Nadya Bair. The Decisive Network: Magnum Photos and the Postwar Image. Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press, 2020. 336 pp.
Review by Douglas R. Nickel
30 June 2021
The history of photography materialized as a field in the academy in the early 1970s, at the same time as another arrival: critical theory. The consequences of this synchronicity are noteworthy. First, if we treat the field as something bookended––as an episode within a larger sociology of knowledge production––we can observe how such belated academic photo history never had the opportunity to develop its own internal methods and questions, in the way that disciplines like art history and anthropology did in the early twentieth century. Almost all its questions were carried over from, and shared with, other fields and disciplines. Landing at that moment in the 1970s meant the most seemingly vital questions would derive their energy from semiotics, film studies, revival of the Frankfurt School, discourse analysis, and a dominant cultural critique informed by neo-Marxist ideas, moral philosophy, and social justice movements that focused on identity. Thus, photographic theory was largely theory developed elsewhere, imported and applied, which had the effect of making photography often appear an instance of something else, something larger (like postmodernism, postcolonialism, and patriarchy). This points up a second feature. Leftist thinking of that day was designed to be oppositional, to call out and work against entrenched power, including the conservativism of the academy; any photography studies derived from this thinking was therefore destined to be tendentious and explicitly political in its scope and goals. That remains the expectation today, even when the last few decades have demonstrated that any real opposition in the academy has long since been overcome and leftist thought firmly installed as the new orthodoxy. Perhaps photographic theory became stuck in the past––with its ritual invocations of Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, and Edward W. Said, and its ritual enunciations of right things to say about race or the gaze or the museum––because its institutional underpinnings and standards of evaluation have themselves failed to evolve very much.
This situation helps set Nadya Bair’s recent book The Decisive Network: Magnum Photos and the Postwar Image into methodological relief. Bair’s study is unabashedly revisionist: she takes a set of inherited myths about the Magnum photo agency and holds them up to the light for examination. Magnum was organized at the end of World War II by a small group of seasoned press photographers, a few of whom––Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and David Seymour––were already famous war correspondents. Other agencies existed at the time, and the picture magazines had their own photographers, but the innovation of Magnum––as all the histories recount––lay in the fact that its photographers were also its shareholders, which allowed them greater editorial control over what got shot, how it was published, and who got to be a member. With the end of the magazines and the rise of an art market for photography, Magnum’s own self-mythologizing about collectivity and ownership of creative control helped render its story as one of heroic expressivity, centered upon the volition of illustrious principals.
Bair wants to invert this. Appropriating Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, a concept that locates achievement out in the field and in the uniquely responsive sensibilities of the individual photographer, she proposes that in fact the best way to understand Magnum is as a network. What created a Magnum picture story was an entire system of activities and collaborators, including stringers, office-bound editors, archivists, secretaries, darkroom technicians, contacts in foreign countries, even the couriers who got exposed film onto planes and prints to clients. Standing back from the myth of the Magnum artist, Bair demonstrates how this was, before all else, a business. The needs of those commissioning the work and the tastes of the marketplace invariably constrained individual expression, and often a photographer did not see his or her handiwork until after it appeared on the magazine page, the product of a number of creative and commercial decisions made by other agents in the network. Practices are here emphasized over final results. The system Bair describes extends far beyond the agency itself, into a cultural and intellectual history of the postwar era that includes globalized journalism, tourism, the Cold War, and competing visions of how a new world order might be conveyed pictorially and through captions and copy, as in the human-interest story. We are reminded that Magnum’s humanism and concern for the lives of ordinary people originated in the service of American corporate capitalism, which makes any accounting for a liberal message that much more complicated, politically, and esthetically.
The specialist in postwar American media studies will encounter a great deal of new archival material here. For the field at large, the book will come as something like a breath of fresh air within the stagnant methodological atmosphere of photographic studies today: the way its network model gets applied explicitly is unprecedented in the literature. Yet Bair’s study wears its theory lightly: Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network theory is mentioned only in an early footnote. More proximate applications of the sociological perspective, such as that in Howard Becker’s Art Worlds, are of greater pertinence to her goals of demystifying art and seeing it as a kind of work. What makes this treatment seem like an intellectual adventure, though, is that its questions do not appear all settled in advance. While it is true that the early ANT model of the network results in a kind of social leveling––the full range of women professionals and obscure Magnum "girls" working behind the scenes is dignified, founding fathers are dethroned, and even the delivery boy here has a name––Bair’s politics remain of the lowercase variety (p. 27). What’s refreshing is how she steers us into genuinely complicated problems in the history of representation. What does it mean to discover that Magnum photographers, those paragons of concerned documentary, were all the while engaged in promotional work for Ford and Standard Oil and in the making of advertising photos for Pepsi and Mennen Baby Magic shampoo? Or that the photographers’ reputations and styles themselves became brands, monetized to abet Magnum’s business model, such that Cartier-Bresson’s brand involved denying he was even a photojournalist? Bair’s independent thinking in raising such problems and the innovative premise used to map them is just the kind of thing photo history needs more of.