Twelve women photographers, both current and former Magnum members, meditate on process in an expansive exhibition at the International Center of Photography
Fresh out of university, I relocated to New York with a vague plan to work in photography. I toiled away assisting a fashion photographer until a creative director quietly set up an interview at Susan Meiselas’ studio. I can embarrassingly admit now hurriedly googling Magnum en route to the meeting, ignorant of the world that would soon open up to me. Memories of the day-to-day in Meiselas’ workspace, nestled beneath her apartment on a historical Soho street, are fainter. However, I can strongly recall my sense of developing a new way of seeing and thinking: one in which images become the imprint of a deeper and more nuanced process where the exchange between photographer and subject is central.
Creative processes are at the forefront of Close Enough: New Perspectives from 12 Women Photographers of Magnum, which coincides with Magnum’s 75th anniversary and runs until 09 January 2023 at the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York. The show, which spans three generations of Magnum and former Magnum image-makers, is not just focused on the rich and varied work gracing its walls. Instead, Close Enough endeavours to go deeper, illuminating the approaches and reflections of its practitioners, which include Meiselas. “The exhibition is generous: it doesn’t mystify the [photographers’] processes and speaks directly to practitioners,” articulates Charlotte Cotton, Close Enough’s curator. “It’s not about the fetishisation of a subject. But about the motivations and intentions of bearing witness to what’s happening in our world. Each project contributes to a picture of the possibilities of interacting with others and having photographic exchanges. It’s timely. I hope it’s inspiring too.”
Exploring the possibilities of photography has been at Magnum’s heart since its inception. Founded in 1947 in the shadow of World War Two, the agency marked the alliance of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour, bound by their curiosity in photography and the world. Storytelling was central from the beginning. The show’s title playfully rifts off Capa’s famous saying: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.“ The quote evokes the idea of an intrepid documentarian, an image to which Magnum is bound despite not being entirely accurate then or now. “If you think about the photographic spectrum within Magnum, it’s always surprising that it’s still dominated by Robert Capa on one end, with frontline, photojournalistic work, and Cartier-Bresson on the other, with more formal concerns expressed in street photography,“ says Meiselas. “But, between those two, my male and female colleagues take more diverse approaches with their photography.“
Today’s collective remains an amorphous entity with a greatly expanded membership for whom Capa’s charge will mean many things. In the show’s context, one might interpret ‘close enough’ as remaining an ethos of sorts. But one with different connotations: relating to an intangible photographer-subject relationship, as opposed to the physical proximity of the camera. A sense of relationality snakes through the exhibition present within each project. It also emerges between the photographers themselves: three generations of women who belong, or have belonged, to the collective. As Meiselas reflects, “What has interested me as the bridge between the earlier culture of women in Magnum – Eve Arnold, Inge Morath, Marilyn Silverstone, Martine Franck, and myself – and this new generation, is how they see the world differently. It’s not to say that there aren’t men within Magnum and outside our community who develop extended relationships like these. The show was not conceived to exclude men, but rather to be inclusive of women and allow them to reveal the kinds of connections that they have in their work as they interface in dialogue with each other.“
Meiselas is joined by Olivia Arthur, Myriam Boulos, Sabiha Çimen, Cristina de Middel, Bieke Depoorter, Carolyn Drake, Nanna Heitmann, Hannah Price, Lua Ribeira, Alessandra Sanguinetti and Newsha Tavakolian. It would be impossible to do justice to the individual projects here, but to learn more from several of the participating artists, listen to discussions, co-produced by Magnum and British Journal of Photography, here.
Gerda Taro (1910–1937), a celebrated photojournalist who died aged 26 covering the Battle of Brunete during the second year of the Spanish Civil War, is also present. Historic images made by her line the wall of an adjacent show, Death in the Making: Reexamining the Iconic Spanish Civil War Photobook, which becomes the corridor leading into Close Enough. The reference is subtle, but the layout alludes to questions surrounding what might have happened had Taro survived. Close with Capa (indeed, Capa dedicated his famed photobook about the Spanish Civil War to her), would Taro have been a founding member of Magnum, and, if so, how would the agency have differed? “In many ways, Taro is the missing link,“ says Cotton, “…What nonsense could she have knocked out of play that would have made it less of a challenge to think about women’s place in photojournalism in the post-World War Two period?“
The show is foremost about the photographers, their processes and ways of seeing. Indeed, first-person texts written by each artist accompany their work. However, that they are all women means commentaries relating to gender in the context of Magnum and photography are inescapable. Of course, gender is critical to contemporary discussions concerning ways of seeing, notably, a growing acknowledgement of the limitations of the white male photographer’s gaze, which has dominated the medium. However, less constructively, all-women exhibitions risk having the gender of their participants framed as the defining feature. As Cotton says: “We should be ready to move on from a show that is all women being something where that’s the only talking point.“
Close Enough, then, is a study of individuals’ work but against the backdrop of an industry (and agency) where women have had to carve out their paths, and debates surrounding gender and photography remain. As Cotton observes: “These women are making choices about where their gender plays a part in what they’re doing as photographers engaged with the human subject. They’re expanding the field or keeping it alive by showing this is the urgency of what we do by visualising human culture. Sometimes that’s about including a subject only a woman would bring to the table or claiming a territory well-trodden by men.“ Indeed, men could have categorically not worked on several exhibited projects, such as Meiselas’, A Room of Their Own (2015–2017), which involved collaborating with survivors of domestic abuse living in shelters in the Black Country.
Ultimately, Close Enough addresses the rigorous and reflective processes of a group of artists working in a much-debated genre. One where the act of documenting raises urgent questions concerning the dynamics between photographer and subject; whose stories are whose to tell? “I want the show to demonstrate the resourcefulness of this group of 12 artists,“ says Cotton. “I want any photographer coming into this show to feel there’s a direct messaging to them about the deliberations that any thinking individual, working within the rubric of humanist photography at this moment, is concerned.“ Far from self-assured and final, Close Enough comprises work in flux. Whether new, ongoing or relatively old, the process of self-reflection and revisiting means the significance and meaning of these artists’ bodies of work are never fixed or final. Indeed, they are constantly evolving and changing, much like the landscape of photography itself.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.