Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Photography in Europe, 1945–60

By the end of World War II, Europe was in disarray both physically and psychically, but the picture magazines emerged as a cultural force even more powerful than before the war. The magazines’ ability to bring the viewer to the brink of the action and to fill society’s insatiable desire to understand the scope of world events fed an ever-growing industry of visual information. This gave rise to new kind of photographer—the seasoned photojournalist, whose vision had been honed by witnessing scenes of devastation and triumph during wartime. Many wanted to continue devoting their lives to the documentation of humanity’s trials and tribulations, victories and accomplishments, and four such photographers, Robert Capa (1987.1100.501), Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour (59.559.70), and George Rodger, founded a photography agency in 1947 whose aim was to do just that. Called Magnum Photos, Inc., the enterprise was a collective in which photographers determined their own subject matter (rather than being assigned stories by a picture editor) and were supported by a staff who performed administrative and archival functions. In contrast to the scenario in play at the time, the photographer—rather than the publication or the photo agency—maintained the copyright to his or her photographs and the collective served as the primary distributor of the members’ photographs, often granting permission to publish photographs only together with the rest of the images in a photographer’s photo essay. This allowed individual photographers more control over the content and presentation of their images. Initially, Magnum divided the world into four sections, each of which was covered by a different photographer: Chim handled Europe; Cartier-Bresson India and the Far East, Rodger Africa; and Capa America (these divisions were very flexible and often overlapped as photographers followed their own interests and instincts). Other photographers soon joined the agency. Werner Bischof (59.559.4) and Ernst Haas were the first nonfounder members in 1949, and Magnum continues to add new members today. The establishment of a base for photographers who wished to serve their aesthetic and reportage impulses simultaneously was invaluable. Through Magnum, they could maintain artistic integrity and address humanitarian concerns without “selling their soul” (and their copyright) to an indifferent image market.

While Magnum photographers looked out at the world, another group of European photographers looked inward. Led by Otto Steinert (1991.1056), the movement known as Subjektive Fotografie emphasized the photographer’s ability to imbue his subject with personal and aesthetic meaning through photographic means—perspective and point of view; the use of the close-up; tonal rendering; defamiliarizing the subject through negative printing and solarization; and experimentation with time exposure. Such techniques emphasized the role of the artist in creating meaning for photographs beyond the factual reality of the objects before the camera. Although this is fundamentally true of all creative photography, Subjektive Fotografie made the demonstration of this principle a primary goal. The movement held three exhibitions, in 1951, 1954, and 1958, that included a wide range of work from artists of many different countries. Its ideas spread throughout Europe, inspiring young artists and providing a network for photographers like Josef Sudek (1989.1073) who had been creating work based on similar concepts but were isolated from the larger community of art photographers. Subjektive Fotografie’s identification and knitting together of like-minded creative photographers provided a fertile ground for the emergence of contemporary art photography in Europe today.