Magnum Artists: Great Photographers Meet Great Artists

Lawrence King, £40

I’ll be like a child in a sweet shop. So went my thinking at the prospect of getting my hands on this book. The only question was, would the visual offerings inside be as delectable and delicious as I hoped, and as promised in the book’s subtitle? As a practising photographer and painter myself, what, I wondered, could there possibly be not to like about this book?

An initial flicking through of its 215 photographs confirmed that there would be little, if anything, to disappoint. Here was Pablo Picasso holed up in his studio at Rue des Grands-Augustins in Nazi-occupied Paris. There was Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in a wheelchair working at her easel in the last months of her turbulent life. There again was Oskar Kokoschka slapping layers of impasto onto one of his intense expressionistic canvases, Francis Bacon sitting in the “marvelous mess” of his studio and sculptor Henry Moore with a stone drill in front of a huge lump of Italian Carrera marble.

It’s the way in which the intimacy of these artists with their place of work is depicted in these photographs that for me makes this book such a joy and treasure chest.

So often such places are near sacrosanct. The studio space is often unwelcome to outsiders, somewhere only the most trusted are given access by those absorbed in the poetic and often peculiar ritual, the physical craft of making art. It is testimony then to the humanism and skill of the photographers from the renowned Magnum Agency that for so many decades they have been able not only to penetrate these inner sanctums of creativity, but simultaneously, through their images, to peek inside the minds of such great artists.

Going through the pages of this lushly-illustrated volume I was reminded of another great collection, the Writers At Work series of interviews which was run in the pages of the Paris Review magazine.

As the great American literary critic Van Wyck Brooks once observed, what made these interviews so special was that they read like good conversations, that skillfully brought to the surface hidden depths, effectively allowing the writers “to draw portraits of themselves.”

The same can be said of the images in this book, where some of the finest photographers of our times - many themselves great artists - do just that with their subjects. There is a sense in many of these pictures of artists at ease, simply because they are surrounded by the trappings of what they do.

The paint, clay, plaster encrusted walls and metal strewn floors of the studios of Bernard Buffet, Helen Frankenthaler, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely are wonders themselves to behold. They are in Aladdin’s caves of works in progress.

Before Magnum photographer Rene Burri himself visited Giacometti, another visitor was French novelist Jean Genet, who sat for the Swiss painter and sculptor at his Paris workplace and later wrote a famous essay, The Studio of Giacometti.

In one of the small accompanying written cameos that sit alongside Burri’s pictures of Giacometti is a description of the studio by Genet. It’s a place, he says, “made of worm-eaten wood and grey powder”, where “everything is stained and ready for the bin, everything is precarious and about to collapse, everything is about to dissolve, everything is floating.”

In Burri’s stark black and white photographic portrait of Giacometti he deploys a contrasting light and chiaroscuro the painter and sculptor himself would have been proud of.

There are many other portraits in the book, some candid, some posed, that are beautifully insightful glimpses of the lives of these artists away from their workplace. Among my favourites is one of a grinning Picasso in a sheepskin coat being embraced by friend and painter Marc Chagall.

Then there is American artist Georgia O’Keeffe outside her once dilapidated and now refurbished hacienda in the desert landscape of New Mexico, which inspired much of her work. There are also portraits of polymath Jean Cocteau and painter Salvador Dali by American photographer Philippe Halsman.

“A true photographer wants to try to capture the real essence of a human being,” Halsman once said. But as his portraits of both Cocteau and Dali in this book show, these images have become part of Surrealist iconography in their own right.

It is a black and white picture of Dali looking straight down the lens of Halsman’s large format camera that adorns the book’s front jacket. Only the book’s title appears in red and white letters, making for a minimalist and graphically understated cover that works well.

Indeed, overall this book is good graphically, something many collections of photography often fail to do, being overly embellished with jarring typography.

Never are the words allowed to overpower the photographs. The images - both in colour and black and white - are given space to breath and allowed to tell their own stories.

The words are not potted biographies but more like small written sketches designed to genuinely compliment the images rather than fill gaps with anodyne detail.

The introduction is by Simon Bainbridge who knows his stuff, having for years specialised in contemporary photography and been editor of British Journal of Photography. While what he writes barely covers one page, it is both eloquent and provides just the right amount of background and context for those unfamiliar with the Magnum photo agency.

So who is this book for? Well, those who have passion for photography will get much from it. While there are some images aficionados might already be familiar with, another welcome surprise is that these are few and far between. As an avid collector of photography books, and more than familiar with the work of Magnum, there are images in this collection new to me.

Those with an interest in art and art history will find this book a gem, too. As I alluded to earlier, having the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Inge Morath, Philippe Halsman, Robert Capa, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse and many more great photographers and artists face to face is a treat. Indeed, if I have one small grumble about this book it’s that I would have wished for even more images.

Too often such collections are simply dubbed coffee table books. Yes, they can look “cool” lying around, but already I’ve found myself picking up this book over and over again, each time getting something new and inspiring from it. Yes, I am that child in the sweet shop, and if you like your art and photography you will be too.