Past Square Print Sale
Closer explores Magnum co-founder Robert Capa's legacy in photography. What does getting closer mean to Magnum's photographers, and why is it important?
The Magnum Square Print Sale is open from Monday, June 5th, 8AM EST to Friday, June 9th, 6PM EST. During this time, 78 museum-quality, 6×6″, signed or estate-stamped, prints by Magnum photographers, will be available for $100. These images will never be available in this size and price again. Visit the Magnum Shop here to view the full selection.
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” Magnum co-founder Robert Capa famously said. The Picture Post (December 3, 1938) described Capa as “the greatest war photographer in the world” when he was just 25. His maxim has become almost as famous as his body of work, which continues to influence generations of photographers.
“Getting closer is a revered maxim for all of us. It is also an art,” says Chien-Chi Chang. As Magnum Photos revisits Robert Capa’s phrase and examines what it means to ‘get closer’ – a project that is part of a cycle of four founder-themed Square Prints Projects to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the agency – the photographers express through photographs and texts their interpretation, acceptation or even rejection of the maxim, all of which can be explored in full in the slideshow below and on the Magnum Shop, where signed or estate stamped, museum quality, 6×6″ prints, will be available for $100, for five days only.
Close to Robert Capa
Three Robert Capa images, presented by the International Centre of Photography (ICP) which represents his archive, define turning points in his short-lived career: one of the the six D-Day landing images is included, but also an earlier image which predates his co-founding of the Magnum agency. This photograph, of the International Brigade, was taken during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict which proved a turning point for Capa, forming his practice as a photojournalist, setting the scene for the formation of Magnum years later, and also where he lost his muse and lover, Gerda Taro. The third photograph is a playful portrait of Picasso, his wife Françoise Gillot, and his nephew Javier Villato, a vivid example of Capa’s photographic practice outside of the war zone.
Robert’s brother, founder of the ICP, and a humanist photographer by definition, is also represented in the project with a picture of the Bolshoi Ballet in Mosco ,a photograph which, in his words, he “shot what was to become the best-known picture of [his] career: dancers practicing at the bar in front of a large and elegant mirror.”
A handsome portrait of Robert Capa, photographed by George Rodger, co-founder of the agency, is included in the curation as well as a picture taken by Thomas Dworzak, contemporary Magnum photographer, who, in June 2015, revisited the site of Robert Capa’s last photographed, before he stepped on a landmine near Hanoi: “I decided to try to find the place where Robert Capa stepped on a mine and was killed on May 25, 1954, in order to pay my respects… A line of trees on the right, vast fields that stretch until the horizon. A dented landscape. I could see Capa’s last picture of French soldiers moving forward, spread out in patrol formation through the lethal field,” recalls Dworzak.
Many Magnum photographers have captured defining moments of the 20th and 21st centuries. What has getting closer meant for them in these circumstances? Does getting closer mean getting closer to the truth?
Stuart Franklin, of his famous “tank man” image taken in Tiananmen Square, 1989, suggests humorously: “this picture of a man defying a tank is definitely not good enough. I had desperately wanted to get closer. I hate working with long telephoto lenses. But security had locked down the Beijing Hotel after a crackdown in Tiananmen Square the night before. As dawn broke on June 4th, and helicopters resupplied the troops who had replaced protesters in Tiananmen Square, tanks were preparing to move up the road. Soldiers fired at civilians blocking their path. Eventually they encountered, around noon, a lone protester carrying two plastic shopping bags. He brought the tanks to a halt and, with his singular act of defiance, wrote himself into history.”
Abbas asks Robert (Bob) Capa, in his text supporting a photograph of young revolutionaries lynching a woman they believe is a supporter of the Shah, during the Iranian Revolution, “What do you think, Bob? Was I close enough?” while Ian Berry reveals that he has spent his entire working life as a photographer getting closer, and as a result, mainly shoots with 35 and 50 mm lenses.
