Does being close to your subject equal great photographs? Or to put it another way, are weaker images a result of not being close enough? Robert Capa, one of the founding members of photographers’ cooperative Magnum Photos, seems to have believed so, given his famous comment expressing that sentiment. His maxim “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” has been etched into photographic history, and this year Capa’s words are the springboard for a print sale of photographs by Magnum members that interpret the theme of being close in myriad ways. For five days, starting June 5, signed and stamped prints by some of the world’s greatest photographers will be available to buy.
From historical photographs to contemporary images, the selection of more than 70 archival quality prints – each with a quote from the photographer – encompasses a range of works that in their own way present highly charged interpretations on an enduring theme. There may be no firm answer as to whether closeness equals better pictures, but if the prints in this selection are anything to go by, the photographers present a pretty compelling case. Here are five images that stood out to us, alongside comments from the photographers who took them.
1. Bruce Davidson, Subway, New York City, USA, 1980 (above)
A former freelance photographer for the famous Life magazine, Bruce Davidson became a full member of Magnum in 1958 and has been shooting for the collective ever since, chronicling the events of the Civil Rights Movement among other major bodies of work. “In 1980 the New York subway system was deplorable – unsafe, scribbled all over with graffiti; some of it very interesting. I took it upon myself to explore the 500 stations in the subway complex. I started with black and white then shifted over to colour because I found a lot of meaning in colour in the subway. So I would go each day and night to a different place in the subway system to photograph people, making contact in many cases. I began to have a kind of tunnel vision, a compulsion to explore colour and form and life in this very rich and treacherous environment.”
2. Martin Parr , Mar del Plata, Argentina, 2014
Since the mid-1970s, Martin Parr, Magnum’s current president, has been documenting contemporary life, warts and all. Often humorous and sardonic, his images probe deep into ordinary lives. Through Parr’s curious lens, unremarkable moments become strangely noteworthy. “I love Mar del Plata. It is safe to say the Argentines do as well. With 17km of beaches and 2000 hotels, it is by far the biggest resort in the country – and it may even be classed as the biggest resort in the world. The real sun lovers, generally over 50, are out in the hot January sun by 9am; this was a great time to shoot and to come up close on some of the real characters.”
3. Matt Black, El Paso, Texas, USA, 2015
Matt Black, who became a Magnum nominee in 2015, uses his work to explore the connections between migration, poverty, agriculture, and the environment in rural California and southern Mexico. For his epic undertaking, The Geography of Poverty, he photographed across 44 states in the USA and in more than 100 communities. “You can be right next to something and still not see it. Or you can be across the street and connect. I think this is also what Capa meant: don’t just be there, feel it. Dive in.”
4. Alex Webb, Cotton Candy, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1990
Known for his incredibly vibrant and colourful images, Alex Webb’s career has taken him to countries including Mexico and Haiti among many other places. With their roots in a street photography style, Webb’s photographic compositions are multi-layered and complex yet always highly evocative and eye-catching. “I’ve been photographing in the streets of Mexico for some 40 years, and there’s one particular city that I feel especially close to – the airy, vibrant, lyrical Oaxaca. Each time I photograph this mysterious southern city I discover another hidden street, another obscure festival, and, surprisingly, something more about myself. Perhaps Robert Capa’s advice about getting closer refers to the heart as well as to the feet.”
5. Alessandra Sanguinetti , Cecilia, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1995
Born in New York, Alessandra Sanguinetti spent her formative years in Argentina. Her early work touches on the romance and cruel realities of life in the countryside, and includes the series On the Sixth Day about the relationship between humans and animals, and The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams, featuring two cousins who she photographed over many years. “Back in 1993 I lived on a third floor, in an old building on a narrow street in downtown Buenos Aires. My bedroom had a little balcony that faced straight on to another third floor balcony of the building across the street. Every day I’d see three young sisters hanging the washing out to dry on the railing, sweeping, playing or throwing the keys down to someone waiting to get in. I started taking pictures of them when they came out, and we would wave at each other. The narrowness of the street between us made it seem like they were closer than they were. Eventually, I crossed the street and rang a few doorbells (there were ten third floor apartments) and to everyone that replied I’d say I was the girl from in front that took pictures, until I rang the right bell and they let me in. This started a years-long relationship with them and their Mom. We’d call each other from balcony to balcony and once in a while, we’d defy the gap and play ball over the traffic below.”
Magnum’s Closer square print sale runs until June 9, 2017 at 6PM EST.