Magnum is one of the world’s leading photo agencies, representing some of the greatest photographers in history. The artists in its portfolio are in the top 33.46% highest growth artists worldwide in each of their respective career stages, according to data from Wondeur. Represented artists include Alec Soth, who is in the top 4.67% of artists most collected by the top 100 museums in the world, Dennis Stock, who ranks in the top 2.46% of artists with the highest institutional recognition worldwide, and emerging creatives like Carolyn Drake, who is in the top 0.057% emerging artists with the fastest career growth worldwide. And then of course there’s one of Magnum’s founders, the trailblazing Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is in the top 0.14% artists most collected among the top 100 museums worldwide.
And Magnum’s scope is widening. Alongside Magnum Gallery in London - a commercial space dedicated to exhibitions by artists from their stable of photographers - they recently also announced a new gallery in Paris, opening later this year. This is their first exhibition space in the city for 10 years. Samantha McCoy is the director of Magnum, Paris, and she is full of knowledge and passion about the medium she represents. This interview allows her to expound on her love for photography, and tell us about her life in art.
First of all, tell me how you got interested in art?
I was immersed in the art world from a young age. My father has a gallery in New York City, Jason McCoy Gallery, that specializes in modern art. Some of my earliest memories are of spending my Saturdays at the gallery, playing with the type-writer. At the time, my mother was working at the gallery as well. My parents would always bring us to openings, dinners. There was never really a boundary between the gallery, the ‘art world,’ and home, they always felt connected. My great-uncle was Jackson Pollock and, in fact, he was one of five brothers, three of whom were artists. All five brothers were very interested in, and engaged with, the pulse of America in the first half of the 20th century. As such, I learned from a young age that art was an integral branch of history, culture and identity, and that I wanted it to be an integral part of my life.
And what was your art journey from there, how did you end up at Magnum?
I worked for Jason McCoy Gallery for 4 years. The gallery is located in the Fuller Building, in Manhattan, which is also home to several fantastic photography galleries. Over time, my curiosity in photography as a medium grew, and I began to integrate photographic works into exhibitions I curated, alongside modern masters. When I heard about an opportunity to work at Magnum I was thrilled. There seemed to me no better organization to be a part of in order to immerse myself in the field. I also loved the idea of the cooperative. The nature of working for Magnum entails working directly for the 100+ affiliated photographers and estates without a middle man.
What do you do at Magnum?
I’m Gallery Director at Magnum, Paris, and my role is to present exhibitions and to work with collectors to place art works in the best collections around the world. I work closely with my colleague and gallery director in London, Nicolas Smirnoff, to curate art fairs and special projects. Together, we work with and for our photographers to ensure their work is properly represented. There’s not one day similar to the other.
It’s an honour to represent such a prestigious and historical brand and animate these remarkable archives in new creative ways. What’s more, I love working with a range of clients, from first-time buyers to museums. Photography is a relatively accessible medium in the art world.
We closed our old space in Paris with two exhibitions: Harry Gruyaert: Morocco and Josef Koudelka: Ruins.
Gruyaert was introduced to the power of colour when he first moved to Paris in the 1960s, and subsequently during a trip to New York in 1968 where he encountered the works of Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, but his revelation that colour photography was his preferred medium came from his very first trip to Morocco in 1969. This exhibition presented in Paris celebrated this epiphany and spotlighted one of his most significant and poetic bodies of works, spanning 40 years of the artist’s work. During his many trips to Morocco, Gruyaert developed a highly personal photographic language, revealing the essence of the colours, landscapes and people he saw and met. Indeed, he has become one of the most significant names working in color.
Josef Koudelka is one of the most important photographer’s of his generation and it was a treat to be able to exhibit an extract of his exhibition Ruins which opened at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in the fall of 2019. For more than 20 years, Koudelka traveled through the Mediterranean — visiting places such as Italy, Libya, Greece, and Syria — to photograph more than two hundred archaeological sites. Stark and mesmerizing panoramic photographs take the viewer to Delphi, Pompeii, Petra, Carthage, and other ancient locations, including sites now greatly altered or destroyed due to recent conflict. Ruins is a monument of architectural and cultural history, as well as civilizations long past.
Magnum is opening its first official Paris gallery in more than 10 years, what's the thinking behind the move?
Our most recent Magnum space in the 18th arrondissement was mostly a working environment for the other departments at Magnum and for our photographers. The latter would come and have meetings, leave negatives or prints, have coffees with other photographers and work. (This still happens in our private office upstairs.)
It was not really geared to the public, nor institutions, and the space was not evident to see works. The gallery director before me did a fantastic job of cementing an impressive programme nonetheless. When I took over, I couldn’t help but wonder what we could do if we had a more accessible space?