Micha Bar Am, a longtime admirer of Capa, tempers, “If you’re too close, you risk losing perspective… It is not easy to be fair with facts and to keep your own convictions out of the picture. It is impossible to be both a participant and an observer, witness, interpreter,” he says. Unsurprisingly, getting closer is Bruce Gilden’s mantra, a lifelong pursuit; he admits, “I suppose the older I get, the closer I get.”
On conflict photography
Photographs of war often involve getting very close to extreme danger. Susan Meiselas, for her picture of the ‘Mano Blanco’ on a red door, the signature sign of the death squad during the El Salvadorian conflict of 1980, defines this as “going toward what one fears most.”
Depardon describes his brush with guerrilla warfare in Beirut in 1978: “The fighter asked me to come closer to him. When our bodies were close enough, we ran as fast as possible to the other side of the intersection. We continued to run unprotected until we finally arrived at a basement filled with other fighters… Getting closer to make a good picture was, in this case, mandatory.”
Yet proximity to peril can yield a fraught relationship between documentary and truth-telling, subjectivity and objectivity, with ethical ramifications that go beyond the documentation of war. Lorenzo Meloni writes: “War photography is closely linked to propaganda. In embedded journalism, many of the photographs taken are only the vehicle for a message that others want to pass on. Sometimes, the closer I get, the more I realise how far away I really am.”
Jérôme Sessini echoes, “I don’t believe that the closer you photograph a subject, the closer you are to approaching the truth. Conflict images very close to the subject are more spectacular; they show a truth, not the truth. I think distance allows more space for reflection on complex subjects, and avoids angelism and simplism.”
The intimacy of strangers
“So I would go each day and night to a different place in the subway system to photograph people, making contact in many cases. I began to have a kind of tunnel vision, a compulsion to explore color, form, and life in this very rich and treacherous environment,” says Bruce Davidson.
Photographing strangers is an interesting experiment in the photographic process, the camera perhaps an excuse to come closer to compelling or interesting figures, as Martin Parr would do, his lens depicting sunbathers in their glorious idiosyncracy; and each new approach offering the chance of a new relationship, from scratch.
Diana Markosian recalls being taken in by a local family while hitchhiking through Tajikistan: “It made me feel at home, more than I had felt in a long time. It’s this feeling of belonging that I am searching for–whether it’s in the people I meet or the places I travel to. It’s the feeling of just being in a situation that softens me and reminds me of why we are all here.”
Paolo Pellegrin describes a fleeting yet powerful emotional connection with the nameless girl in his photograph, which has left an indelible mark on him, while for Bieke Depoorter, the quality of her relationship with the people she photographs is so important that when faced with a situation where she couldn’t become as close as she wanted, she introduced fictional elements into her documentary practice, yielding a cinematic, dream-like feel to her image: ”I decided to see the people as actors… I used reality to make my own reality, my own story,” she says.
“When people ask me how I get so close, the answer is simply because I am that close. I do not know anything else, and I cannot imagine anything else,” writes Jacob Aue Sobol. Yet sometimes it is the end of the photographic process that yields the richest material. “It’s as though I need to finish taking pictures in order to really start taking pictures,” says Olivia Arthur.
Indeed, “Closeness cannot be measured by distance. For me, it’s understanding and empathy that create a connection. Because we can stand in a pack, our lenses practically in someone’s face, we can be very close, but actually quite far. Real closeness, intimacy, comes with time, determination, and feeling the context,” writes Newsha Tavakolian.
Her words are echoed by Moises Saman’s: “To me proximity is not only physical in its nature. It can also connote a shared experience, memory, or predisposition to accept your subject without any prejudice.”
Love, family and emotional proximity
Early in his career, before his accession to Magnum, David Alan Harvey took pictures for a local paper, and writes that “maintaining a closeness with the community led me down a beautiful road.”
