Magnum Puts Pro in Ireland Pictures
By: Martin Russell
The Irish American Post Book Editor
Since the first snap ‘n shoot, Ireland has been a photographers’ dreamscape. The newly released Magnum Ireland ((Thames & Hudson, updated edition, 304 pages) captures the wide swing of history of Ireland, with images from the 1950s to the contemporary. They highlight talents by photographers belonging to Magnum, an international cooperative owned by its photographer-members. Founded in 1947, Magum has offices in New York City, Paris, London and Tokyo.
Naturally, Ireland was among the first subjects tackled by these creatives. It is a marvelous portrait of a complex place, from beauty to turmoil…sometimes blending, sometimes the same.
The photographs were taken by such noted names as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eilliott
Courtesy Thames & Hudson
Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, Inge Morath, Erich Lessing, Eve Arnold, Martine Franck, Martin Parr, Bruce Gilden, Donovan Wylie, Stuart Franklin and others. This roster certainly brings an international perspective to the story, which is organized by decades from 1950s rural life to the 2000’s prosperity and cultural change.
The sectarian Troubles of the 1970s are also part of the photographic journey toward the "Celtic Tiger" economic boom. Supplying welcome context and overviews are such writers as Anthony Cronin, Nuala O'Faolain, Eamonn McCann, Fintan O'Toole, Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright.
Released on March 17, 2020, Magnum Ireland’s behind-the-scenes organizers were Brigitte Lardinois, cultural director at Magnum Photos London for more than 10 years and is the editor of Magnum Magnum. She lives in London. Val Williams is curator, lecturer and author, as well as a professor of the history and culture of photography at the University of the Arts London, Europe's largest art and design university, with more 19,000 students from more than 130 countries. Williams is also co-editor of the journal Photography & Culture.
Lardinois answered questions on how the Magnum Ireland project came about, posited by The Irish American Post on June 20, 2020.
IAP: What were you looking for in organizing the contents of Magnum Ireland? Was there a theme that you hashed out while planning the updated book?
BL: I became aware of a vast trove of photographs taken over many decades in Ireland by Magnum photographers. I have a long-standing interest in that country, my husband being a Belfast man. I was conscious of the rapid and radical changes Ireland had experienced over recent years and thought it would be an appropriate time to chart those changes using the work of Magnum photographers.
I felt this purpose was best served by organizing the work into decades, a chapter for each, starting just after World War II, when Magnum was founded, continuing to the present day. The new updated edition includes an additional chapter of photographs from the past decade, accompanied by an essay by the Irish writer, Kevin Barry.
This chronological format brings into sharp focus particular social and historical themes. The chapter on the 1970s, for example, is mainly, but not exclusively, concerned with the Troubles, while the chapters on 2000 and 2010 depicts the economic boom and bust of the “Celtic Tiger.”
© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
IAP: How did you work with Magnum photographers in organizing the book? How were these representative photographers selected?
BL: At that time, I worked as cultural director of Magnum Photos in the London office. A successful Magnum Israel project had just been delivered and it struck me that, apart from the famous coverage of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, no one had gathered together the wider range of photos taken in Ireland.
I suggested the project to Thomas Neurath, head of Thames & Hudson, at the time, who immediately agreed to do this book with me. In a letter dated May 19, 2004, he wrote to me, “we see this as a collaboration, rather than the material simply being handed over, for us to fashion into a book as we see best.”
I presented the idea at the Magnum annual meeting in 2004 and got unanimous sign-off to proceed. I then invited Val Williams, a curator with whom I had collaborated on many previous projects, to help me bring this work to fruition. Next, I had to ask which of the photographers had worked in Ireland, and if they had any work that was not already in the Magnum archive. We invited each photographer to share that work with us and discussed with them how we envisaged the work’s inclusion in the book.
IAP: Although much of the work on this go-around was done with digital archives, did the still-living photographers suggest their respective photos or did you both make the choices?
BL: For the first edition, all the living photographers were personally involved in the choices we made. In addition to the work that was available in the Magnum archives — only part of which was then online —they presented us with images, many of which had never been shared before. Much of the work had never been sent to the Magnum office, and had come straight from the photographers’ personal archives; notably the wonderful Bruce Davidson pictures taken on his honeymoon in the ‘60s.
A few years prior to this project, I had been presented with a series of photos, taken in the 1950s’, by Erich Lessing, I had spoken to him about how sad it was that they had never been published for want of an appropriate context. That marvelous series of unpublished photographs, sitting for years in my desk drawer, kindled the inspiration for this book.
