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Picto and Magnum Photos: 70 Years of Correspondences

Picto and Magnum Photos: 70 Years of Correspondences

A new exhibition of photos at Richard Taittinger Gallery in New York sheds light on the close relationship between the French printing lab PICTO and the famous agency Magnum Photos. Historian Carole Naggar tells us the story of the men and women who maintained this collaboration over the years.

Sicily region. Town of Palermo. Italy. 1963. © Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

There is an official date and place for the beginnings of Magnum Photos: April 1947 at the penthouse of MoMA in New York. The cooperative’s incorporation is May 22, 1947. The lab Pictorial Service opened at 17 rue de la Comète, in Paris’s 7th arrondissement, on January 12, 1950. However, their common story had begun many years before that. The time, 1950, and the place, Paris, is the official starting point; but to reach this point, many threads from near and far got woven together, forming the strong fabric of an extended relationship and entwined histories.

The Backstory

That common story between Magnum Photos and PICTO started in Germany, and further East. It is linked to the exile of a number of young left-wing and/or Jewish professionals to Paris because of the rise of Nazism. In 1923 Dawid Szymin (also known as ‘Chim’), a Polish Jewish young man from Warsaw arrived in Leipzig to study printing technologies and the art of the book at the prestigious Staaliche Akademie für Graphische Künste and Buchgewerbe. He was to inherit his father’s Warsaw publishing house, Central, but because of the rise of Nazism and antisemitism in Poland, his family support was cut off, and he became a photojournalist in Paris, soon meeting two of the future Magnum Photos founders, Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as Pierre Gasmann, founder of Pictorial Service, soon dubbed PICTO.

Tereszka, a child in a residence for disturbed children. She drew a picture of “home” on the blackboard. Poland, 1948. © David Seymour/Magnum Photos

In 1937, Chim’s job as a “Special Correspondent” to Spain for Regards magazine allowed him to recommend his friends Robert Capa and Gerda Taro as war correspondents, and they joined him in Spain. Capa and Chim’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War may be the first examples of Pierre Gassmann’s collaboration with future founding members of Magnum Photos. Historian Irme Schaber writes: “In Paris, Taci Czigany and Cziki Weiss, whom Capa had hired for his studio on rue Froidevaux, were developing the films delivered.” 

Entwined Stories

With a mounting list of clients and a growing amount of work, rue de la Comète’s kitchen became inadequate. Gassmann first moved to an apartment on avenue de la Motte-Picquet. Henri Cartier-Bresson remembered that time in an 1997 interview, acknowledging the important role of printers and the photographers’ collaboration: “We each have somebody working for us in the dark, while we are going outside being glorious, and I think it’s a community. Pierre Gassmann, a friend from before the war who was doing it for us printed in his bathroom and washed our prints in his bidet. Now [in 1997] he has created a huge enterprise, but then he had a little lab in an ex-stable of Henri IV, the King, not far from the Invalides, and I remember the yard had the pavement from those days, and the models were coming with their high heels being photographed there, and there was a fruit woman with a pushcart and another one cleaning mattresses in that yard.”

On January 12, 1950, with the help of his wife Françoise ‘France’, Gassmann created Pictorial Service. PICTO statutes of 1950 list Gassmann and his wife as two-thirds owners and Taci Csigany, the Hungarian printer and Capa’s friend from Budapest and Berlin, as a one third owner. A year later, Czigany sold his shares to the others and moved on, making Pierre and France Gassman full owners. PICTO would remain a family business, a description that also fits the way many of the printers think of their job.

New York, 1957 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

The original setup was modest: six enlargers arranged around a long tank tray. Gassmann and Czigany’s first clients were the founding members of Magnum Photos – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Chim and George Rodger. Rodger was a fine printer, but his constant travels in faraway places, especially Africa, precluded developing and printing and he sent his undeveloped batches of film to Magnum’s Paris office with copious captions… of images he had not yet seen. Other early clients were friends such as William KleinWilly RonisRobert Doisneau and Edouard Boubat.

Numerous Exhibitions

When Edward Steichen, the director of MoMA’s Photo Department and his assistant, Wayne Miller (who would later on become a Magnum Photos member) came to Paris to choose photos for the massive exhibition Family of Man (January 24 – May 8, 1955), which would group 553 images by 273 photographers from 68 countries, tour the world and be seen by millions, Magnum Photos sent them directly to PICTO: it would be easier, they thought, for the curators to make their choice at the lab. Steichen and Miller chose work by several Magnum Photos photographers, from the first and second generation of members: Eve Arnold, Robert Capa, George Rodger, Werner Bischof, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Burt Glinn, Ernst Haas, Jean Marquis, and W. Eugene Smith, who was briefly a member.

In the following decades, Magnum Photos and PICTO continued to work in collaboration. Pierre Gassmann’s life was for many years that of a business manager who saw his business prosper, follow the evolution of techniques, turn to color, as PICTO grew together with the rapidly developing fields of press, fashion and advertising photography. Photographer Jean-Pierre Favreau recalls: “It was the golden age of PICTO, working daily for fifteen to twenty Magnum Photos and other black and white practitioners, without counting the night work. We worked like crazy. Often Mr. Gassmann, after periods of great activity, especially the fashion shows which lasted a week, would take us all out to dinner at La Rotonde or La Coupole. Those were fun times.”

