Review by Melanie Chapman •
When offered the opportunity to review Magnum’s new collection of Street Photography, I was giddy with anticipation. As a fan of spontaneous and un-posed imagery, I looked forward to revisiting classic examples of street photography from founding/early Magnum members such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliot Erwitt, and then tracing their influence on more contemporary street photographers such as Martin Parr, Alex Webb, and Susan Meiselas. Additionally, I anticipated being introduced to the work of photographers less famous but equally daring and talented; all of which this dynamic new collection certainly delivers.
What I did not anticipate was how profoundly the recent spread and severity of the new coronavirus Covid-19 would alter the global landscape of public space, emptying large cities and relegating famous gathering places to instant ghost towns. Through the eyes of masters, the best street photography has always provided a sense of discovery, revealing irony and harmony amidst the chaos of crowded avenues, humor and humanity when random people are brought together, even if for a fleeting moment. Yet the concept of street photography, let alone the ability to practice such a craft, takes on entirely new significance in this era of “social distancing”, when sharing public space with strangers is suddenly feared rather than celebrated.
As stated in the book’s Introduction: “…the impulse to take candid, unrehearsed pictures in the public realm has been part of Magnum’s DNA since its foundation in 1947.” Many of the Magnum photographers have “…reveled in the street’s capacity for throwing up micro-dramas that, when seen with the right eye, can resolve themselves into captivating and mysterious photographs whose narrative potential would excite a Tolstoy or a Proust.” For those interested in Magnum’s inception story and an overview of the work that follows, the Introduction by Editor Stephen McLaren is worthwhile reading.
MAGNUM STREETWISE is organized such that you can seek out the work of individual photographers, such as Bruce Davidson, Harry Gruyaert, Inge Morath, and David Allen Harvey, or enjoy McLaren’s grouping of visual themes such as “In Transit”, “Days Off” and “Playing the Markets”. Cities such as New York, Paris, Tokyo, and London have long offered fertile material for street photographers, thus McLaren’s grouping of images under the heading “How they Shot” allows for fresh viewing of places we might have otherwise considered familiar when seen through different eras and different eyes.
These groupings also allow contemporary color work to be intermixed with black and white film images of the mid and late twentieth century. The book design features bold block lettering quotes from a variety of Magnum photographers interspersed throughout the 383 pages, and successfully keeps the viewer’s attention stimulated while expanding the conversation of what it is to be a street shooter.
Under normal circumstances, MAGNUM STREETWISE would be a “must-have” book for anyone who appreciates the chance elements of our modern world. But for now, and for who knows how long, as the world grapples with staggering rates of infection and death from a virus unheard of only a few months ago, MAGNUM STREETWISE will serve as a collection not only of well seen, well-presented photographs, but perhaps as a record of a period in our human history when being in public environments with people we did not know was still possible, and sometimes was impossibly great.
Another photobook from the recent MAGNUM series featured on PhotoBook Journal is: MAGNUM China
Photographs by Magnum Photos
Edited by Stephen McLaren
Published by Thames and Hudson, London copyright 2019
Book design by Sarah Boris
Hardcover, 385 pages, 300+ illustrations, Printed and bound in China by Toppan Leefung Printing Limited