photography, writing and the spaces between
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Pablo Inirio, master darkroom printer at Magnum Photos in New York. I was thinking about that interview recently as I heard the news of Kodak’s bankruptcy and pondered the precarious status of “old media” like books, film and silver gelatin prints.
As Magnum’s printer, Inirio gets to work with some of photography’s most iconic images. In his small darkroom, the prints lying casually around include Dennis Stock’s famous portrait of James Dean in Times Square (right) and a cigar-chewing Che Guevara shot by Rene Burri. Intricate squiggles and numbers are scrawled all over the prints, showing Inirio’s complex formulas for printing them. A few seconds of dodging here, some burning-in there. Will six seconds be enough to bring out some definition in the building behind Dean? Perhaps, depending on the temperature of the chemicals.
Of course, this kind of work is a dying art. Darkrooms everywhere have been closing as increasingly, photographers choose pixels and inkjets over film and silver gelatin. Over the last fifteen years, almost every photographer I’ve interviewed has waxed poetic about that “magical” experience of seeing an image develop in chemicals for the first time. You have to wonder whether today’s young photographers will rhapsodize as much about the first time they color-calibrated their monitors.
I was curious to see how the last few years of digital progress have affected things at Magnum, so I checked in with Inirio by phone this week. He was still there, bubbling with the good cheer that, along with his darkroom skills, have made him a favorite with Magnum photographers. In the three years since we met, he said, surprisingly little has changed at Magnum. He had to switch to Ilford paper when Agfa closed, and he hopes Kodak doesn’t take his stop bath away—but otherwise, things are the same. “Collectors and galleries still want prints on fiber paper—they just like the way it looks,” he said. He’s often called upon to print from current members’ film archives, and for the estates of various deceased members, like Dennis Stock and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The prints go to exhibitions, book publishers and private collectors. “I’m still pretty busy—in fact, I’m backed up,” he said with a laugh.
Magnum has been digitizing its archive, but so far, Inirio hasn’t been tempted to transfer his skills to the digital realm. “Digital prints have their own kind of look, and it’s fine, but fiber prints have such richness and depth,” he said. He thinks darkroom printing will always be with us—after all, he pointed out, “people are still doing daguerrotypes.”
Magnum’s archive represents some of modern history’s best and boldest photojournalism. Its photographers have been at the front lines for over six decades, ever since, in an effort to gain more rights for photographers, the flamboyant Robert Capa brought together an unlikely group of friends in 1947 to start a photographer-run collective. In 1947 alone, the small group delivered work on Gandhi’s assassination, the foundation of Israel and life in the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War. Since then, Magnum has continued covering world history with passion and visual flair. Last week, members Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin won prizes in the 2012 World Press Photo Contest, for an image of shouting protesters in Tahrir Square and a photo-essay on post-tsunami Japan, respectively.
As an organization, though, Magnum has often teetered on the edge of collapse—either from financial troubles or because it attracts strong personalities who spend a lot of time fighting. The story of the agency’s first fifty years is entertainingly told in Russell Miller’s Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History, published in 1997 to coincide with the agency’s half century. Miller does a great job of conveying the amazing talent and bravery of Magnum members while also dishing about the agency’s dysfunctional family dynamics. (One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from photographer Ferdinando Scianna, who snarls, “Yes, Magnum is a family. I hate my family.”) My review of the book for the San Francisco Chronicle is here.
Capa’s own memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, was originally published in 1947 and is now available as a Modern Library paperback. As you’d expect, it’s lively and irreverent. I like the way it begins, with the story of how, in 1942, Capa was mistaken for movie director Frank Capra by a ship’s captain while on his way to London to photograph the blitz.. Happy to oblige, Capa regaled the captain with made-up gossip about Hollywood and “Capra”s numerous affairs with leading ladies.
Capa’s larger-than-life personality, and his dramatic life story, were ripe for fictionalizing—and indeed, last week I stumbled on Waiting for Robert Capa, a 2011 Spanish novel that has just been translated into English. The novel tells the story of the love affair between Capa and Gerda Taro, a young photographer who was killed in action in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a story that was also lovingly told last year in The Mexican Suitcase, an exhibition at the International Center for Photography. Apparently director Michael Mann has picked up the film rights to Waiting for Robert Capa. I look forward to reading it and will review it here in the near future.
Like darkroom photography, Magnum itself is undergoing a paradigm shift. As media space for in-depth photojournalism decreases, photographers are looking elsewhere for venues for their work. Agencies like Magnum are having to get creative about projects, partnering with nonprofits and corporate sponsors. But still, Magnum survives… and it’s nice to think of Inirio toiling away in the Magnum darkroom, continuing a tradition that started in 1947 with the first Magnum office.