Inside the Magnum Archive

You are an internationally renowned photographers' agency with a massive collection of photographs that you supply to publishers as part of your business. Technology changes and now pictures are dealt with entirely digitally. What do you do with your archive of photographic prints?

Sophie Wright and Fiona Rogers run the cultural office at Magnum Photos in London and I spoke to them both about how Magnum had dealt with this question. The London branch of Magnum was set up more recently than the New York and Paris offices and so has a smaller legacy of photographic prints to deal with, although a quantity of material was inherited from the agent John Hillelson who had previously represented Magnum in the UK. In New York, the eventual solution was to sell the greater part of their print archive to Michael Dell, who gave it to the University of Texas. In Paris they are trying to establish a foundation to look after their archive. In London, when the print collection ceased to be a working tool, it was ‘decommissioned’.

What this meant in practice was that the prints were no longer organised by subject index but, firstly, by print quality and provenance, and secondly, by photographer. This was based on the (rather arbitrary) distinction between prints made on fibre-based versus resin-coated paper, which may also be a distinction between ‘vintage’ hand-prints and later machine prints. Either way, the archive was now divided between two rooms, the first containing a jumble of prints still sorted into subject boxes, the second organised by photographer and deemed more valuable. The first room is rarely visited, the second is used often, is temperature controlled, and supplies material for exhibitions and print sales.

Magnum is a commercial organisation that continues to represent the interests of its member photographers. This arrangement does not look like a long term solution but merely reflects that fact that there is a market for certain types of photograph. Magnum seem better placed than most to deal with this legacy of the analogue era. They haven't simply thrown away their unloved resin-coated prints even though they don't use them. The question, is whether they can find someone to give them a permanent home.

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