Magnum's First (October 2016, Monschau, Germany)

September 12, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Magnum’s First - KuK Monschau, Germany

A recent listing on Facebook mentioned that the first ever exhibition of the work on Magnum’s photographers was being re-shown in Monschau, Germany.  A quick inspection of Google Maps indicated it was in the far North West, very close to the Belgian border (not so far!!).   It is rare that an exhibition is re-stage several decades after its original showing, but given the content and the photographers, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.  As I had (an excuse) to go to an academic conference in Berlin, a ‘small’ detour looked like an interesting option. 

Until fairly recently, it was thought that the earliest Magnum group exhibition was the one curated by L. Fritz Gruber for the Photokina in Cologne in the autumn of 1956. However, Magnum’s First, originally named, Gesicht der Zeit (Face of Time) was initially presented in five Austrian cities between June 1955 and February 1956. It was rediscovered in an Innsbruck cellar in 2006 and after months of restoration work, the original 83 prints are now being re-shown.   The main theme was photographic humanism: people and their living spaces, photographed without sensationalism, and true to the ethos of Magnum photojournalists who believed in educating and bettering the world through their authentic documentation of it.

The latest exhibition was housed in a small regional gallery (KuK).  Free to enter, and during 2016 it will show works at different times by Ken Heyman, Will McBride, Berenice Abbott and Magnum’s First (so if you are ever in the area, it’s probably worth a little detour). 

Magnum’s First is a restaging of that first ever exhibition in 1955 by the collective of Werner Bischof, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Haas, Erich Lessing, Jean Marquis, Inge Morath and Marc Riboud.

The images were shown newly framed but still on their original mounts, with simple surface mounting onto colour coded card, quite roughly cut mounts, and images often not straight or central.   By today’s standards or expectations, they were very simple, almost crude and unlikely to pass an RPS assessment day.  Having said that, I really liked the mounting, with original pencil marks, photographers’ names and signatures and the occasional ‘odd mounting’.   It added to the interest, and maybe we pay too much attention to mounting ‘perfection’..? It is the combination of image and make that we see, the mount can play a part that is more than a simple, nondescript supporting role.

Most of the photographers showed images in a coherent theme, or project.  Marc Riboud, who sadly passed away in August, had a set of images from ‘Dalmatia’, depicting rural and urban life, mainly in and around Dubrovnik. Robert Capa had a small collection of images of the Basque culture in France taken in 1951. Bearing in mind this exhibition originally opened only a short while after Capa’s untimely death in 1954, the limited selection is not surprising. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s display contained the famous images of Ghandi and many images of his funeral in 1948.  Ernst Haas’ work was probably the most ‘quirky’ covering the film set and making of the film the ‘Land of the Pharaohs’. Jean Marquis with works from Hungary, Erich Lessing who exhibited urban images from his native Austria, which could be described today as classical street images, and Inge Morath also showing street images from London, from the early 1950s .  The exception was Werner Bischof, with a diverse collection of images from travels in Japan, India, Peru, and Cambodia.

I thought that seeing the HCB, Capa and Riboud’s images would be my highlight, but I was pleasantly surprised; good as they were the really ‘stand out’ images, for me, were by Erich Lessing.  Still alive, he is probably less well known than other Magnum ‘greats’.  His images are classic street and documentary, showing life in his native Austria in the post-war years, and not long after Austria’s independence.  Another personal discovery.  

Many of the images (apart from the clothing and fashion) in terms the composition, and visual aesthetic would not look out of place today, over sixty years on.  


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