Magnum Photographic Group Gael Elton Mayo Apollo Magazine BB Archive

magnum photographic group gael elton mayo bookblast archive

Gael Elton Mayo (1921-92) was writer-researcher for the Magnum Photographic Group, Paris, 1950-56, working with Robert Capa, David Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She wrote Generation X (England) with Cartier-Bresson, later changed to Youth of the World. This article commissioned by Apollo Magazine was first published in 1989.

The Magnum Photographic Group Remembered by a Friend and Colleague, Gael Elton Mayo

The Magnum Photographic Group, the only photographic agency of its kind, was at its height in 1950. The name Capa still stirs some of the young, though they may not know why — but it has left an aura. The original photographers have retired or died and the world has changed from the time when people did not watch television, hardly anyone owned a set, and magazine photos were the only way of seeing life, which in Capa’s case meant showing up war; to witness world events and bring them back alive—a pictorial service. The visual images could be seen in Picture Post, Match, Epoca, Vu, Holiday Magazine . . .

Founders of The Magnum Photographic Group

It was founded in 1948 by four photographers: Robert Capa, David Seymour (known always as Chim), George Rodger and Henri Cartier-Bresson, subsequently joined by four others; but the true inventor who conceived what was almost a philosophy was Capa. The headquarters were in Paris in an office run by Margot Shore. It was owned and operated by the photographers themselves. Cartier-Bresson was the only Frenchman, with Werner Bischof, Carl Perutz, Ernst Haas, George Rodger, Fenner Jacobs and Chim. Capa was the catalyst, the unofficial boss; he had ideas that covered the whole world, he organized the assignments, the group became like a brotherhood, with Capa encouraging, helping, sometimes even clothing, and all the time appearing to be merely a wild, good-time, hard-drinking man. Ernst Haas said of him, “He was the only master I ever respected.”

I worked as writer and researcher with Chim, Cartier-Bresson and Capa, but when any of the others appeared in the office or in the café downstairs at St Philippe du Roule there was a quality of belonging to the same family. In whichever country we might meet we would automatically sit or dine together. There was no unemployment pay for us as we were freelance: if the time between jobs was long and someone was broke, Capa gave them money: he did not lend, he gave; he did not want it back. Perhaps because it was a new venture, or perhaps because the war was still fairly recent, there was always a feeling; of excitement. Capa spent lavishly and believed that life was for living, though as his brother Cornell said of him, “He was born without money and died the same way.”

André Friedmann a.k.a. Capa

To write about Magnum is to write about Capa, because he was Magnum. So to start at the beginning: he was born André Friedmann in Budapest, son of a Jewish tailor; he escaped a political skirmish when as a student he was wanted for arrest and possible execution and got away to Berlin, then later to Paris. Since in Berlin he had been a photographic assistant, he owned a camera and at the times when it was not in the pawnshop, he pretended to be employed by a rich American called Robert Capa whose photographs he sold. He was caught out by Lucien Vogel of Vu magazine who happened one day to be in the crowd when these photos were being taken. He sent for “that ridiculous boy in the dirty leather jacket” to come to his office. Vogel sent him to Spain. The famous civil war photograph of the Republican dying was taken by a fluke — Capa was with the volunteers when they rushed towards the machine guns. Standing under a bank he held his camera above his head and pressed the button without looking — the result was published all over the world and after this Robert Capa was born; he became famous overnight.

Capa’s ‘The Falling Soldier’

(For some reason this photograph is often misrepresented as having been contrived. A journalist with whom I was on a BBC Radio 4 radio programme in 1983 asked, “Was it a fake?” The Independent newspaper in their 14 March issue this year (1989) reprinted it with the caption ‘possibly posed’. Yet Capa himself told me how it came about, and was the first modestly to call it a fluke. It has also been written up in detail by John Hersey (ICP Library of Photographers).

He covered the 1938 Japanese invasion of China. He went to America; for a few years he was correspondent for Life (where his brother held a permanent job) but left and returned to Europe in 1945. From then on, and after founding Magnum, he was legendary in his own lifetime for his war photos, for being in the battlefields as if he were somehow in all the armies of the world wherever the fighting took place: in Normandy, North Africa, London during the air raids where he jumped as a parachutist. He hated war but had to be there; his photographs were protests, those of a passionate pacifist.

