The Story Behind the Legendary Magnum Archive Sale

by Pete Brook,

February 12th 2010

Last week, one of the most important photojournalism archives in history, the Magnum Photo Agency’s press prints collection, was sold to Michael Dell of Dell computers. Specifically, to Dell’s private investment firm, MSD Capital LP.

The collection will be housed by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

“Right place, right time, right people.” That’s how Eli Reed, Magnum photographer and photojournalism professor at the school, summed up the deal. “It was a long time coming; it didn’t just happen quickly,” he said.

Impressively keeping with Magnum’s cooperative policies, the deal ensures the photographers still retain total ownership of their works. Only the prints used by Magnum through 2003 for publication were sold, not the rights to the images themselves.

Though the price remains undisclosed, the collection of photographs had been insured for a value of $100 million. Industry insider Paul Melcher speculated the price at around $30 million.

The press prints collection comprises of over 185,000 images by over 100 renowned photographers, including seminal talent such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Elliott Erwitt, Ernst Haas and Eve Arnold. Magnum was established in 1947 to wrest control from publishers back into the hands of the photographers by allowing shooters to keep the rights to their images. In so doing, Magnum pioneered a new business model for photojournalism.

Read on for background on this historic deal from a variety of perspectives, including the business details, archiving challenges and the academic treasures that the collection presents.

It’s just good business

In recent years, Magnum was subject to bids from both Getty and Corbis.

“They were looking to buy Magnum’s archive to license,” says Magnum managing director Mark Lubell. “If Magnum sold their archive for licensing then that would be the death of the agency. The archive is one of our revenue generators and you’d actually be giving up the photographers’ copyright.”

It was in 2006 when Lubell first floated the idea to sell its press prints collection with the agency’s photographer-members. The 89 active members gave him sanction to begin inquiry.

Magnum has never had huge cash reserves to expand and adapt the business. The sale to Dell should give them capital to grow with the changing landscape of photojournalism.

For Magnum, the deal is somewhat of a coup, having simultaneously achieved two intended objectives. Firstly, it has secured significant funds to build Magnum’s immediate business intent — namely, direct content distribution. Secondly, it has outsourced the preservation of works and promotion of the Magnum brand to the Ransom Center, a third-party with the requisite specialized skills.

A third-party custodian was always paramount to any deal, but it was a constant variable throughout discussions. Lubell shopped the opportunity across the United States visiting, among others, the Smithsonian and George Eastman House.

“I went around the country talking to different institutions and universities looking for the appropriate place to house this collection. I was also hoping one of those places would directly purchase it or they’d have a network of alums who might be interested in the archive,” says Lubell.

Ultimately, MSD had the financial weight to broker a deal. It is unclear at what stage the Ransom Center and director, Thomas F. Staley were brought into negotiations. David Coleman, the center’s curator of photography, was aware of the deal by the summer of 2009.

“The main story, in my mind,” says Coleman, “Is the Magnum material and we’re happy beneficiaries, to be caretakers, of the collection for a few years.”

Going Down in History

It has been inaccurately reported that the images in the archive run up to 1998. Lubell clarifies that the images are dated up to 2003. “We have some images from September 11th,” says Lubell, “Really after 2003 everything went digital.”

The Ransom Center will scan every print, front and back, which will inevitably lead to uncovering new material.

“Not all of Magnum’s press prints have a monetary value for licensing,” says Lubell, “So when making a business decision … you end up gravitating toward [and scanning] the more iconic works. We’re going to see a lot of lesser-known stories.”

The Ransom Center will put in place a fellowship program to forward research of the holdings and offer a rotating lecture series by Magnum photographers.

Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, who donated her acclaimed El Salvador series to the Ransom Center in 2006 says, “I have no plans in place, but I hope to be there soon to speak and work with students.”

Reed points out the boon the collection will be for students. “I think some of the students might still be in a state of shock,” he says, “Some of them understand how great it is to handle the prints; to see the process; to know the process; to see the notes on the back of the print. It’s really something special.”

Furthermore, the collection as a whole will be written into art historical canon. The Ransom Center will create an oral history of the collection and produce a book documenting the history of the collection.

“There are amazing stories that I’ve learned about individual photographers, the collection and the roles that archivists played in putting it together. That information would be lost if this deal didn’t happen now.” says Lubell.

A Curatorial Curiosity

According to curator, David Coleman, the Magnum collection is not, strictly speaking, an archive. There are no negatives, contact sheets, proof prints, transparencies or slides, like there are for a traditional archive like the Ransom Center’s Arnold Newman Collection.

“The Magnum collection is more about the boundaries of Magnum; what the Magnum business thought were to be the most useful images,” says Coleman. “[Yet] the significance is somewhat the same. You can trace the ghost of Newman and Magnum. Concurrently, you have world events and also the histories of a photographer (in Newman’s case) or a group of photographers (in Magnum’s case) trying to make a business out of their passion.”

The Ransom Center staff also expects to rapidly get to grips with Magnum’s unique archiving system.

“We’re going to bring Magnum’s archivist down to help us interpret their codes, the symbols and their system,” says Coleman, “The boxes are marked with three-initial codes. I haven’t quite broken the codes that correspond to all the photographers. Robert Capa is CAR but then also BOB which is funny. Bob.”

In addition to boxes for each photographer, there are many boxes arranged by country — 10 boxes on Japan, two on Vietnam, five on Iran. There are boxes arranged by subject arrangement such as a particular personality or event, boxes to which multiple photographers contribute. The task to order is substantial.

It will be mid-March when the Ransom Center roles out the first publicly available content. “We’ll provide a box-level listing with the codes so people know who the photographers are,” said Coleman. “We’ll automate it so people can request material for the reading room. The longer-range goal is to provide access to the entire content [organized] by photographer.”

From Past to Future

For Reed and other Magnum photographers, the satisfaction of seeing their work appreciated and re-evaluated is secondary to the elevated status this deal gives to photojournalism as a whole. Much as, Reed says, Robert Frank’s The Americans was a paradigm shift.

“Most people didn’t like the book because it was a different place than where they’d been to,” he says, “But later it became an iconic work. I think what is happening here is a way of educating people in a deeper way. Quality wins through.”

The deal states that the Ransom Center will house this material for five years. It is not known what Magnum and MSD’s intentions are following this short initial period.

When asked about what happens in 2015, Lubell is sagacious. “The way this is set up means that everyone is incentivized,” he says, “Dell (MSD) will be very happy to see the exhibition and study programs develop to demonstrate the importance this archive. Dell has bought an asset that is only going to increase in value.”

Lubell recalled Josef Koudleka, who would quote a proverb he learned while documenting and living with gypsies. The saying goes that you only die when the last person who knows you dies. “I feel that about this archive and about Magnum” says Lubell, “If this archive is in a place that is active and engaged in the content, then we’re passing on the stories, knowledge and significance of these photographers’ works.”

– – –

Pete Brook is a photo-researcher and prison educator. He writes regularly about photography at his blog Prison Photography.

Original Page:

The Story Behind the Legendary Magnum Archive Sale

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s