Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, on TCM

Celebrated war photojournalist Robert Capa shared similar concerns with cartoonist Milt Caniff—stay with me on this one. Just as Caniff believed cartoonists should retain the rights and creative control for their comic strips (as he did with Steve Canyon), Capa argued photographers ought to retain their rights and negatives. To empower his colleagues, Capa founded the Magnum Photos cooperative agency to license and archive members’ work. Somewhat counterintuitively, Hollywood turned out to a significant source of employment for member-photographers. Sophie Bassaler documents their connection to movie-making glamor in Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, which airs early tomorrow morning (or late tonight) at a super-convenient time on TCM.

Much to Isabella Rosselini’s surprise, Robert Capa was her mother Ingrid Bergman’s great love—a fact she only learned from reading an advanced bound manuscript of her mother’s memoir. While he was romancing Bergman, Capa accepted a gig as a still photographer on the set of Hitchcock’s
Notorious. Soon Capa returned to battlefield assignments, but he forged an important connection for Magnum.

In fact, several Magnum artists developed close working relationships with legendary movie stars through such jobs, including with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. (Indeed,
Eye of Magnum serves as a nice compliment to the recent Reframed: Marilyn Monroe.) That trust led to access for more interesting candid shot than the sort of canned hyper-cheerful photos released by the studio publicity departments.

Bassaler and the current stewards of Magnum identify John Huston’s
The Misfits as the high-water mark for the cooperative’s Hollywood work. Magnum had exclusive access to the set, so they dispatched nine photographers, even including the soon-to-be-bored Henri Cartier Bresson. However, their Hollywood work dried out as the studio system weakened, but jobs documenting the Nouvelle Vague and other contemporary European auteurs took its place.

Eye of Magnum conveys this basic history of the agency, most of the rest of the film consists of the images their photographers shot, but that is what most TCM viewers will really be interested in anyway. There are some terrific shots of stars like Ava Gardener, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Montgomery Clift, the Beatles, Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, and of course Monroe. The film tries to build a contemporary session commissioned by the NYT Magazine into something significant, but it pales in comparison to those spectacular vintage images.

Eye of Magnum offers a rarely-seen perspective on the history of Hollywood’s golden age. Bassaler clearly had access to Magnum’s offices and archives, so she capitalized on both quite nicely. At an economical 54 minutes, the doc really does not have time for much in-depth analysis, but it shows us some iconic photos and introduces us to the Magnum artists that shot them. Recommended for fans of classic movies and great photographic portraiture, Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum airs early morning Thursday (2/24) on TCM.