Turning Point: Magnum Photographers on Their Life-Changing Shots

Steve McCurry fell in love with Cuba, Alex Webb switched from black-and-white to color, and Abbas learned to freeze moments - Magnum Photos agency members reminisce about the photographs that changed their lives.

At the end of 2014 the Magnum Photos agency organized a sale of photographs, which had never been published before for various reasons. At the beginning of the second week of June Magnum announced a new sale. This time the agency asked photographers to choose the shot that changed their lives. The prints were on sale until June 12, one print for $100 and $3800 for the whole collection of 51 shots.

Bird in Flight is publishing 12 shots with the photographers’ stories about how these photos changed their lives.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_01.jpg”, “alt”: “Стив Маккари” }

I photographed this Soviet-times car in the picturesque Havana streets in 2010 when I first went to Cuba. Old Havana, which is acknowledged as a UNESCO heritage site, is a time capsule with wonderful ancient cars and astonishing architecture. There are few places where I haven’t been, and five years ago Cuba was still one of them. By the time I started my career in photography in the 70s, the US and Cuba had had no diplomatic relations for ten years. I have visited Cuba several times since 2010, and one of my visits coincided with President Obama’s announcement about the start of restoration of diplomatic relations. I always turn to scenes and people full of energy here, and I am always looking forward to visiting this historical island again.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_02.jpg”, “alt”: “Дэвид Алан Харви” }

This cover photo for my book (inspired by true events) changed the way I work forever. After this book was a success in 2012 I changed my method completely. I started focusing only on the books that I publish myself. I stopped taking assignments and started only doing personal projects and art works. I didn’t plan any changes, it just happened. I think the key is to admit that there are some changes in your creative life. You have to realize when this moment is right in front of you. It’s like photography itself. Passing. Carpe diem. If you miss it, you lose it forever.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_03.jpg”, “alt”: “Алекс Вебб” }

A sad, alive, tragic, deceptive country, Haiti became key in my photography. I first went there in 1975 after I read Graham Greene’s Сomedians, a novel that mesmerized and scared me, that is set there.

I was shooting in B/W and I soon realized something was missing: there was no burning light and heat – physically and probably metaphysically – of this country that is so different from grey and brown New England where I grew up. Emotions on that bright and restless land were flowing over the edge and I couldn’t manage them. So when I came back to Haiti 4 years later, I started to work in color. I was walking among the columns in the lower part of Port-au-Prince in 1979 when I saw this man with a bunch of reed – in contrast with the bright-red wall – and another man, who was quickly walking past us. I made this picture and I gradually understood that it is time to leave black and white photography behind.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_04.jpg”, “alt”: “Алессандра Сангинетти” }

I met Belinda and Guilhermina when they were five. They were usually messing around when I was shooting their grandmother’s livestock and birds for my project “On the Sixth Day.” I’d always shooed them away from the frame, but this time I noticed them. I took this picture, and it was the beginning of our long journey together.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_05.jpg”, “alt”: “Паоло Пеллегрин” }

I usually think projects, and not separate shots. But this particular picture has all the time that I spent in Kosovo in it. I can say that photographs from Kosovo have changed my life in a way. I’ve been good fifteen years into my career when I first went there in 1999, and in the three years I spent there I realized that I grew a lot professionally. I’ve always been interested in photography that touches you in different ways – pictures that are descriptive and at the same time spiritual, so that they invoke memories and images. I included my work in Kosovo in my portfolio when I applied for Magnum in 2001.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_06.jpg”, “alt”: “Бруно Барбе” }

I just started using a digital camera ten years ago. Before that I’d used Kodachrome for dozens of years, but a digital camera opened up loads of new possibilities and its incredible flexibility in front of me. This stimulated creativity.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_07.jpg”, “alt”: “Георгий Пинхасов” }

This girl is a designer. One French journal asked me to take a picture of her at work. Before I started shooting she called someone. She was talking and talking, and didn’t give the other person the chance to say a word. This is when this picture was born. Everything else after that was not that interesting.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_08.jpg”, “alt”: “Мартин Парр” }

In 1982 I bought a newly released Makina Plaubel with a 55mm lens. At the same time with switching from 35mm to 6×7 I switched from B/W to colour. That same year I started my project in New Brighton called Last Resort. But the first project I shot in color was about Liverpool. This picture is from the second film roll. This is the first photo that I made at this new stage of my work.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_09.jpg”, “alt”: “Майкл Кристофер Браун” }

I took this picture with my phone at the exit of a bookshop in Beijing in 2010. I lived in China then and was traveling around on Jinbei minibus. A Chinese minibus and a phone for a camera were both new for me. I didn’t know at the time that the phone would turn me from the person who belongs to photography to the person who owns photography. Without the bags of equipment, without the understanding of the photographic process I could forget about photography and focus on experience. This was how I realized what I needed to say.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_11.jpg”, “alt”: “Хиродзи Кубота” }

I found out about Elliott Erwitt, Burt Glinn and Rene Burri when I was studying political science in Tokyo. I was mesmerized by their work and I kept thinking – can I ever become one of them? When I graduated in 1962 I came to New York with $500 and a Leika with several lenses. I had neither experience in photography, nor an understanding how to start a career. That’s why when someone told me I should go shoot in Washington so I just went there.

On a hot summer day at six am people were already gathering near Lincoln Memorial. I started making shots with my Leika, people kept coming and I kept shooting. And then I heard someone make a speech – “I have a dream…” I realized instantly that I was watching history in the making. I found out only later that it was Martin Luther King.

This experience helped me understand American politics and start my career. I photographed the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, Presidential campaign of 1968 and many other things. In other words, the march on Washington changed my perception of the world and even more – my life.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_12.jpg”, “alt”: “Томас Хепкер” }

I am often asked, “What is your most important tool?” I say, “Comfortable shoes.” Indeed, most of my pictures were taken when I was walking – in the city or in the nature.

I stumbled upon this scene when walking in Reno City, NV, in 1963. Together with a writing journalist, Rolf Winter, we were on an assignment from the German magazine Kristall. We flew to New York, rented a car and went across the country and back. We had no definite task. We were just told to go to America and bring back what we thought of it, and to come back when we’d seen enough. Thanks to this project I published my book called Heartland, which was rather critical for the US in the 1960s. That clown at the bar never saw me again.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Magnumsell_13.jpg”, “alt”: “Аббас” }

This is one of my first photographs. It was made in September 1970 in Cairo where I was shooting the funeral of the president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser. I didn’t realize it when I was pressing shutter release, but it was a decisive – if not the most important – moment for all of my photographs.

Several months after that I was deeply impressed by Rembrandt’s Syndics in the State Museum in Amsterdam. He captured the moment with his brush as well as only the lens could, and people seem to be continuing their discussion now. The great painter didn’t stop time, he only slowed down a moment. And then I suddenly realized what always was a characteristic of my photography, and it became my motto – “slowed-down moment”. For the past 45 years – and I hope for many more to come – the woman in the foreground, all lost in her feelings, is mourning for a lost leader whose coffin has just been carried past them, together with her whole family.

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