Monday, February 18, 2013

Chris Boot: Magnum, photojournalism, and the flawed reality of great photography

Thomas Hoepker: View From Brooklyn, New York City,
USA, 11 September, 2001, in Magnum Stories

During the course of researching his book about the photography of John Hinde, documenter of the Butlins holiday camp empire, Chris Boot came across a quote from Fellini. “All great photographs,” the great director said, “have something wrong with them.”
In the case of Hinde, whose propaganda for Billy Butlin’s camp was anthologised in the book Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight, the flaw was reality. The pictures were lavish, beautifully lit affairs, in which real holidaymakers did their best to make a visit to Butlins resemble a weekend in Paradise. “What is fascinating,” says Boot, “is that the holidaymakers are not quite playing their roles adequately. Those photographs are like plays.”
Boot was appointed Executive Director of the Aperture Foundation in New York in 2011. Prior to that, his London-based company published idiosyncratic photography books, such as Bliss, Martin Parr’s collection of impossibly romantic European postcards. “We treat postcards, and their view of the world, as somehow inevitable,” says Boot. “Yes, it’s cheesy, but we have to remember that people invented these ways of looking at things.”
Boot’s interest in photography was honed during his lengthy stint as director of the Magnum agency, in both its London and New York offices. “That doesn’t really constitute running it, because it’s the sort of anarchic thing that nobody runs. It’s a place of freedom, in the sense that photographers want to be part of it and at the same time have a context in which to distribute work and collaborate with like-minded photographers.”
The history of the agency is related in Magnum Stories (Phaidon), which Boot edited. As well as offering handsome portfolios by Magnum founders Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the book offers a subtle reinterpretation of the history of photography. Magnum is often viewed as a bastion of photojournalism: in fact, according to Boot, it was established in opposition to photojournalism, a form established by LIFE magazine in which editors, not photographers, controlled the context of the pictures.
“Robert Capa was very smart, and he saw the possibility for non-photojournalists working in the context of magazine picture stories, and the potential for Magnum to achieve its goals by not being a group of photojournalists. He recruited Cartier-Bresson to that idea, and that made the idea stronger. Even at that stage, in 1947, you would have described Cartier-Bresson as an artist who was using photography. He certainly wasn’t a photojournalist. And that was the dominant tradition of Magnum – Robert Capa was the exception. The majority of its photographers were interested in what they were interested in, and for them, this was a way of earning a living.”
The changing magazine market has limited the opportunities for photographic essays, partly as a result of the power of television. “You can’t account for it entirely in terms of technological change, or other media. You just have to look at Britain in the early 1990s, when you suddenly got a mass of magazines emerging: The Sunday Correspondent and the Independent. I don’t think there has been a point in Britain when more photo stories were being published than then. Those magazines didn’t work, so maybe that tells us something.”
Digital cameras and the spread of camera phones have also shaped our expectations. The most immediate photos of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the torture pictures of Abu Ghraib, were taken by amateurs, with little regard for composition or artistry. “Photography is as ubiquitous as the opportunities that present themselves,” says Boot, “and it’s no longer exclusively in the hands of the photojournalist, the way it once was.”
Boot’s championing of postcards, and his publication of Martin Parr’s pictures of commemorative Saddam Hussein wrist-watches, show that he isn’t precious about his subject. “People’s current visual literacy is incomparable even to when I was a child. You just have to look at the story of colour – how many colour photographs did we see when we were children? And now we live in a world that offers colour photography as wallpaper. The audience is much more sophisticated, but a photograph will still excite you for the same reason that it always did; it shows you something that you hadn’t seen before, it shows you something in a way that is appealing, it engages you with the subject. Or it is just plain beautiful.
“Photography does quite clearly influence the world. The way people now see Britain has been influenced by Martin Parr. Think about Little Britain, that vision has been informed by a photographer’s view of the world. And that’s one of the things that photographers do. They explore ways of seeing things which, when they take hold as ideas, do affect the ways we relate to the visual environment.”
Now that everyone is a photographer, Boot has some encouraging advice. “Instead of seeing your holiday pictures as failing, put them away for a few years. Let them mature. Photographs do mature, they do change over time. And that is what’s scary, when you start to think about the billions of photographs that have been taken. They are all interesting. They are all revealing.”