How Magnum Photos Has Changed the Way We See Cities

The agency’s members turn photojournalism into art. Here are seven iconic shots that present famous cities in a different light.

How Magnum Photos Has Changed the Way We See Cities

Hundreds of varieties of cherry blossom trees bloom across Japan during sakura-doki.

Photo by Martin Parr

Magnum Photos has shaped the way we look at cities. Founded in 1947 by five wartime photographers—Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, David “Chim” Seymour, and William Vandivert—the photo agency represents photographers whose work lies at the intersection of reportage and fine art. Its members take a more poetic approach to photojournalism, their work distinguished by extraordinary compositions, cinematic capture of light, and painterly color. For more than 70 years, Magnum photographers have been creating images that invite viewers to see their world in a new way. We combed the Magnum archive to surface a series of images shot in cities by some of the collective’s most famous photographers and by members of the younger generation who are leading Magnum into the future.

Martin Parr
Tokyo, 2000 (above image)

Hundreds of varieties of cherry blossom trees bloom across Japan during sakura-doki. Viewing parties, called hana-mi, are held throughout the country, but not everything is as it seems. “This is artificial cherry blossom, which is all over the shops and streets during cherry blossom season,” says British photographer Martin Parr, who produced this series as a “counterpoint to the usual obsession with shooting real blossoms.” A year later, Parr released the limited-edition Cherry Blossom Time in Tokyo, a hand-bound, custom-designed book mounted with 20 original color photographs of faux blossoms shot in situ. Parr has published more than 80 books to date and served as president of Magnum Photos from 2014 to 2017.


Photo by Newsha Tavakolian

Newsha Tavakolian
Tehran, 2013 Born in 1981, this self-taught photojournalist began shooting for a women’s daily newspaper in Tehran when she was just 16. She was the youngest photographer to cover the 1999 student uprising in Iran, and by 2002, she was covering the war in Iraq, along with other regional conflicts. At the center of this image, taken in the Hejab Sport Complex, is 23-year-old Yasaman Karimi, a supporter of reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref. “The lighting and the expressions on the faces of this group of girls, who I had never met before, made it feel like a movie set,” recalls Tavakolian. Born and raised in Tehran, she has a love-hate relationship with the city. “For me, this is home—with all its complexity. My pictures can turn out with an abundance of happiness as well as an excruciating amount of pain.”


Photo by Gueorgui Pinkhassov

Gueorgui Pinkhassov
Beijing, 1993 In the early 1990s, the Russia-born, Paris-based photographer was commissioned by the New York Times Magazine to photograph China’s rising wave of avant-garde artists. “The places I visited just blew my mind,” says Pinkhassov. “The tourism industry wasn’t as developed as it is now, so when I wasn’t working on my assignment with the artists, I would wander the streets and explore a different world, with its habits, food, and traditions. Nowadays our lifestyles have become alike, [but] back then the difference in cultures was tremendous.” He was particularly taken by Beijing’s bicycle culture: “I liked the sound of bicycles chirping. Cars were still rare, and the city streets would flow into one big bicycle stream.” He also found the locals to be open and friendly. “I could take pictures right in front of anybody, and they pretended I did not exist,” says Pinkhassov, who has been a member of Magnum since 1988. More recently, he has embraced Instagram, amassing more than 88,000 followers. In fact, in April, he hosted a five-day mobile phone photography workshop in—where else?—Beijing.


Photo by David Alan Harvey

David Alan Harvey
Havana, 1998 As the story goes, this San Francisco–born, Virginia-raised photographer saved up money from his newspaper route to buy a used Leica camera. He was 11 years old. By age 23, he had moved in with an African American family in Norfolk and started documenting their day-to-day lives. The resulting images made up his first book, Tell It Like It Is, published in 1968. Harvey has since shot more than 40 photo essays for National Geographic, founded the influential photography magazine Burn, and published numerous books. In Cuba: Island at a Crossroad, he captured both the economic hardship and the resilience of the locals under Fidel Castro’s totalitarian rule. Speaking at the Annenberg Space for Photography in 2017, Harvey said, “Cuba, for me, wasn’t just a place to go because it was cool. Everybody’s gonna get a good picture in Cuba, which makes it even harder to actually get a really good picture, right?” Here, Harvey captured Havana’s storied Industriales baseball team practicing in the city’s 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano. Its visceral energy illustrates Harvey’s mantra: “Shoot what it feels like, not what it looks like.”


Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Paris, 1969 Magnum’s famed cofounder snapped this image at Hôtel National des Invalides, a veterans’ hospital and cultural complex in Paris’s seventh arrondissement, when he was working on a yearlong book project commissioned by Reader’s Digest. In 1970, the publication of Vive la France was accompanied by a photography exhibition at the Grand Palais, En France. The French-born Cartier-Bresson traveled far and wide throughout his career, photographing Gandhi just hours before his 1948 assassination, documenting political transitions in China and Spain, and capturing life inside the USSR after the start of the Cold War (the first Western photographer permitted to do so). In 2003, the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson launched in Paris, celebrated by a retrospective exhibition at the National Library of France. Cartier-Bresson passed away at his home in Provence in 2004, at the age of 95. Today, collections of his work can be found in Paris at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie and Musée Carnavalet.


Photo by Harry Gruyaert

Harry Gruyaert
Las Vegas, 1982 Contrasting color palettes and dramatic light are signatures of this Belgian photographer’s work. Gruyaert sought out Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas for “the absurdity of its Gréco-Romain architecture.” The photograph would later be included in his two-volume Magnum publication East/West, which paired dozens of Gruyaert’s splashy, color-saturated images of early-’80s Vegas and Los Angeles with more muted and austere photos taken in Moscow in 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Photo by Inge Morath

Inge Morath
New York City, 1957 A Llama in Times Square is one of the most iconic photographs ever taken in New York. According to John P. Jacob, writer, curator, and former director of Inge Morath’s estate, the Austrian-born photographer first published this image in a story about TV animals for LIFE magazine. Although the caption said that Linda the Llama was in a taxi on her way to a TV appearance, she was actually in the back of her trainer’s car, headed home from the studio. “Viewed alone, it appears to have been a perfect example of being in the right place at just the right moment,” Jacob wrote in the 2017 compendium Magnum Contact Sheets. “In fact, it was the result of considerable work and forethought. An appearance of spontaneity, masking the reality of careful planning, is one of the prime characteristics of Morath’s work as a photojournalist and shows the degree of comfort that she was able to establish with her subjects while working on their stories.” Morath was one of Magnum’s first female photographers, joining the agency in 1953 after working as a researcher for Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the years that followed, she traveled extensively throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and China, and even photographed Mao Zedong’s bedroom. Morath married the playwright Arthur Miller in 1962 and eventually settled down in New York and Connecticut. She continued shooting until two weeks before her death in 2002.

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Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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