The gallery we’re opening in the 11th arrondissement is not far from where most art galleries and exhibition spaces are located. We’re excited to be closer to the pulsing cultural heart of Paris. The Pompidou Centre and Picasso Museum aren’t far.
The gallery will be more open and welcoming. It will feature a proper exhibition programme and offer upscale presentations. We also have a private sales room on the ground floor to showcase special vintage pieces. Magnum is really at the crossroads of photojournalism and art and it’s now time to push the artistic side of the institution. The new Paris space will uniquely combine museum-quality commercial presentations, and work hand in hand with our new online programme of exhibitions. We want to respond to art and culture enthusiasts at every level. It’s an exciting new chapter for Magnum.
Lots of galleries have closed over the past 18 months, but Magnum is expanding - is it a risky move in the current climate?
This is true but we’ve also seen a slew of important international galleries opening spaces in Paris recently. The post-COVID era will allow for new creative ways and we already see very innovative initiatives.
This space is both a means and an end for the fresh vision we have for the Magnum gallery strategy. The expansion encompasses both digital and physical programming and that’s also fairly new. When COVID-19 started, the art world had to learn and switch exhibitions online. The situation is fairly different now and the return to physicality is crucial. We feel collectors’ and the general public’s appetite to come and see exhibitions, engage with our programme and discuss with us. The art world is a very social environment too. Our physical gallery will allow all these things.
How would someone go about starting a photography collection? Where do you begin?
We encourage collectors to focus on their passions above all. It’s so much more rewarding to lead with feelings toward artwork rather than with a financial agenda. We often tell collectors to acquire fine prints because they want to enjoy them every day on their walls or share them with their friends. Of course it also helps that these pieces are investments. Photography is an accessible medium and Magnum offers a wide array of work from experimental contemporary prints to classical vintage and lifetime treasures. There’s truly something for everyone.
Some collectors start conversations around themes they love, countries they’ve visited or their preference for black and white over colours. For us, it’s important to guide everyone through their choices and support them with answers on editions, notable collections in museums, quality, vintage versus modern prints, as well as the significance of a photographer’s oeuvre within an art historical context. It’s a journey with collectors and art lovers that is built over time.
What's unique about collecting photography? Are there certain conservation techniques you have to be aware of?
Photography has become a tool that almost everyone has access to everyday. This is not the same as sculpture, or painting. But while anyone can take a picture, and there are many interesting photographs taken by amateurs, it remains an artform just like any other. The more you look and learn, the more you appreciate. There are aspects of collecting photography that are unique to the medium including the film, printing process, paper, edition structure, age of print.
Always be careful not to store photographs in direct sunlight and be careful that a print, if unframed, is not stored in variant temperatures. This is especially important for older silver gelatin prints. Ideally, pieces should be framed with museum quality anti-UV plexi or glass for conservation purposes.
Do you yourself collect art, do you have a favourite piece?
Yes! Though I do not have a favorite piece, it fluctuates. I feel very attached to each piece I’ve acquired. The first photograph I acquired from Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco was made by an unknown photographer: it pictures a bomb being dropped over a city in Italy in WWII. It is incredibly jarring and reminds me of the fragility of life. At the moment I am enamored by a Raymond Depardon artwork from within the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1981 that I acquired from our gallery last year. It’s part of a fantastic series Depardon made called New York Correspondence, and reminds me of home (not to mention Depardon’s incredible aesthetic).
How do you think photography is viewed in the wider art context?
The market for photography has grown increasingly over the past 50 years and I believe we will consider to see it do so. One has only to look at the auctions for proof!
What are your hopes for the coming year, post-pandemic?
I am very excited for the opening of our gallery in October. We will be opening with an exhibit by Bruce Davidson and Magnum nominee Khalik Allah. The exhibition will showcase two views of New York and span 50 years of photography. As such, it will reflect the richness of Magnum: both its history and future.
I’m also excited about our 75th anniversary which is around the corner (2022). Magnum has never followed trends and photographers mainly respond to and interpret the world we live in, as witnesses to the world’s events and changes. Their views on the COVID era will be interesting to revisit in the future.
We’re at an exciting moment within Magnum’s history – thanks partly to our new gallery and presence within the art world – which attracts younger collectors, new talent, and opens opportunities in new territories.
It feels like anything is possible. Paris is certainly booming at the moment with the opening of new art foundations and galleries. I hope to see our gallery become a staple in what many consider to be the photography capital of the world.
Interviewed by: Eddy Frankel, author of ARTE Generali