Many photography aficionados can name three of the original members of Magnum – Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson and Chim. Most can’t tell you who the fourth member was. This was of course George Rodgers.
Coming from a middle class background, George never had the support of his father and was left to fend for himself. In his 20’s he joined the merchant marines and sailed around the world twice and lived in America for several years before he decided that he should be a photojournalist. This was a new occupation in the 1920’s and 30’s made possible by the advent of the small 35 mm Leica camera. Part of Rodgers’ decision to become one was based on the horrible illustrations that editors would pair with his writing. He decided he could do a much better job illustrating with his own photography.
Rodgers was eventually able to sign on to the fledgling picture magazine, LIFE. He was assigned WWII coverage literally in all theaters of war. His first four- week assignment turned into an 18-month mega tour of the Middle East, China, Burma and India. He returned to NYC where he was hailed as a hero which he did not feel he deserved. He did however experience PTSD with headaches, nightmares and other manifestations.
Both Capa and Rodgers were tired of having no control over their photos and stories and when they met in Italy their thoughts over a new agency to serve the photojournalist congealed.
“Later in March, Capa went to New York. As he sat in a hotel bar he met the writer John Steinbeck—equally disgruntled—sitting on the next stool. They became fast friends, and Capa persuaded Steinbeck to take him along on a trip to the Soviet Union that the writer was envisioning as the first of its kind since the war. Steinbeck’s idea was to write a first-hand account of the Soviet people, without getting involved in politics. With Capa’s help and contacts, Steinbeck sold the concept to the New York Herald Tribune. But at the end of April, visas obtained and bags packed, Steinbeck fell and broke a kneecap. The trip had to be postponed for six weeks. So it could be said that it was Steinbeck’s kneecap that was the impetus for starting Magnum Photos. Capa was too restless and frustrated to remain idle, and decided the time was ripe to organize the agency he had been talking about since before the war. If he was to remain a photographer, it would be on his own terms.” from “George Rodger: An Adventure in Photography, 1908-1995” by Carole Naggar
So it was that Magnum was formed- the active principles being Capa, Cartier Bresson, Chim ( David Seymour) and Rodgers. For a short time photojournalist William Vandivert was part of the mix along with Maria Eisner. The initiation fee was $500 and the agency held back 40% with the rest and residuals going to the photographer. Each of the principles had a main geographical interest with Chim’s being the Middle East, Rodgers Africa, Cartier Bresson’s was Europe with Capa’s being a roving photographer.
In Carole Naggar’s wonderful book about Rodgers she posits that Chim ( David Seymour) was the least recognized founding member of Magnum. Look for an article on Chim soon.
“Nevertherless, Cartier-Bresson, for one, firmly maintains that Magnum could not have been born without Chim: “The one thanks to whom Magnum was founded was not Capa, not me, not Rodger, but Chim—he is the one who did the bylaws, who gave Magnum its structure “- Carole Naggar
An interesting story in Ms. Naggar’s book told how Leni Reifenstahl (Nazi photographer and apologist) had offered Rodgers $1000 to introduce her to the Nuba tribe. After having photographed the Bergen Belsen concentration camp there was no way he wanted to help her. He politely told her to “bugger off.” One more reason to vilify Reifenstahl.
Rodgers generally had a dislike for the famous or the celebrity – his first meeting with Ernest Hemingway was just one such instance. He found Hemingway a drunk, boastful and full of it – the complete opposite of himself.
1954 was a disastrous year for Magnum – Robert Capa was killed stepping on a landmine in Indochina and Werner Bischof was killed in a car accident. Chim had to step up to manage things and it wasn’t easy as at the same time more photographers were added to the Magnum roster.