The Best Shots in the World: The Life of the Magnum Agency

Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History , by Russell Miller. Grove Press, 336 pages, $26.

This wonderful history of a legendary photo agency should entertain almost everyone interested in photography or journalism-except for some of its prima donna subjects.

Russell Miller profiles Magnum-the glamorous, exceedingly ill-run photographers’ cooperative-from its birth in the midst of postwar idealism in 1948 through successive financial crises and infamous annual meetings, where “photographers would literally throw tantrums, lie on the floor and drum their heels or bang spoons on the table.”

But what makes the book so compelling is its mini-biographies of so many of the greatest photographers of modern times-and the fact that their lives intersected with just about every major event of the 20th century, from the Spanish Civil War (11 years before the agency was founded) through John F. Kennedy’s funeral, the Six-Day War, Vietnam and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

The founders were “the unlikeliest band of brothers imaginable”: Robert Capa, a “swarthy Hungarian adventurer, notorious womanizer and incorrigible gambler” who took the “moment of death” picture of the execution of an anti-fascist soldier during the Spanish Civil War; Henri Cartier-Bresson, a French intellectual who gradually dominated “the photographic pantheon”; David Seymour, known to everyone as Chim, “a plump, owl-like Polish Jew” who was also a “gentle polyglot and epicurean”; and George Rodger, “a former public schoolboy who described himself as a dreamer and only drifted into photography as a means of saving the world.”

“Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of a single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes,” said Mr.

Cartier-Bresson, the only one of the four still living. This passion carried him all over the world, from China, where he found an elderly eunuch whose duty had been “to wrap the Emperor’s favorite concubine, naked, in a length of red silk and carry her to the Emperor’s bed,” to the set of The Misfits in the Nevada desert, where he decided it was Marilyn Monroe’s intelligence “that makes the actress not only a model but a real woman.”

Mr. Miller traces the birth of modern photojournalism to the Popular Front in France in the 1930’s, which was photographed by Seymour and Mr. Cartier-Bresson for magazines like the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung , a model for Life , which in turn would become one of Magnum’s most reliable, if occasionally detested, customers. “Using small portable cameras and the streets as their studio,” Mr. Miller writes, photojournalists “emerged to fill the demand for pictures showing what was happening and how people lived.”

What set these men and women apart from their competitors, especially at the beginning, was their almost naïve idealism-the conviction, as photojournalist Leonard Freed put it, that “money was not the main objective.”

“We had come out of the 30’s and were looking for a better world,” said Mr. Freed. “To be a photographer you have to be a child, always full of wonder.… Making a photograph only takes a moment of time, but then you spend the rest of your life figuring out what it means.”

At the heart of their craft was the ability of these Magnum photographers to insinuate themselves into the lives of their subjects. Thus Eve Arnold was invited to witness Joan Crawford getting ready in the morning to go out in the evening: “Two masseuses would come from Elizabeth Arden to massage and polish her up, and she wanted me there to photograph it,” Ms. Arnold remembered. “I got her lying on a table with a masseuse at her head and a masseuse at her feet. It really was quite extraordinary.”

Later, Ms. Arnold was present when Marilyn Monroe asked a woman reporter if she minded if she brushed her hair while they talked.

“No, of course not,” the reporter replied. When the journalist looked up, Monroe was “sitting there brushing her pubic hair.”

Later, Ms. Arnold convinced Malcolm X to permit her to follow him around for two years, and she was often the only white face at Black Muslim rallies. “As I walked through the crowd they would polka-dot me with cigarette burns,” said Ms. Arnold. “I learned to wear wool rather than cotton or silk, because wool doesn’t burn.”

Life magazine was reluctant to publish her pictures of Malcolm because “nobody knows who these people are,” she recalled the editors saying. But Ms. Arnold pointed out that that was precisely what made her pictures newsworthy. She convinced them to run her story, but when the pictures were laid out, an editor noticed that the final shot appeared above an advertisement for Oreo cookies, with the line “The greatest chocolate cookie of them all.” To the photographer’s horror, Life pulled the pictures instead of the ad.

W. Eugene Smith was typical of the extraordinarily talented people whose idiosyncrasies often came close to bankrupting the agency they worked for. Smith got his first contract with Life in 1939 at the age of 21, and he shared his colleagues’ belief in the power of his work to change the world. “Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes one photograph … can lure our senses into awareness,” said Smith.

Eventually, Smith succumbed to his addictions to alcohol and Benzedrine (after borrowing $7,000 from Magnum). But in 1944, he was at the height of his powers when he covered the Pacific for Life , “producing some of the most powerful images of war ever to appear in the magazine,” according to Mr. Miller.

“Each time I pressed the shutter release, it was a shouted condemnation hurled with the hope that the pictures might survive through the years,” Smith recalled, “with the hope that they might echo through the minds of men in the future, causing them caution and remembrance and realization.” And while Smith insisted he “received no thrill” from war himself, he acknowledged its awful fascination: “Sensually, there is something magnificent and beautiful in war-the slow jogging of these damp, helmeted men against the eerie light of flares, the silhouette of smashed buildings, the flame-throwing tanks with a burst of spectrum, the sight of planes falling before patterns of long tracers, the twinkling of anti-aircraft fire-these are magnificent sights, until you think.”

Passages like this make reading Magnum feel like the equivalent of watching a mesmerizing newsreel of the last six decades of the 20th century-a movie which includes the sights, sounds and even the smells of war.

In one of the book’s many war scenes, Philip Jones Griffiths gives a spellbinding account of barely escaping death after an ambush by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. When an Australian doctor joined him on an elevator in his hotel a few hours after the photographer had been under attack, the doctor declared, “Oh God, you must have nearly been killed.”

How did you know? the photographer asked.

“I can tell by your sweat,” the doctor replied. “I know the smell of sweat produced by fear.”

The Best Shots in the World: The Life of the Magnum Agency