Magnum Cinema

By James Leahy

The book Magnum Cinema: Photographs from 50 Years of Movie-Making (Phaidon Press, 1995) and the recent exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall linked to its appearance have been a magnificent way of marking a visual coverage of cinema by Magnum photographers which has continued for a couple of years longer than the agency has been in existence. Indeed, the association with movie-making of one of the co-founders, Henri Cartier-Bresson, dates back a further decade. From the mid-30s to the outbreak of war he worked frequently as an assistant to Jean Renoir, and often played small parts in the master’s movies (he and Georges Bataille are seminarians in Une Partie de champagne, ogling the latter’s wife Sylvia, and he is an English-speaking chauffer in La Règle du jeu). He says, however, that when he and Renoir came together he had left still photography, and he left it to others to cover the productions on which he worked. He went on to produce films for the Resistance, then directed a major documentary himself, Le Retour (1947, about returning POWs). Thus, it was Robert Capa, another of the agency’s co-founders, who took the lead in the early coverage of the cinema by its photographers, apparently because, initially, he wanted access to the set of Hitchcock’s Notorious, as he and the star Ingrid Bergman had fallen in love the year before!

Magnum was set up because a group of photographers around Capa, Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger believed it was important to maintain control over the ways in which their pictures were used. The potential here for conflict with the film industry is obvious. As practically every movie about Hollywood reminds us, the studios tried to control every last detail of the images through which their stars and their productions were presented to the public. Outsiders who retained control over their work, and who were seeking the image that was special, were inevitably an unknown quantity for the PR men, unlike someone under contract to the studio. In retrospect, it is perhaps surprising to see how many of the great icons of Hollywood appear in the book and exhibition, and I suspect there may be several intriguing stories of personal contact and sympathy behind much of the work on display. John Huston, whom one might fairly describe as Hollywood’s licensed independent, was a friend to the agency, and co-operated throughout his career. This led to extensive coverage of The Misfits (Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, 1960), when relays of Magnum photographers seem to have visited the set and locations. One of them, Inge Morath, is now married to the film’s scriptwriter, playwright Arthur Miller.

Dennis Stock’s coverage of James Dean started before Dean became an icon, whilst Rebel Without A Cause was still being scripted. Moreover, Warners regarded the film as ‘arty’, and, according to director Nick Ray, came close to cancelling the production a week into the shoot. They were dissuaded by the man who projected the rushes to the top brass of the studio! Nick was very concerned that the presence of a photographer might make Dean self-conscious about his movements, so Stock was involved in the production process, and helped Dean work on his lines.

Ray, Gene Kelly and Elia Kazan were probably also sympathetic to the progressive image that, for Americans, Robert Capa brought to the agency, although perception of Kazan’s motivations is muddied by knowledge of his relationship with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Howard Hawks was one of the few from the older generation who seems to have collaborated. Though this poet of professionalism and male bonding is not spoken of as politically progressive, skill, courage and dedication to one’s craft are the virtues of the Hawksian hero.

Orson Welles appears regularly, as both actor and director. Both Ray and Welles ended up trying to work outside the structures of the mainstream industry. Hollywood has now effectively been taken over by the actors and agents (the accountants were always there) and is under the control of people who are more jealous guardians of the iconic images they wish to project than even the studios. It is striking, but hardly surprising, that this development has coincided with Magnum photographers turning their attention to the work of the American underground, or the more adventurous European film-makers. These reportages are likely to continue in the foreseeable future.