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.
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.”
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 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.