Gypsies. Zehra, Czechoslovakia. 1967. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Magnum Photos and PICTO’s history lines were moving on parallel lines, the printer’s savoir-faire slowly became a profession instead of a craft; and then attained an art status, as several PICTO printers became renown and sought by photographers who established a privileged relationship with one or several of them.

When Henri Cartier-Bresson stopped printing himself, he used PICTO exclusively. In the 1950s his prints were often made by Georges Colon, then by Pierre Gassmann and Georges Fèvre, who was in charge of either printing or controlling prints made by a number of printers until he retired in 1994. Gassmann was in charge of the prints used for the book Images à la sauvette (The Decisive Moment, 1952), one of the first photographic books kto be successful in the publishing market.

PICTO produced numerous Magnum group shows, but also, with photography becoming an important part of the art market, they have been organizing more and more solo exhibitions, with photographers like Antoine d’AgataRaymond DepardonJosef Koudelka and many others: special relationships of friendship and trust were struck between specific photographers and individual printers. “There are two printers at PICTO with whom I have had an important relationship,” Koudelka recently said. “Georges Fèvre, who always did beautiful prints, and Voja Mitrovic. Pierre Gassmann told me ‘there is a young printer from Yugoslavia with whom you must work: it was Voja’.” 

© Antoine D’Agata/Magnum Photos

Magnum Photos’ Gilles Peress in a conversation with Raymond Depardon offered an interpretation of this evolution of the print through history that could be applied to many other Magnum photographers: “When you look at Henri’s prints all through the years, you see an evolution between these “blond” prints of the fifties and the prints as of the years 1968-1970. As of that period, the prints have higher contrasts with another interpretation of light, and the question is, to know whether he [Henri-Cartier Bresson] is the one responsible, or if the times are. I think that in the fifties there was an interpretation of light and rendition that fulfilled another function, that of creating a certain harmony, a peace after the war, but that with the mounting of [societal] contradictions in the sixties, the tonality of prints not only of Henri’s, but of others too- undergoes a radical change.”

A Human Adventure

The later 1970s and early to mid 1980s saw Raymond Depardon, Martine FranckJean GaumyRichard KalvarSusan MeiselasPatrick Zachmann among others, become Magnum members. Martine Franck became known for her coverage of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil and her empathetic, strongly constructed images of children and older people. Raymond Depardon produced a photographic diary for the daily Libération : one photograph a day. Every day he would choose a picture, print it at the New York Times lab, and send it off to France with a small written note, like a postcard. Correspondance New-yorkaise was published by the French newspaper from July 2 to August 7, 1981. In 2017 Depardon came back to New York, this time photographing with a large format camera and in color scenes of everyday life. PICTO, who had just opened in New York City, printed the photographs for the exhibition at the French Institute.

© Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos

Carolyn Drake, another Magnum Photos member who often expresses herself with self-published photobooks, has worked on California fires after the news trucks had departed and the smoke had cleared. In the scorched landscapes of California timidly coming back to life, or the burnt, twisted metal objects salvaged from the fires she knows how to find a melancholy beauty. Alessandra Sanguinetti works in depth on subjects close to her heart, and often linked to her Argentinian childhood. In her fable-like series On the Sixth Day, she captures the life and death of animals on the farm with deep empathy and a gift for striking composition. She portrays the animals as conscious beings experiencing a wide range of emotions, from playfulness to ferocity, tenderness to fear. With each other’s help, both Magnum Photos as a cooperative photo agency and PICTO as a lab have profoundly changed what used to be crafts into the real professions of photographer and printer.

Printing was not, originally, the job of professionals: photographers either printed their own negatives or let the labs at magazines print them without control on their part. Before PICTO, photography was a craft rather than a profession, considered a minor aspect of image-making. Similarly, only with Magnum Photos did photographers become authors, retaining ownership of their copyrights and a measure of control over their images’ integrity, their captioning and their use in publications.

Courtyard of the Meiji shrine. Tokyo, Japan. 1951. © Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos

Julien Alamo, head of PICTO New York, and Philippe Gassman, President of PICTO Paris, are of the opinion that the printer’s function has remained essentially the same. Says Alamo: “Pierre Gassmann spoke of the printer as a chameleon, capable of adapting his work to all photographers. In his day the print was chemistry and cooking. Today, all this work is done upstream on the screen with Photoshop. If necessary, we can go back and make adjustments. The logic, the principle, are the same, but the tools are different.”

Philippe Gassmann: “In practice, nothing has actually changed! The printers, whatever tools they use, continue to interpret the image with sensitivity, professionalism and complicity. It is great to note that by remaining faithful to this original position, despite the extraordinary technical changes in the sector, we manage to perpetuate a human adventure and a dynamic business. As long as we position ourselves where the photographer needs it, PICTO will always have a meaning and a future.”

Cover: Farewell ceremony for the International Brigades. Les Masies, Spain. October 25th, 1938. © Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

Carole Naggar
Paris-New York,
December 2019-March 2020

This text is excerpted from the catalogue of the exhibition.
Carole Naggar has been a photography historian, university professor, and independent curator since 1971. She lives and works in New York and Paris.

70 Years of Correspondences: Magnum Photos and Picto 1950-2020
October 29 – December 20, 2020
Taittinger Gallery
154 Ludlow Street
New York, NY 10002

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