Robert Capa © International Center of PhotographyMagnum

‘If your photographs aren’t good enough you’re not close enough’

Born from the rubble of World War II, Magnum quickly became a byword for outstanding photojournalism. As the agency prepares to mark its 70th anniversary, David Robson recalls the extraordinary lives of its celebrated founders

Robert Capa said, ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough you’re not close enough.’ He meant it — not metaphorically but literally. It was the story of his life and, indeed, his death. Henri Cartier-Bresson saw things rather differently. ‘If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity,’ he wrote, ‘the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the real world of things. Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations.’

These two credos define the contrasting ambitions and tendencies that exist in photojournalism. In December 1938, the British news magazine Picture Post printed 26 of the 25-year-old Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War, the first of the conflicts he covered, with a full-page picture of him, captioned ‘The Greatest War Photographer In The World: Robert Capa’. 

Robert Capa, the co-founder of Magnum at a meeting of the cooperative in Paris, 1947. Ernst HaasHulton ArchiveGetty Images

Robert Capa, the co-founder of Magnum at a meeting of the cooperative in Paris, 1947. Ernst Haas/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The beautifully composed images created by Cartier-Bresson down the decades were products of an incomparable eye, a sensitive soul and an almost religious belief in geometry. ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ he said. ‘Well, in my case, in the beginning there was geometry.’

Thousands of men and women, some very much in the spirit of Capa, many more with a nod to Cartier-Bresson, have laboured to convey the human condition through a lens. Prominent among them are the 81 who have, in their time, been full members of Magnum, the photographers’ collective founded by Capa, Cartier-Bresson and their associates 70 years ago, an organisation that became the gold standard for photo-reportage.

The two men first met at the Café du Dôme in Montparnasse, home-from-home (and often home) to artists, writers, political émigrés and would-be philosophers. It was either late 1934 or early 1935. Cartier-Bresson was 26 and Capa was 21. At that point, Capa (who only started calling himself that in 1936) was still Endre Friedmann, the name he was born with.

They were brought together by David ‘Chim’ Seymour, a small, thick-spectacled, witty, intellectually inclined 23-year-old Polish Jew, who had come to Paris and drifted from studying physics to taking photographs for a living. Already a close friend of the future Capa, he had met Cartier-Bresson on a bus and was fascinated by the Leica camera he was carrying. He hadn’t seen one before. ‘What sort of a camera is that?’ he asked.

Cartier-Bresson was a child of the French haute bourgeoisie. He became friendly with painters and writers and was a visitor to Gertrude Stein’s salon

Cartier-Bresson had far more in common with Chim than with Capa, who was not a cerebral type. Capa was a life force. Then and ever after, he swept people along with his charm, enthusiasm, generosity and force of personality. Years later, his friend the American writer Irwin Shaw described him: ‘thick-lashed dark eyes, poetic and streetwise, like the eyes of a Neapolitan urchin, the sardonic mouth with the eternal cigarette plastered to the lower lip. He was gently perceptive and witty with a gaiety that enchanted men and women alike.’

A Hungarian Jew, son of a poor but profligate tailor and his long-suffering wife, Capa had arrived in Paris in fight from Hungary’s right-wing regime. This was not the beginning of his travels. In 1931, conscious that his teenage left-wing activities would do him no favours at home, he had removed himself, aided by Jewish charities, from Budapest to Berlin. Quickly forsaking university studies, and with his parents now penniless, he decided to have a go at the photography trade.

He got a job in an agency darkroom. Sometimes he would be given a camera and told to go and take street pictures, but on 27 November 1932 he had his first proper assignment: a big political rally in Copenhagen, where Leon Trotsky was speaking. He was by no means the only photographer there, but the young Friedmann’s picture of the exhausted, troubled-looking Trotsky was the best. It got a full page in Der Welt Spiegel. It was his first credit and his future trademark – he had got closest to Trotsky. Eight years later, Capa, by now the renowned photographer of the Spanish Civil War, was in Mexico when Trotsky was murdered. He photographed his widow leaving the crematorium.

Cartier-Bresson was a child of the French haute bourgeoisie. His family owned large factories making sewing thread. He went to good schools, he had a governess who taught him English and a painter uncle who helped him steer himself away from a career in the Cartier-Bresson firm and into the world of art. He became friendly with painters and writers and was a visitor to Gertrude Stein’s salon even though, on seeing his paintings, she told him: ‘Young man, you’d do better to go into the family business.’