David Seymour a.k.a. Chim

David Seymour was a pacifist of a different kind. Born in Warsaw, son of a Yiddish publisher, he had graduated from the Leipzig Akademie für Graphische Kunst and studied at the Sorbonne, and though he had also covered the civil war in Spain and volunteered for the American army (where his surname of Sczym was changed to Seymour, hence the nickname of Chim), he was a war photographer malgré lui. He took a greater interest in the refugees behind the lines and was specially moved by children — as shown in his famous child photographs for UNICEF and UNESCO. He was quiet and gentle, with big glasses and looked like a small professor. He spoke seven languages including a picturesque English of his own. Phlegmatic, he would receive astounding news without change of expression, unruffled, cigarette usually stuck in his mouth and just a tiny, sensitive smile in his eyes. Both he and Capa were perpetual smokers.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson was unlike either. He came from Normandv, blond with blue eyes looking candidly at the world with the purity of Peter Pan; he was famous already before he joined Magnum. He was detached; he recorded serenity and peace, and was the first to see the romantic mystery of everyday things — light in the puddles, the geometry of bicycle propped against tree — which has grown into the language of photography and has been repeated, consciously or not by others ever since.

city of unburied dead by gael mayo, david seymour copyright Gael Elton Mayo Menton: City of the Unburied Dead

Capa thought up most of our jobs, which were very varied, but my first job with Chim was an outside assignment direct from Picture Post, who asked Vs to do a story about Menton. It is hard to believe now that just after the war Menton was a ghost town; apart from some straggling, rather lost tourists in the streets, it was a retreat for old expatriates, one of whom remembered Queen Victoria’s visit. Her statue had been thrown into the sea by the Italians, we were told. The eerie, exotic gardens with their long purple shadows had not yet been bulldozed to build concrete blocks. It was the last glimpse of the remote past, when income tax had been a shilling in the pound, The Times was called the ‘Thunderer’ and the British were still the most powerful nation in the world.

city of unburied dead by gael mayo, david seymour magnum copyright Gael Elton Mayo Chim was pessimistic about its being a story however, in spite of a chorus girl, then aged eighty who stood up and danced with Monsieur Charles, the owner of the Dog and Duck Café where she drank pastis, and his remarkable pictures of derelict villas (eighty per cent of which were still owned by the English), where stray goats wandered in the long grass of unmown lawns.

To give some examples of our jobs: Chim and I went to Venice for the Biennale, to write of the avant-garde painters Vedova and Santomaso for Epoca magazine, who sent the younger Mondadori from Milan to meet us.

With Henri Cartier-Bresson we took the first photographs ever allowed by Anouilh of one of his rehearsals; the play was Colombe at the Théâtre de I’Atelier. Part of my job was to persuade him to allow this privilege. It needed great diplomacy, for at this period in his life Anouilh was so shy of publicity he even hid al: his opening nights, high in the cheap seats, incognito.

We interviewed Marcel Aymé, that strange, near-silent epileptic genius who wrote Clérambard and La Vouivre.

Generation X

An idea of Capa’s that nearly killed Magnum was Generation X; he called it his ‘child’. It was to be a story about what was happening to the young and what they were doing after the war. He called them the ‘unknown generation’, and he was sending photographers to twelve countries. He sent me to England with Cartier-Bresson. Henri chose two very different types, a Cockney girl who was a bus clippie, and a would-be gentleman farmer in the country. We had high tea in Hendon with the girl’s family (Henri loved cream buns, English scones and cakes); the mother poured the tea from a brown pot in a knitted cosy with its spout sticking out; the father and brother sat round the table; there were baked beans and bacon — then Henri photographed his yellow-haired clippie girl arriving at the terminal in front of the huge red buses. We stayed at a pub in Hampshire for the story of Andrew Heath, who was anxiously preoccupied about whether his farm would work, engaged to marry Harold MacMillan’s daughter, who came and went in a cloak. Here the photographs were of Andrew shampooing heifers to rid them of warble flies, of primroses and green lawns and geese and the spring. We spent six weeks in England, all expenses paid.

But unexpectedly disaster struck. Thousands of dollars and months of shooting had been invested; then the magazine that had originally agreed to back ‘Generation X’ wanted to make radical cuts. Capa never took orders. He withdrew it from them. It was not for six months, during which time Magnum was balanced on a tightrope, that he sold it to Holiday Magazine, who changed the title to Youth of the World. Apparently Picture Post bought an abbreviated version.

To crop or not to crop a photograph?

Capa was detached about his own photos and did not mind them being cropped. Cartier-Bresson hated this and would not allow it. Cropping is probably a mistake. In the case of Capa’s famous picture of the Spaniard dying, the reproductions are always cropped. The original shows a plain stretching away on the right, in front of the man, with the wide Spanish sky and distance. The gesture of the man’s arm flung out and his hand losing the gun seems stronger seen in space, which may be a question of proportion. The same can be said of Chim’s famous photo of the disturbed child usually cropped to show some scribbles behind her that have no clear meaning. In the cropped version they could be anything. New Year’s Eve streamers perhaps. The original shows more of these scrawls and it is apparent that they are on a blackboard, and must have been done by her. (They represent her idea of home.)

