A Secret Journey Behind the Scenes at Magnum Photos

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In the corner of the school yard, the young girl sat with her friend, shaded by an orange tree, its branches wilting with ripe fruit: “Want to know my secret?” she whispered into the ear of her friend.

The young boy nodded carefully, not wishing to divulge his eagerness and rising excitement of finding out about her secret…

From a young age, we always want to know about other’s secrets. It’s a first type of important currency we trade in as kids. As we get older, secrets may get a bit more complicated. Yet, one thing is for sure, we still have them and want to know about the others’. Mystery and secrets cut to the core of our human instinct. It’s in this vein that I was lucky enough to find out about Secret Journeys, an initiative started by the ex-Executive Director at the New York Times, Philippe Hertzberg. Secret Journeys offers curated and guided behind-the-scenes visits of a dozen special locations in Paris, including among other sites: a fashion atelier, an artisan shoemaker, a prestigious private art gallery and iconic landmarks.

Last week, I signed up for a visit of the Magnum Photos atelier in the heart of 18th arrondissement in Paris, and joined a family (from the US) and professional photographer for a riveting tour.

Cartier-Bresson, Seymour, Capa & Rodger

Here’s my little report on the experience (without revealing all!). The journey starts outside the vaulted exterior doors and windows. We’re introduced to a couple of resident professionals and learn about the history of Magnum, its four founders — Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Robert Capa and George Rodger — and the raison d’être of the exclusive cooperative. The founders alone were responsible for so many iconic photos that have marked our minds and recorded history. Inside you are immediately drawn to the magnificent and central transparent spiral staircase.

During our tour, we were ‘exposed’ to the cold storage room of the negatives and contact sheets of all the great photographers (at least those based in Paris) who’ve been part of Magnum. Our guide explained to us several under-the-hood details, including the innovative organizational principles of the archives, and how the photos were ‘tagged’ and categorized.

The other side

Robert Capa – Liberation of Paris, Aug 26 1944

We also got an inside view of several boxes filled with recognizable black & white photos, handled with white gloves. Spread out on the table were a gallery’s worth of marvelous and iconic images going back to pre-WWII, replete with access to the back story and the pencilled markings on the back side. At some level, the secret journey is all about what’s on the other side… “la face cachée” as we say in French. Here were the markings on the back side of an iconic photo of the liberation of Paris, taken in August 1944 (left). You see markings about the intended framing, tags, coding, development standard, sometimes the people in the photo.

Digital transformation: another journey…

Perhaps the most fascinating conversations — coming out of the Q&A — were about the classification and qualification of great photography. What — if any — is the role of creativity in photojournalism? Another area that piqued my curiosity was the journey that Magnum entertained in moving from analog (film & print) to digital photography. A veritable digital transformation from the coal face. In one of the more telling images, the cold storage room was entire vault. The digital images, stored on external memory drives, didn’t even fill an entire cupboard.

All in all, this Secret Journey was as much about History as it was the history of photojournalism and photography. A hugely enjoyable moment to be savored. The coupe de champagne (how Magnum got its name) at the end of the tour was icing on the cake.

See more on Secret Journeys here (190E per person) as well as the dozen other journeys on offer.

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