IAP: About how many photos did you sift through to find the ones eventually used?
BL: We shifted through thousands of photographs.
IAP: Where did you work, whose offices were used, or did you spend hours at the Magnum Library?
BL: Most of the work was done in the Magnum office in London, some in Magnum Paris and Magnum New York and some was done visiting the photographers at their home.
IAP: How long did the updated book take to assemble? Were you doing other work while assembling this project? How did you ration your time?
BL: The original book took about a year to assemble—I was doing many other Magnum projects at the same time. My files show that we sent first pictures to production on March 18, 2005, and the book was delivered on the Sept. 22 of that year. Updating took a few weeks— together with Magnum staff and Andrew Sanigar of Thames & Hudson. I did the picture research for the new chapter and rewrote the foreword while Val Williams updated the accompanying essay.
IAP: Did you have a specific task on the project (i.e., one person doing one job and the other responsible for something else)?
BL: Val Williams and I worked through the images together but, because of my position, I did most of the liaison with the photographers. Thames & Hudson liaised with the writers, whom we supplied with the appropriate photographs.
IAP: What were several of the major challenges in pulling this book together, and how did you deal with them?
BL: It was important to get a good balance, so that those decades for which we had a lot of material (notably the 70s’s and 80s’) did not overwhelm the other chapters. It was also important that photographers with a particularly big output did not get to dominate the book.
G.B. NORTHERN IRELAND. Belfast. 1972. A little girl is confronted by armed British soldiers at a check point.
© A. Abbas/Magnum Photos
IAP: When the book was finally released, how did you celebrate? Was there a round of pints?
BL: We launched the book at the Irish Embassy in London, in September, 2005, and I can assure you, that it was a joyful occasion at which Guinness was served…
IAP: What was the budget for the project? Did you need to apply for grants? Was there an angel who underwrote the book?
BL: We did not have to apply for grants, as Thames & Hudson published and printed and paid the authors. Magnum provided the images and the only person whom we had to remunerate was Val Williams.
The book accompanied a major exhibition of the work, which ran from April 18 to June 18, 2006, at the Museum of Modern Art, in Dublin, after which it toured to the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast, where it ran from June 30 to Sept. 16 of the same year. (Editor’s Note: Lardinois pointed out that page 10 of the new edition of the book features a photograph of a billboard with the exhibition poster.)
IAP: How did you get the essayists to participate? Was each given free rein on what to write or did you help with direction?
BL: It was my idea to invite Irish writers to comment. I was very aware of the fact that only one of the photographers in the book (Donovan Wyllie) came from Ireland. Given the importance of Irish writers in Irish culture, I thought it appropriate to have a comment on each decade from a specific Irish writer.
Thomas Neurath enlisted John Banville to help us identify who would be most suited to each decade and we wrote to these leading Irish authors inviting them to participate.
IAP: Do you still stay in touch socially or otherwise with the participants? How was it working with all these creatives?
BL: In my new position at the University of the Arts in London, I still have regular contact with Magnum photographers, some of whom became close friends. Only recently, I was in contact with them when we put together an exhibition called Territorial Troubles: Contested Realities in Northern Ireland.
The exhibition was organized to coincide with what was going to be the launch of this new edition of Magnum Ireland. Unfortunately, we have had to postpone the opening of the exhibition as it was planned for St Patrick’s Day on March 17, the week before the country went into lockdown (due to the pandemic).
GB. Northern Ireland. Belfast Revisited. Kathaline Heaney. Where the Divis flats used to be. 2008
© Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos
IAP: How did you individually get into the world of research and curating? Were you always interest in history, in cataloging the past?
BL: I was born in the Netherlands and was educated there, and in Belgium. I hold a baccalaureate from the European School in Brussels and have an MA in Social Economic History at the University of Amsterdam.
In 1996, I moved over to join my partner in London and soon started working life at the Barbican Art Gallery. Starting out as an exhibition assistant, I eventually became curator of its photography exhibitions. I worked there from 1986-1996. On the basis of the many big Magnum shows I organized for the Barbican, I was invited to join the staff of Magnum Photos. I worked as its cultural director from 1996-2006, working closely with all the photographers, notably Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Elliott Erwitt and Joseph Koudelka.
I now work for the University of the Arts in London, where I am the director of the Photography and Archive Research Centre. I write and lecture on photography and curate a great variety of photographic exhibitions. I am currently involved in a project that aims to create an online photographic archive of the current Covid-19 crisis.
Editor’s note: Val Williams’s expansive CV is on page 303 of the new edition of Magnum Ireland.