Is photography art?

The question is often raised: is photography art? If it is, then cropping is as wrong as it would be to cut the canvas of a painter at least, it should be done by the photographer himself. If not art, photography is a talent, a gift of perception and a special vision; then the luck and acquired speed to ‘get it’ in time. Cartier-Bresson never took posed photos; he wandered around with his camera and hoped for unawareness, which, with patience, he found. Some of his landscapes are like paintings. Chim always had three cameras round his neck: a Rolleiflex for portraits and two Leicas, one colour and one black and white. Whereas not all of Capa’s photos were of war, the other subjects were usually action. Chim loved quiet portraits.

When beginners asked Capa how to take a photograph, he would say, “You must love people, and let them know you do.” He was modest about his own work; he would say, “My photos aren’t great, I am only a good journalist.” He wrote his own articles.

The best working partnership I had was with Chim, so much so that he offered me a golden future: to be his permanent public relations partner and writer in Rome, where he wanted to settle his base, but due to a dire event in my private life I had to leave Europe and go to America where I spent nearly two years. When I returned to Paris neither Capa nor Chim were there, however Chim had left me a letter in the Magnum office saying there was a job coming up in Madrid and advising me to take it. I supposed he had made other arrangements for Rome — (or could it still be ahead . . .). I went to Madrid where I received a telegram from Margot Shore.

Inge Morath

The photographer was Inge Morath, a new young recruit (before her marriage to Arthur Miller), I always kept the telegram out of sentimentality, for that was my last Magnum job, and because it contains all the excitement of the unexpected that Magnum always produced. The memories are glamorous . . . the Blue Train with Chim ordering claret . . . Chim the gourmet in the Vert Bocage in Paris; in the Alitalia plane from Padova to Venice; in the Gritti, with Vedova and Santomaso arriving in a gondola . . . violins playing in the piazza . . . Capa and I with Chim in the White Tower in Soho; Capa with his cigarette stub, looking into space to see a future story while Chim took care of the menu; Capa and I, eager and enthusiastic about a new idea, Chim always the pessimist but with his little inner smile . . . both of us teasing him for his dim view, calling it the Lamentations of Chim like a chapter in the Bible. He was always carefully dressed with a black knitted tie, Capa in any old thing . . . Driving Henri’s Volkswagen down Regent Street with the roof open while he stood up taking photos of his clippie girl as we followed the bus in front, then later, when the day was done, Henri singing “Ah je I’aimais tant, mon barbot de Saint Jean” on the way to the Italian restaurant in Curzon Street that is still there; but however relaxed, he always took his camera everywhere, just in case . . .

Capa: Killed in action

In 1954 Capa stepped on a mine in Vietnam while taking “his best war photo”, as he had said ten minutes earlier to Time-Life correspondent John Mecklin who was there. Two years later Chim was killed in Suez, in a jeep with Jean Roy of Paris-Match when they drove straight on into the front. It has never been quite clear what happened. The driver of the jeep apparently did not heed the warning given by a British lieutenant colonel; he made a V sign and went on. They were shot by machine guns.

The Magnum Photographic Group Today

Today Capa would be seventy-six and Chim seventy-eight. Capa would probably not want to be an old man, he lived in a suitcase and did not need to read, but the tragedy of Chim is that he was looking forward to the quiet time ahead in his comer of Rome, where he had already sent his books. He loved music, children, conversation. He hated violence, and he died a violent death.

When Capa died the old Magnum started to fade slowly too, though Chim was president for two years, but when the two leaders had gone, and after Werner Bischof had fallen to his death in the Andes . . . and when the world started to grow up differently around it, there was a lull until, now, it has developed again into a new, somewhat different Magnum. Capa and Chim were outsiders in all countries, and they were at home everywhere with an insider’s perception.

Today Cartier-Bresson no longer takes photographs; he draws and is an excellent draughtsman. His wife, Martine Franck, is a Magnum photographer. When the new young gather round the master, he tells them how different it was when no assignment meant no dinner.

Magnum was a spiritual dedication on the part of all its photographers. This spirit may well be carried on today by the present members, as another Generation X, children of the Magnum that Capa founded.

BUY The Mad Mosaic

Copyright © The Gael Elton Mayo Estate, 1989. The copyright to all the content of this site is held by the individual authors and creators. All rights reserved. Enquiries: please use the contact form

About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.