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Fifty Years at the Front Line of History
By Russell Miller
Grove Press 324pp $27

Browse through books of historical photos, and you can't miss the frequent credit: Magnum Photos. Founded in 1947 by photographers as an agency they could control, Magnum would be a cooperative, selling artists' work while they roamed the world. Only the best would be elected to join.

Robert Capa, a Hungarian expatriate who made his mark in the Spanish Civil War, conceived the idea during World War II. But just who coined the name Magnum--which conjures up shooting, rejoicing, and greatness--remains a mystery. It was, for this agency, a rare stroke of marketing genius.

A new account, Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History, goes behind the scenes with the founders and their successors. British journalist Russell Miller faithfully chronicles the details of life and death in the field, the acrid internal politics, and the festive atmosphere that still pervades Magnum's offices in Paris, New York, and London. Best of all are the photographers' tales of glory--and of each other.

We see, unexpectedly, an engaging side of Henri Cartier-Bresson's reputedly aloof shooting style, and we follow Capa's wild, glamorous life and violent demise in Vietnam. Then we join more recent members: Burt Glinn with Fidel Castro marching on Havana, Eve Arnold intimately watching the fading beauty of Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe, Josef Koudelka braving the Soviet invasion of Prague, and Susan Meiselas in mortal danger crossing the lines in Nicaragua.

There are incidents that transcend pictures. Elliot Erwitt, a Russian-speaking American, gets close enough, in the 1956 Moscow Kitchen Debate, to overhear Nikita Khrushchev tell Richard Nixon, untranslated: ''Screw your grandmother.'' And less laudable moments: Philip Jones Griffiths breaks off his outstanding Vietnam War coverage to stalk Jackie Kennedy through the tall grass of Angkor Wat. Who says only third-rate photographers are paparazzi?

Magnum has never grown rich, and readers may chuckle at its nightmare business model: a contentious board of superstars, unwilling to delegate power and hard-pressed even to agree on a city in which to meet. Early on, Capa, otherwise a champion of lofty ethics, played the horses with company funds. In later times, although Miller hardly mentions it, annual-report photography helped save the agency. At the same time, it's worth noting that Magnum was raising the visual standards of American business.

Now, the art marketplace is beginning to take Magnum's work seriously for its subtlety and complexity as well as historical merit. That's a feat seldom achieved by photographers on tightly scripted publication assignments, so Magnum's stubborn independence and willingness to go the second mile have paid off. Miller includes a small selection of well-chosen pictures. But his volume makes an excellent companion text for a number of recent photo books. Among these are Israel: 50 Years as Seen by Magnum Photographers (Aperture); Magnum Landscape (Phaidon/Chronicle); and 1968: Magnum throughout the Year (Hazan).



PHOTO: Cover, ``Magnum''


Updated June 11, 1998 by bwwebmaster
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