He was very much taken with the ideas and the company of the surrealists, who were a powerful and captivating force in Paris at the time. Max Ernst, 17 years his senior, became a close friend. In 1930, after completing compulsory military service, Cartier-Bresson spent several months in the Ivory Coast, making his living as a hunter and trader. He didn’t bring back any images worth preserving, but for him it was an epiphany. By the time he returned, not only had he separated himself from the family business, he knew he wanted to travel and convey what he saw. He decided that photography was the way to do it.

Many of his pictures, especially in the early days, were expressions of surrealism — he loved bizarre images, mind-boggling juxtapositions, strange accidents and random incidents. Cartier-Bresson married infinite patience with uncanny instinct to capture priceless moments, while Capa threw himself into the cannon’s mouth, seeking maximum action and danger.

Capa’s most famous picture is The Falling Soldier. The man has just been shot through the head. He is alone, his rife is dropping from his outstretched right arm and he is about to collapse backwards, dead. Taken on the Córdoba front in the Spanish Civil War on 5 September 1936, it remains an unsurpassed image of war. A Spanish government minister of the 1990s described it as ‘a universal icon… on a par with Picasso’s Guernica’.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of a queue at a bank in Shanghai during the currency crisis of December 1948 © Henri Cartier-BressonMagnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of a queue at a bank in Shanghai during the currency crisis of December 1948 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

For Cartier-Bresson there is no such defining image. He was witness to many great events, and there is an immense variety of subject matter in his work. What unites it is his preternatural genius at producing beautifully resolved images and capturing moments so extraordinary you can hardly believe they are real. His December 1948 photograph of the crushed-together queue outside a bank in Shanghai, waiting to swap their paper money for gold, conveys the frenzy but is as perfectly composed as any painting. Indeed he sometimes described himself as painting with a camera.

In 1937 he was commissioned to cover George VI’s coronation. Ignoring the pomp of the occasion, he turned to the crowds in the street. In Trafalgar Square he took a most extraordinary picture: the top half of the frame is packed with standing spectators looking on; the middle has a wall with people sitting on it, tightly packed together except for a one-person gap. Below is a man in a suit lying full-length, legs crossed, looking very comfortable amid the mass of discarded newspapers. Like many thousands, he has probably been waiting there overnight, but unlike them he has not yet woken up. On a day when thousands of photographs were taken, this is the only one that, nearly eight decades on, is still startling.

Cartier-Bresson’s shot of the crowds at George VI’s coronation in London, 1937 © Henri Cartier-BressonMagnum Photos
Cartier-Bresson’s shot of the crowds at George VI’s coronation in London, 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Capa, Chim and Cartier-Bresson were men of the left. All three went to the Spanish Civil War. Capa and Chim are remembered as the war’s outstanding photographers. In this particular context, Cartier-Bresson, who was making a propaganda film to raise money for Republican hospitals, is forgotten. It taught him a lesson: don’t be a campaigner, be a reporter.

A decade later, in 1947, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a major exhibition of his work (they thought he had died in World War II — they were nearly six decades premature). It was highly praised for its artistic quality, prompting Capa to give him this advice: ‘Beware of labels. You will never get rid of them. You will be labelled the little surrealist photographer. You will be lost. You will become precious and mannered. Continue on your way, but with the label of photojournalist. That is what will always bring you pleasure from your contact with whatever is happening in the world.’

His family’s vicissitudes and his own early scrabbling from country to country across Europe had given Capa a sense of life’s realities, and although he was a romantic, an adventurer and an unreliable teller of tales, he was — except possibly when it came to poker — nobody’s fool. Since his early twenties, he had nurtured a scheme that would give photographers ownership of their work so that they, rather than the magazines that commissioned them, retained the reproduction rights; they ought never to have to part with their negatives and they must be able to control how their work was used; they should also be able to refuse commissions. This was not to be a conventional agency, but a cooperative.

In the aftermath of the war, Capa’s achievement was the sort of thing none of them could emulate: a love affair with Ingrid Bergman

It would reverse the balance of power, something that could only be achieved by photographers the magazines could not live without. But it would have to wait. The world was at war. Cartier-Bresson was in the French army. He was captured by the Germans and tried three times to escape, succeeding on the third attempt.

In 1939 Chim had sailed on the SS Sinaia taking 1,000 Spanish Republicans to Mexico. From there he went to New York and set up a darkroom on 42nd Street. In 1942 he joined the US Air Force as a photo-interpreter. Later he learned that both of his parents had been killed in the Warsaw ghetto.

The three years after September 1939, when war was declared, saw Capa through a series of incidents and adventures including feeing from Paris to America, marrying for the sake of a passport, photographing in Mexico, womanising and drinking in London, covering the early war effort in England and the US army campaign in the north African desert. But this was just the preamble to his brilliant and harrowing coverage of the American campaign in Sicily and southern Italy.

