“Obsession is usually viewed as something negative… but obsession can also be intensely positive, moving us toward a place or a set of ideals…” Matt Black’s thoughts, taken from the caption to his Square Print, hint at the diversity of feeling toward not only obsessions, but the nature of obsession itself. Jerome Sessini’s caption suggests that photography is an obsession: “A stubborn and desperate attempt to find something that could be lost before even knowing it exists.” And so it is perhaps the practice, the pursuit of the unknown, and the fear of missing an irreplaceable shot that drives many. Ferdinando Scianna alludes to this never-ending pursuit of fleeting moments, “[A] spectacle, elucidating the transience of things. Perhaps the greatest of obsessions.”
Obsession is the theme for the June 2019 Magnum Square Print Sale, which runs from June 10 to June 14, 2019. For these five days, 85 museum-quality, signed or estate-stamped prints, from Magnum photographers are on sale for $100 each.
Given Magnum Photos’ more than 70 years of primacy in the field of engaged photography – decades over which it has maintained its founding ideals of bringing together journalists, artists, and longform storytellers into one creative group – this theme unsurprisingly offers fertile ground for the collective’s photographers and estates to react to in scouring their archives for their chosen images.
For five days only, the images included in ‘Obsessions’ will be available as signed, or estate-stamped, 6×6″ prints, exclusively on the Magnum Shop. The full selection of images, along with their explanatory captions, can be seen in the slideshow below.
While any attempt at the pigeonholing or corralling of personal or artistic obsessions is likely in itself paradoxical, there are nonetheless some recurring themes and motifs that become apparent on viewing the 85 wildly disparate photographs, which collectively span 78 years, not to mention much of the world.
From the consuming perfection of techniques, to the obsessive manipulation of the photograph – a broad variety of technical approaches can be found within Magnum’s archive. As Hans Finsler wrote in a 1945 article – excerpted for the caption to the oldest image in the selection, Werner Bischoff’s floral photomontage – “He finds new and untapped possibilities of photographic approach and technique.”
Beyond the honing of technique, the need for a photographer to be ever aware, responsive, and at times opportunistic is conveyed in various of the selection’s captions, with Abbas noting that he must, “See everything all the time.” In addition, as Chris Steele-Perkins notes, it is not only framing and craft that make an image: “The photograph needs an edge to it; a process unfolding, an uncertainty, for it to draw viewers in so that they too start to get engaged, start to notice more and wonder why.”
Magnum photographers have, over the years, turned their long-honed skills toward the documenting of social movements, conflicts, and the victories and failures of both states and societies around the globe. Eli Reed’s obsession, “looking at life as it is instead of what it should be,” reminds one of this weight often bestowed upon photography. The potential for the medium to serve as a means of historical record-keeping, and as a tool for holding society to account is similarly illuminated by many of the images and their captions. Magnum’s decades of socially engaged, longform, photographic exploration are on display in these images.
A number of images, and their accompanying texts, dwell upon the perplexing contradictions and ambiguities which photography can embody. From Moises Saman’s explanation that he “works in contexts that are defined by multiple, competing narratives…” to Rafal Milach’s toying with the realms of propaganda, it is clear that photography is not – for all – a genre bestowed with preternatural clarity. Bieke Depoorter explains that her ongoing project, from which her image comes, sees her exploring “the complexities of the photographic enterprise, grappling with the relationship between photographer and subject.” For some, it seems that the obsession with photography lies within such complexities.
Photography can be a source of elation, joy, and escape – as Dennis Stock writes of his work, “I just want to alleviate some of the suffering we tend to go through as human beings.” Jubilant images among the selection, and fortuitous visual moments create photographs with their own ability to obsess. Bruno Barbey, whose selected image – he explains – relied on just such luck in its making, posits that photography is, “the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, famous faces feature in the sale’s selections, from some of the most captivating figures of the golden age of cinema –Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, to artists like Warhol and Dali, whose own obsessive natures were legendary, quite apart from the hold they exerted over their audiences. Those less recognisable to the masses have just as much ability to entrance photographers; for some it is family members, or muses met in passing, for others it is the very movement of people and the energy of humans that serves as a point of endless intrigue. Nikos Economopoulos writes: “The one thing I keep returning to, is the genuine flow of emotions and the patterns of human connectivity that play out in the streets.” Susan Meiselas’ caption dwells upon the unknowable thoughts and motives of one’s subjects, “He looks at her. She may or may not be looking at him. He dreams and delights in her moves. She may or may not be moving for him.”
Alongside varied depictions of humanity and society, wildlife is represented also. Animals are present as visual obsessions in themselves, as with Elliott Erwitt’s career-long focus upon dogs which, he explains, remind him of people, “but with more hair”, or Alessandra Sanguinetti’s interest in photographing farm animals. Sanguinetti explains she has been drawn to photographing animals since childhood, quoting from John Berger’s essay, Why Look at Animals, by way of explaining some of this allure: “With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.”
Animals serve also as markers, or motifs, through which broader issues and captivations can be explored, as is the case with Sohrab Hura’s use of them to speak about humanity’s impact on the world around us, “I believe that as much as we affect the environment around us, the environment also affects us back and it is this complex state of being that I’m interested in.” For Stuart Franklin it is trees which he finds himself repeatedly photographing, “I am drawn to them as friends during my travels to the farthest corners of the planet.”
Then of course there are places – from the seemingly mundane to the breath-taking, locations which are captivating on a sliding scale encompassing everything from whole nations, to cities, or individual homes. For some it is structures one might consider every-day which hold allure – be it gas stations, bus stops, or airports. For others it is rarified architecture, magnificent landmarks, the familiarity of a hometown, or a hermetic, alien nation which become vehicles for their own photographic obsessions.
Ethereal obsessions are also on show. Guy Le Querrec’s career photographing jazz musicians has left him sensing the genre’s syncopated rhythms in unexpected places and forms, while Jacob Aue Sobol’s focal point is that most elusive notion, love: “I photographed young couples in love across the planet to remind us that we are all the same, to remind us that what we have in common is greater than what separates us.” Patrick Zachman’s text sees him considering the obsessing nature of memory, amnesia, and the repetition of history: “Art is about obsession. Photography about memory and the past.”
“I realize now that through my work these past twenty-five years I have been searching for myself, my time, and the world I live in,” wrote Eve Arnold, and perhaps this may be the closest one can come to finding any sort of unifying thread in a photographic catalogue of obsessions. It is photography, the pursuit, the act, the practice, and the genre’s power to tell stories, to document or indeed foment change, which has kept Magnum photographers working obsessively for more than 70 years.
All images from the Obsessions Sqare Print collection can be purchased exclusively on the Magnum Shop.