. It's still available. I used to really love that book, and paged through it, lovingly, many times, but then I learned that Nick has a rather low opinion of it, to the point that I think he might have gotten rid of his copy. (Or maybe he was just considering it). I hope he'll chime in here and speak for himself, but as I recall he felt the book really wasn't true to the aspect of Magnum I mentioned above. I have a poor mind for recalling quotations verbatim, but he said something to the effect that Magnum photographs really weren't meant to be seen in compendiums—even, I suppose, "greatest hits" compendiums with running commentary such as In Our Time.
I'd say more about the book but oddly, I can't find my copy. It doesn't seem to be on my shelves anywhere. I wonder if it's hiding in the house somewhere, or if I loaned it out. I don't think I'd be so influenced by Nick's opinion that I'd have gotten rid of my own copy—the book really is enjoyable, even if you consider its program suspicious.
At any rate, it was good to see a few of Erich's pictures on Slate this morning...even out of context.
(Thanks to Kent Phelan)
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Nicholas Hartmann: "Mike, thanks for the shoutout to Dad. I just checked, and the In Our Time book is still on the shelf; it will probably stay there, despite my philosophical objections.
"Further to your first paragraph: Bear in mind that while in the heyday of the cooperative, many Magnum photographers did shoot stories—sequences of pictures that were intended to be seen in a print medium as a group and together with text—others, like Cartier-Bresson, explicitly went hunting for pictures, for individual images that would have power and meaning in isolation. Dad did both: in his industrial and commercial essays, almost always in color, he was very good at creating a coherent narrative that served a client's needs, with the result that he was much in demand and was able to make a living and send his kids to college. What shows up on the Magnum site in these often-silly daily compilations, however, is always a black-and-white picture of his. That body of work, generated with whatever little stealth camera he happened to be carrying with him along with a couple rolls of Tri-X, constituted his 'personal' pictures, a term of art I heard used by his Magnum colleagues as well. By that criterion, maybe all of HC-B's work could be considered 'personal'; his genius was such that he became rich and famous from that alone.
"Magnum is vigorously mining its archives these days, and putting up, I assume, sets of pictures that it thinks will attract attention and keep its name alive. That being the case, I guess I should be happy to see an occasional Erich Hartmann personal picture show up. But wallpaper?! Gimme a break...."
Featured Comment by Jim Richardson: "Mike, I'd like Nick to know that I had one very pleasant encounter with his father some 35 years ago. As it turned out he and I both were shooting assignments for IBM and their editor asked us both to come participate in a internal office seminar he put together for their publications editors. I, being all of about 28 years old, was quite in awe even being in the presence of a Magnum photographer, let alone on the same program.
"I needn't have worried. In person Erich was kind and gracious, a generous teacher willing to humor the young buck with the grandiose ideas. And his presentation was all about practical work, making images that worked for the client, that subtly yet effectively told their story. From such a famous photographer it was pleasure to see and learn that a real pro attends to business and needs—and leaves the ego at home. Thanks for this reminder from another day."
Mike replies: Erich was a gentleman. Nick takes after his father in that way.