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Magnum’s photojournalism and Life magazine together shaped an era

by Lorenzo Zanini

What happens when a popular American magazine meets a famous photo Agency? Something very special and, above all, very interesting. So special and interesting that for the first time an exhibition in Cremona, the world capital of the art of violin and string making, shows us how the collaboration of Life and Magnum gave birth to a kind of photojournalism destined to made history.

Visitors can see photos by internationally renowned photographers such as Eve Arnold, Werner Bischof, Bruno Barbey, Cornell Capa, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, Ernst Haas, Philippe Halsman, Inge Morath and Dennis Stock.

The exhibit in Cremona, which will run through June 11, aims to tell the story, through photo images of 20th century historical events published by the magazine, of how the American culture changed throughout the decades, from the Great Depression to the Vietnam war. It is an opportunity to reflect on photography and its entailments, on the relation with printed paper, on technological changes in the world of communication and on the impact these images had on collective perception.

All arts - and photography is no exception - are embedded in specific historical contexts. Technical innovations after the end of the World War I, for example, triggered a development of the photo journalism and, consequently, a clear acknowledgment of the profession of photo reporter. After the ascent to power of Nazism, all newspapers in the USA made big use of photography to inform their readers of what was taking place in Europe.

In 1936 Henry Luc, former publisher of Time, created Life magazine, which had a great success. This experience lasted till 1972, when TV became the dominant communication tool and Life was forced to close. Since the first number on 1936, Nov. 23, Life became a new model of magazine based on a mix of photographs, simple captions and easy-to-understand editorials. With its editorials and its pictures, Life assumed a crucial role in the creation of the American identity and culture.

With the explosion of photojournalism, there was a consequent explosion in the number of photographic agencies.

In 1947 on the terrace of MOMA in New York, Magnum Photos Agency was born out of out of an idea by photographer Robert Capa who had thoroughly documented the Spanish Civil War. In time other photographers joined in, such as David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger.

Magnum Photos gathered the best photographers in the world with the aim to protect their work and help them have control over it.

The exhibition is a tour inside nine photo features printed by Life, nine stories that had a great effect on public opinion. The exhibit showcases two historical photo images by Werner Bischof: the first on the great famine in Bihair in India, in 1951 and the second on Korea in 1952.

Then there are the pictures of James Dean taken by Dennis Stock; a group of shots of great intimacy which reveal the personality of one of the best actors of the American cinema, who died shortly after in a car accident.

Not to miss the photo feature dedicated to the American movie ’Misfits,’ a 1961 film directed by John Houston, dramatized by Arthur Miller and starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

The exhibit also features the shots taken by photographer Bruno Barbey in Vietnam. In these photos the consequences of the war are clearly visible in the drug addiction developed by too many young American soldiers.

Also not to miss are the photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson (France 1908 - 2004) depicting life in the Soviet Union. The French photographer travelled 9,300 miles throughout Soviet Union from July to September 1954.

The itinerary ends with three photo features made by Robert Capa one of the greatest photo journalists in history: among the events he covered, the Spanish Civil War, the landing in Normandy and the Indo-China war.