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Reading Magnum

Reading Magnum
A Visual Archive of the Modern World
Edited by Steven Hoelscher; foreword by Geoff Dyer

This first reading of the vast Magnum Photos archive as a body of work presents an astonishingly rich survey of life and death in the second half of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries.

Series: Harry Ransom Center Photography Series

September 2013
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352 pages | 9.5 x 10.5 | 275 color and b/w photos |

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The Magnum Photos archive—a collection of more than 200,000 photographs by some of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries’ greatest image makers—is the most comprehensive accumulation of prints made by the distinguished photo cooperative. Consistently and with striking artistry, Magnum’s photographers have done more than simply document the far reaches of the globe; they have helped shape generations’ understanding of the world around them. While many of its photographs have been widely published, until now no one has examined the Magnum archive itself. In Reading Magnum, experts from several fields investigate this visual archive, now residing at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, to discover how a select, influential group of visual authors has used the camera for an ambitious project of cultural interpretation and social commentary.

The chapters in Reading Magnum are devoted to themes generated by a close reading of the archive—war and conflict, portraiture, geography, cultural life, social relations, and globalization. These themes are further developed by evocative portfolios of images, which suggest something of the depth and range of the photo agency, and by tracing the trajectory of several iconic images from annotated press print to distribution to eventual publication. Volume editor Steven Hoelscher provides an overview of the Magnum enterprise, and Alison Nordström offers an appreciation of the Magnum archive as a material record of information about the making and disseminating of photographs that is being lost as images on paper are replaced by images on screen. As a whole, the book’s unique reading of the Magnum archive reveals patterns of intention, aesthetic vision, and political perspective that become legible only by viewing both the physical objects and the recorded images that constitute this remarkable collection.


Foreword (Geoff Dyer)

Introduction. Decisive Moments and Caustic Comments: Reading the Magnum Archive (Steven Hoelscher)

1. On Becoming an Archive (Alison Nordström)

Notes from the Archive: Philip Jones Griffiths's Vietnam Inc.

2. War and Conflict through Magnum's Eyes (Barbie Zelizer)

War and Conflict Portfolio

Notes from the Archive: Eve Arnold's Black Muslims

3. The Face Redrawn: Magnum Portraits (Frank H. Goodyear III)

Portraiture Portfolio

Notes from the Archive: Alex Webb's Crossings: Photographs from the U.S.-Mexico Border

4. Magnum's Geographies: Toward a Progressive Sense of Place (Steven Hoelscher)

Geography Portfolio

Notes from the Archive: Susan Meiselas's Carnival Strippers

5. Hollywood Stars, High-Paid Llamas, and Car Shows: Magnum's Cultural Project (Erika Doss)

Cultural Life Portfolio

Notes from the Archive: Cornell Capa's Attica

6. Seeing the Stranger in the Mirror: Everyday Life in Magnum's Public World (Robert Hariman)

Social Relations Portfolio

Notes from the Archive: David "Chim" Seymour's Children of Europe

7. Magnum's Global Enterprise (Liam Kennedy)

Globalization Portfolio



Illustration Credits



Steven Hoelscher is a Professor of American Studies and Geography at the University of Texas at Austin and Academic Curator of Photography at the Harry Ransom Center His books include Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H. H. Bennett's Wisconsin Dells; and Textures of Place: Exploring Humanist Geographies.


Reading Magnum merits sustained looking and attentive reading. . . . the volume as a whole constitutes a panoramic view of pictures and activities by Magnum’s photographers, from the inception of the agency to the present. Readers will find in it much that is new, informative and stimulating.”
History of Photography

“ and rewarding...[It] will inspire readers from across a range of scholarly disciplines to continue the many illuminating conversations opened up within its pages.”
AAG Review of Books