One of Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings, 6 June 1944 Photographs Robert Capa © International Center of PhotographyMagnum Photos.

One of Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings, 6 June 1944 Photographs: Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos.

On 6 June 1944, D-Day, Capa was with the American landing on Omaha beach. His pictures showed, in alarming close-up, a battle far more challenging and terrifying than first reports had suggested. He had sent, by his own reckoning, 106 pictures. A mistake by an assistant in Life’s darkroom ruined all but 11 of them. The magazine ran eight over seven pages. The world’s greatest war photographer had done great.

Capa, Chim and Cartier-Bresson, who had fought with the Resistance, were all in Paris in August 1944 when the city was liberated. The English photographer George Rodger, working for Life magazine, had covered more ground than any of them. Besides photographing the Blitz in London, he had been in West Africa, Egypt, Baghdad, Rangoon and on the Burma Road. He had struck up a friendship with Capa, and they made a pact to meet on Liberation Day at the Hôtel Lancaster in Paris. Sure enough, Rodger was there and had booked rooms.

In the aftermath of the war, Cartier-Bresson photographed the devastated Germany and took portraits of almost everyone who was anyone in French cultural life. Rodger was one of the British photographers who went into Belsen; so traumatised by it was he that he swore never to take a war picture again. Capa’s achievement was the sort of thing none of them could emulate: a love affair with Ingrid Bergman.

On 22 May 1947, Magnum Photos Inc was born. Initially a coalition of five photographers, it quickly became four when one dropped out: Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Chim and George Rodger. They did not rule the world, but they divided it up between them.

Chim Seymour was killed by machine-gun fire in Egypt. It was four days after the armistice in the Suez War. He was 44

Chim would cover Europe, Rodger Africa and the Middle East, Cartier-Bresson Asia, and Capa would be at large. It was a perfect time to start, an era of heroic and historic stories and a hunger for signs of a new world and new life after all the devastation. In America, Britain and Europe, photo-based magazines were selling in millions. Chim photographed the children of Europe for UNICEF — ‘Chim picked up a camera the way a doctor takes his stethoscope out of his bag, applying his diagnosis to the condition of the heart,’ said Cartier-Bresson. Capa documented the Israeli War of Independence and the foundation of the state, a cause close to his heart; in Sudan, Rodger produced a marvellous account of the never-beforephotographed Nuba tribe.

Cartier-Bresson was in India. On 30 January 1948 he took a wonderful portrait of Gandhi. An hour later, Gandhi was assassinated in his garden. Cartier-Bresson got on his bicycle and rushed back. Gandhi was lying in a room full of mourners. The Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White had entered the room and caused hysterical anger by taking a photograph. The camera was ripped away from her and the film destroyed. Cartier-Bresson was more subtle. Standing outside, he managed to take a rather hazy, gentle picture through the curtains.

Without the good offices of Chim Seymour, Magnum may well have expired or exploded. He was calm, thoughtful and rational. Rodger was a distant figure, and Capa and Cartier-Bresson, love each other though they did, were often at loggerheads. Capa was no sort of manager, and he used Magnum as a piggybank for his poker habit. When Cartier-Bresson wanted to lay hands on the money his pictures had earned, sometimes it just wasn’t there. ‘Why do you want it?’ Capa is supposed to have said. ‘Your wife has got a fur coat. She doesn’t need a second one.’ (Cartier-Bresson actually wanted to buy a house.)

Capa, the war photographer, had long been without a war and perhaps could not face another one. He didn’t go to Korea. In 1954 he was in Tokyo for an exhibition of his work when the Life magazine photographer covering the Viet Minh insurgency in French Indochina had to go home on compassionate leave. Life contacted Capa and offered him very good money. Unlike the other wars he had covered with passionate commitment, this was one he did not really care about. But he went. He had been there three and a half weeks when he was blown up by a landmine. He was 40 years old. On 10 November 1956, Chim Seymour was killed by machine-gun fire in Egypt. It was four days after the armistice in the Suez War. He was 44.

Cartier-Bresson had lost his two friends. He was a man alone, an artist — the nonpareil of photographers. He remained a member of Magnum until 1966. From the beginning to this day, and for ever more, it is his name that gives the organisation its special mystique. ‘The greatness of Capa is twofold,’ wrote his friend John Steinbeck. ‘We have his pictures, but he had another side which may have been even more important. He gathered young men about him, encouraged, instructed, and taught them respect for their art.’ Mostly men. The great photographer Eve Arnold, who joined Magnum in the 1950s, described Capa as ‘my photographic university’.