Magnum Magnum comes out in November. Published by Thames & Hudson it is – as noted in the blurb – a book of unparalleled scale and ambition. It is a category killer, which is to say that this is the photography book of 2007.
Don’t call it a coffee table book – it’s bigger than that in every way. Showcasing no less than six works from each of every Magnum member there ever was, the resulting 400 or so photographs and accompanying texts make up a product of epic (390 x 320mm, 568 pages) proportions. It weighs 6.5kg and comes in a special carrycase with a handle. It is absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
Andrew Sanigar is commissioning editor at Thames & Hudson, and Magnum Magnum was all his idea. I know for a fact he’s been pretty busy with this over the last year or so, and I thought it would be interesting to ask him what is involved in putting a book like this together.
(Also, seeing as this is likely to be my last post before the return of NDG’s resident editor Ben I’m taking the opportunity to make it really really long…)
Henrietta Thompson for NDG: Why does the world need another book of Magnum photography?
Andrew Sanigar: This year is the 60th anniversary of the founding of Magnum by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David 'Chim' Seymour and George Rodger – the book celebrates the great photography created by Magnum during that time. The book is also the first and only time all the Magnum members, associate members (and the Estates of those who died while still Magnum members) have featured in one book – previous 'group' books don't have all of them. There is no group exhibition to celebrate the anniversary and Magnum very much see the book, particularly because of its size, scale and quality, as an exhibition you can keep at home.
HT: What makes it different from all the rest?
AS: Apart from featuring the full complement of photographers, as mentioned above, the six photographs by each photographer have been selected by another Magnum photographer and each set of six photographs is accompanied with a short commentary, written by the selecting photographer, about six photographs shown and the photographer who created them. It is a book with the voices of and insights from all the current members, so it is quite unlike any other photography book which might have one, two, possibly three author's voices and picture selections combined in the book. As a result, the book provides an exceptional insight into what makes a great photograph in the eyes and minds of photographers who are members of the world's greatest photographic collective. The idea of being reviewed/criticised/judged by one's peers is at the heart of the book and is what makes joining Magnum such a demanding exercise. Such high standards are what has largely driven the exceptional quality of Magnum photography, in both aesthetic and journalistic senses, over the last 60 years. It's very different from the rest in every sense.
HT: Is it difficult to produce a book of this size?
AS: Yes, it is not only physically difficult to print and bind, but relied on using the very, very best material to repro from – original prints supplied by the photographers and estates. It is also the largest and heaviest (and I think, most expensive book) Thames & Hudson has ever published.
HT: Who designed it, and why did he get the job?
AS: The designer was Martin Andersen, a freelance designer in partnership with his sister, Line, as AndersenM Studio. Martin has worked with us a number of times before, most notably on Magnum Ireland and Cartier. Martin has an exceptional sensitivity to photography books, a proven ability to make them look and feel amazing and has the best eyes and mind, in photo editing terms, of any book designer I know. We all worked closely with Brigitte Lardinois, who was the editor for the book, paired the photographers up, co-ordinated all the photographers in terms of their sending their selections and texts and Johanna Neurath, the Design Director.
HT: What challenges are involved with designing a photography book on this scale?
AS: Martin faced several challenges when making the design: a) How to make a coherent sequence/picture edit when only supplied with six photographs by a selecting photographer; b) how to achieve the same when a photographer selected more than six (sometimes we got eight, sometimes ten); and c) how to make sure the rhythm, pace and emphasis (which is crucial in getting photography books to work in the right way) was sufficiently varied (but without looking really whacky) when different people selected different photographers and each selecting photographer had their own criteria (i.e we didn't advise the photographers up front) when making their selections.
In 'normal' photography books, the designer either works with an author (or a single photographer) and therefore 'co-curates' the selection, or sometimes is presented with a larger edit, which the designer can edit down from when creating the layout, deciding on juxtapositions, rhythm, pace, etc. To have the work of 69 individuals, all in sequence, each of whom has been selected by 55 individuals (the balance is either estates or those too unwell to make selections), presents a huge challenge, not only in organizing everyone, getting their approval of the selections, etc, but in making it all stick as a coherent layout.
HT: What to your mind was the hardest sequence to put together and why?
AS: I'm not going to single any examples out, but generally the hardest ones were those where the photographer's output has a great deal of variety in terms of black and white or colour, and in terms of subject matter – with six photographs which has a lot of variation along those lines, it can prove challenging to get the layout to hold together. Martin did a great job in getting such harmony in those layouts.
HT: What do you feel is the most successful sequence?
AS: The ones with the most surprising selections, which didn’t show familiar work. There are a good number of younger Magnum photographers whose work is excellent and is brilliantly showcased in the book. That said, the sheer size of the book means, even if a photograph is very well known, you see it at a scale never seen before and that makes it fresh.
HT: I remember you mentioning something very interesting about the stock being an entirely new colour that was developed especially?
AS: The colour I think you're remembering is the spot colour used in the duotones and as the 'fifth' colour throughout the book. It isn't a colour you'll find in any Pantone book (or similar system) as it is a 'special' created by the printers, Steidl. The reason for using it was that we weren't getting a satisfactory result across the board with the duotone photographs – they looked perfectly good using standard Pantones, but they needed something extra special. The 'special' colour brought all of the duotones to life – some photographers have very intense, deep blacks in their black and white work, others have much more open, highlight detail-driven feel – the 'special' worked with all of them. It's down to our Production Director, Neil Palfreyman, and Gerhard Steidl and his team, that this worked so successfully.
HT: How is the typography organized?
AS: Inevitably, there's always a 'kit of parts' in terms of type sizes, hierarchy, etc, which one has in mind for the typography of a book. With such a page size, that notion, gets turned on its head. Suddenly, your running feet and folios aren't 7 point, they're 10 point, and 16 point becomes a comfortable and correct size for the text setting. Martin did a great job with the typography – it has all the attributes great typography in a photography book should have: It is modern and fresh, but is timeless – it won't date. Oh, and for the keen typespotters out there, all headings are in Berthold Akzidenz Grotesk and everything else (text setting, folios, running feet) is in ITC Garamond.
HT: What is the market like for a book such as this?
AS: Those with a love and appreciation of great photography primarily, but ultimately, given the range and exceptional quality of the material and the subjects represented, anyone with an interest in the last 60 years of human history and how that has been documented and represented.
HT: The images are so compelling and fascinating that often you are left wanting to know much more. How do you begin to caption a photography book such as this?
AS: With difficulty. The captions as created by the photographers are all of varying length, for a start, which makes the editing of them a challenge, and I do think that the reader should not be burdened with too much information – just enough. The book, as with many photography books, has very elegant, pared down captions. The fact that you want to know more having looked at a wonderfully evocative photograph is a very good thing – that simply demonstrates the power of a great photograph.