Robert Capa’s renowned photo of a soldier being shot and falling backwards in the Spanish Civil War; the unforgettable portrait of Che Guevara by René Burri; Raymond Depardon’s large-scale images of New York; the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral captured by Parisian photographer Patrick Zachmann. These and some 120 other prints adorn the white walls of the gallery in a chronological frieze stretching from the 1930s to the modern day.
The exhibition is entitled 70 Years of Correspondences: Magnum Photos and Picto 1950-2020, but the parallel history of the agency and the photo lab began almost 100 years ago during the interwar period in Paris. At the Brasserie du Dôme and in the cafés around Montparnasse, a group of humanist photographers began to form. Some were born just outside Paris, while others had fled Hungary and Poland. They went by the names of Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Brassaï, Robert Capa, David Seymour, and Pierre Gassmann.
“They all worked as both photographers and printers at the time,” says Julien Alamo, vice-president of Picto New York. “Cartier-Bresson was an excellent photographer and Gassmann was an excellent printer.” Having studied optics and chemistry in Berlin, the young man converted the bathroom in his Parisian apartment into a dark room and washed his prints in the bidet. In 1937, he developed the Spanish photos taken by Capa and Seymour, marking the first collaboration between the future founder of Picto and the future founders of Magnum.
The Beginning of a Great Adventure
After the war, Gassmann abandoned his job as a photographer to become the official printer at the Magnum Photos agency, founded in New York City on May 22, 1947. He printed the images of Cartier-Bresson’s first trip to China and Seymour’s Children of Europe, a series on child refugees for Unesco. Several of these photos are displayed in the exhibition. The printer also worked with the United Nations, NATO, MoMA, and U.S. magazines Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and founded the photo lab Pictorial Service – soon known as Picto – at 17 Rue de la Comète in the 7th arrondissement of Paris on January 12, 1950.
The company initially owned six enlargers before later developing its business to include large-scale digital printing, technical retouching, and online services for brands and private individuals. It then opened a lab in Manhattan in 2015. Philippe Gassmann took over the company from his grandfather and the collaboration with Magnum continued. This later chapter is embodied in the images by Californian photographer Carolyn Drake, New York photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti, and Singaporean photographer Sim Chi Yin, featured in the final section of the exhibition entitled “Tomorrow.” “The things they used to do with feathers and masks in a dark room can now be achieved with Photoshop,” says Julien Alamo. “But the complicity between photographers and printers remains the same.”
Photographers borrow a piece of reality on a strip of negative film; printers work in the dark, in every sense of the term, to materialize this vision onto a sheet of photographic paper. This symbiotic relationship is admirably described in a letter sent by Cartier-Bresson to the founder of Picto in 1999, featured in the exhibition. “Pierre Gassmann is a great entomologist who has fixed and highlighted what we photographers have caught in our butterfly nets.”
70 Years of Correspondences: Magnum Photos and Picto 1950-2020
From October 29 through December 20, 2020
Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York