Family, friends, lovers, are all also subject to the photographer’s lens. “In thinking about getting closer, weddings come to mind… at least initially. Afterward, and down the line, all bets are off,” jokes Elliott Erwitt.
Ruth Hartmann, widow of Erich, was photographed fleetingly as she woke one morning. She remembers, “this image is especially ‘close.’ It was early morning, and I had crept out of bed to peek through the hotel room’s curtains and assess the weather in Pau just north of the Pyrenees.”
“Even in my former life as a ‘war photographer,’ I never thought that Capa’s advice to ‘get closer’ was in reference to physical distance. To me, Capa’s words were always about emotional proximity” says Christopher Anderson.
These words are echoed by Larry Towell when discussing his image of his two children bathing in the river that cuts his farmland in two: “Capa’s notion of closeness was never just physical. It was also emotional. In the summer, I still swim in that river almost every day. The memory of our children as babies lingers here with the smell of water and vegetation.”
The personalities that define our era
Magnum photographers have both shaped visual culture as well as been close to the makers of the culture of their time, such as Dennis Stock’s long-standing relationship with jazz and his portrait, included here, of Miles Davis.
Eve Arnold on photographing Marilyn Monroe, recounts that she was “making love to my camera–or really making love to herself.”
David Hurn, on the set of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night, smilingly recollects, “this picture was taken on the first day of shooting. Here, closeness does in fact mean, at what distance can you get all four into the picture?”
A Venetian portrait of Peggy Guggenheim sheds a light on Magnum co-founder David Seymour’s practice. His nephew writes, “he made a personal relationship with these people. He didn’t surprise them, he didn’t photograph them from a distance or over their shoulders… He made a close, personal and emotional relationship.”
Sara Manzoor, of the Inge Morath estate, describes portrait-making as “an emotional invitation for the viewer to ‘get closer,’ so we can observe the subject’s surroundings. Pablín sits next to a portrait of his uncle, Pablo Picasso, with a deliberate visual narrative that showcases familial closeness.”
In praise of distance
Yet for Mark Power, Capa’s famous dictum doesn’t mean much. Distance is more important: “I’ve consistently looked at the world from a discreet distance. I’m not particularly interested in making a single incident, or individual, the ‘subject’ of my photographs,” he says.
Distance is also at the heart of Alec Soth’s work: “I’ve always believed that the fundamental ingredient in my pictures is distance. For me, photography is as much about my separation from the world as it is about my connection to it.”
Finding a balance between truth, honesty and distance, Michael Christopher Brown states, “As one moves closer to their limits, they often become more honest. If honesty is truth, than it is in finding the limits of a photographic situation and allowing it to present itself to the camera that I am able to ‘get closer.’”
Indeed, as Peter van Agtmael writes, “to me, being ‘close enough’ is part physical, part emotional and part intellectual.”
Connecting through photography
For many Magnum photographers, “there is wisdom in Capa’s idea outside of the frame as well. The best photographs are of the things that are close to you – in terms of what you are passionate about, what engages you,” says Jonas Bendiksen.
This sentiment is echoed by Alex Webb, describing how he photographed Mexico for over 40 years, each time discovering not just something new to capture, but something new about himself, too. “Perhaps Robert Capa’s advice about getting closer refers to the heart as well as to the feet.”
Or in Matt Black’s words: “You can be right next to something and still not see it. Or you can be across the street and connect. I think this is also what Capa meant: Don’t just be there, feel it. Dive in.”
The photographic act is about communication, something Chris Steele Perkins thinks about in his text, calling for a slowing down of our relationship with photography in a time of social media frenzy: “getting close to pictures, spending real time with them, makes the good ones that much more interesting.”
For, of course, photography is about connecting: “To get closer is not just about being physically near, it is also about mental and emotional proximity. It is to feel profoundly what you are seeing, what your heart feels together with others, fully absorbed in that which you have decided to live and transmit, recounting the truth without fears,” writes Cristina García Rodero.