“Paris Is Having an Artistic Revival; It’s Important for Magnum to Be Here”

The American curator Samantha McCoy heads up the new Magnum Gallery in Paris, which opened on October 22 to coincide with the birthday of the storied photo agency’s founder, Robert Capa. She sat down with us to discuss her passion for art and photography.
The new Magnum Gallery, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. © Magnum Photos

France-Amérique: Can you explain your family’s connection to art, and how it shaped your own desire and position in the gallery world?

Samantha McCoy: My great-uncle is Jackson Pollock. He had four brothers, three of them were artists. My grandfather’s eldest brother, Charles Pollock, moved to Paris later on in his career. Through them, I saw art as a way to connect with society, as their work was intellectual yet in tune with everything happening around them from the 1930s to the 1970s. My father opened his own gallery in New York, the Jason McCoy Gallery, a few years before I was born. I grew up in this environment and I have fond memories of being there as a kid. My father always struggled with the relationship between the artists and art dealers, the commercialization of art in a brutish way. I think I moved past this struggle: Artists have to live. If, as a curator, I can help facilitate their work and bring it to the public, it’s even better.

Is this the first time you have managed a gallery?

Yes! This is a new venue and we’re championing this space to reposition ourselves in the art world. I spent several years working at my father’s gallery. At the time, it was located in the Fuller Building on 57th Street where there were many photography galleries, including Howard Greenberg’s. When I started curating, I tried to bring photography into the dialogue. After ten years there, I was ready to move on and I started working for Magnum in New York. I was doing art direction on the digital side of things, but I missed the gallery circuit. Everything fell into place when I moved back to Paris and took over the Magnum Gallery here. 

Bruce Davidson, East 100th Street, New York City, USA, 1966. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Working with Magnum photographers sounds like a curator’s dream…

Completely! You have so much material at your disposal. We have access to all these unique images, and all the sub-stories within the story of the agency that I can really play around with. The gallery should be a space to work with clients and institutions. I think it is important to have somewhere for people to engage with the art. It should not be siloed off in any way. Photography is such an accessible medium; it’s important to share it with as many people as you can.

What makes Magnum so special?

Magnum is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, cooperatives – it was created in 1947. What makes it so special is its history. Whenever you see a famous photograph from over the last 75 years, there’s a good chance a Magnum photographer took it! Magnum has been so ingrained in the history of photography in many ways, and now encapsulates such a range of photographers. There is a misconception in Magnum being strictly associated with photojournalism. This was true in the early days, but we now represent a huge range of photographic perspectives and styles. The gallery is therefore a way for us to showcase that diversity. It is this history and diversity that enable us to observe the history of photography within the agency.

Given the crisis in photojournalism today, what is the next step for an agency like Magnum?

That’s what makes our gallery so interesting! The market is not the same as it was when Magnum was founded in the 1940s. Galleries and photography did not exist on the art market, whereas they now make up an interesting and powerful world. It’s very exciting to be in this position where we can put forward another important aspect of photography. We may be a small division of the agency, but we’re in a great position to further develop the photography market and help the cooperative continue to grow.

Khalik Allah, Harlem, New York City, USA, 2018. © Khalik Allah/Magnum Photos

You opened on October 22 with the double exhibition New York, with works from Bruce Davidson and Khalik Allah. How did this project come into place?

Bruce Davidson is an iconic figure of photography. We’re showing two of his series – “Subway,” in color, and “East 110th Street,” in black and white – along with a series by Khalik Allah, who joined Magnum last year. Conjointly, they have been exploring New York, and Harlem in particular, for more than thirty years. They put the individual at the center of their images and also beautify places and people that were normally considered sensitive.

How important is it for Magnum to have an exhibition space in France?

Photography was born in France but the first photography exhibition was held in the United States. There is a dialogue between the two countries! Paris is having an artistic revival, with many galleries and institutions opening new spaces. This is the opportune moment for us to be part of this revival and this dialogue. It’s important for us to be here as a pillar of photography and an important voice of this medium.

Magnum Gallery

68 Rue Léon Frot
75011 Paris