Visual Culture

The Stories Behind the 10 Most Iconic Photos from Magnum’s 70-Year History

Mitch Sawyer
Jul 18, 2017 8:41PM

In 1947, four legendary photographers—Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour—founded Magnum Photos.

In the 70 years since, the cooperative agency has been responsible for some of the world’s most iconic images, from the heroic “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square to the piercing “Afghan Girl” that graced the cover of National Geographic and forever endures as a symbol of both war and hope. The agency’s seemingly omnipresent members have provided groundbreaking photojournalism covering everything from the Loyalist Militias of the Spanish Civil War to the scattering of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes on the River Ganges.

To celebrate the rich legacy forged by Magnum photographers, two New York shows—“Magnum Manifesto”at the ICP Museum and NeueHouse’s “Magnum Photos: 70 at 70”—are exhibiting selections from the agency’s collection. Pulled from decades of monumental photography spanning more than 200,000 images, here are 10 of the most iconic photographs by Magnum photographers.  

Leonard Freed

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being greeted on his return to the US after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. (1964)

Leonard Freed, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being greeted on his return to the US after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, 1964. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the contentious battle for the presidency between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater loomed overhead. Leonard Freed’s photograph of King riding in an open-air motorcade in Baltimore as he is enthusiastically greeted by supporters took place during a nationwide drive to bolster black voter participation. A tireless documentarian of the American civil rights movement, Freed had, the previous year, shot the March on Washington, where King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Freed’s photograph clearly shows the support and adoration King received from his supporters in America, but it also documents a wider nexus in the civil rights movement, where King’s Nobel Prize and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act had affirmed institutional support for the struggle towards freedom and dignity.

Steve McCurry

Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl, at Nasir Bagh refugee camp. (1984)

Steve McCurry
Afghan Girl , 1985
Pink Palais

Though her image had been reproduced a million times over on the cover of National Geographic’s June 1985 issue, the identity of Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl portrait only recently came to light. McCurry photographed the 12-year-old Pashtun orphan at a refugee camp near the Pakistan-Afghan border. The striking emerald color of her eyes, locked in a thousand-yard stare, quickly became an icon of the global refugee crisis and a symbol of enduring human dignity (the Washington Post once called itNational Geographic’s “most recognized photograph” in more than 100 years of publication). In 2002, a NatGeo investigation revealed her identity—Sharbat Gula—as well as details of her incredible journey traversing Pakistan’s mountains with her grandmother and four siblings after Soviet bombs killed her parents. Until she was located, Gula had never seen the image of her that had garnered world-wide renown.

Robert Capa

US troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings (first assault). (1944)

Robert Capa US troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings (first assault), 1944. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.

With his embedded wartime coverage, Magnum’s co-founder Robert Capa nearly single-handedly developed the organization’s reputation for photographers willing to put themselves in danger to document historic moments. During World War II, Capa was the only photographer to join the soldiers of Company E in the first wave to land at Omaha on D-Day in 1944—the largest and one of the deadliest singular invasions in history, resulting in the death of 2,400 American soldiers that day. Amid the frantic popping of mortar shells and dead bodies rolling with the waves onto the smoke-laden beach, Capa captured the American assault on Normandy. While the photograph’s blur might reasonably be attributed to Capa’s nerves or an aesthetic choice to convey the fog of war, the true answer is much more mundane. A lab assistant charged with developing the film set the heat of a drying cabinet too high, melting the emulsion and causing it to run. Of Capa’s 106 shots from that day, only 11 survived.

Stuart Franklin

“The Tank Man” stopping the column of T59 tanks. Tiananmen Square. (1989)

Stuart Franklin
The Tank Man
Milk Gallery

Rising from the 1980s’ uneven economic and social reforms and the tenuous legitimacy of China’s post-Cultural Revolution leadership were a series of nationwide protests. When pro-democracy protesters first gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the area had “the atmosphere of a festival,” Stuart Franklin has recalled. However, after weeks of camping, soldiers were called to intervene and the mood quickly darkened. Soldiers, giving no warning, began firing upon the crowds, killing thousands as they fled. The military placed the hotel where Franklin and other journalists had been operating on lockdown, leaving him to capture this photo from the sixth floor of the hotel, several blocks over. The image shows an unknown activist oppose an approaching line of tanks, moments before he climbed atop one to speak to a soldier and was quickly pulled away. The now iconic image—which endures as a universal symbol of courage, resistance, and anti-oppression—was close to never seeing light of day. When authorities began seizing journalists’ materials, Franklin was only able to able to get his film to Magnum through the help of a French student on her way to Paris, who smuggled it in a box of tea.

Marc Riboud

An American young girl, Jan Rose Kasmir, confronts the American National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam march. (1967)

Marc Riboud
An American young girl, Jan Rose KASMIR, confronts the American National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam march., 1967
Magnum Photos

Some images are indelibly tied to movements or particular moments in time. Such is the case with Marc Riboud’s “flower child” portrait, an emblem of counter-cultural resistance of the ’60s. On October 21, 1967, tens of thousands of anti-Vietnam War protesters met over 2,500 National Guard members at the Pentagon, clad in riot gear and armed with rifles and bayonets. Riboud captured this image of high school student Jan Rose Kasmir, only 17 at the time, gently offering a single chrysanthemum to a row of a guardsmen. Riboud passed away in 2016, but his image continues to be referenced for its depiction of non-violent protest, finding increasing resonance today. In 2016, Jonathan Bachman captured an image of an unarmed black woman, Ieshia Evans, peacefully opposing a line of police at a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, over the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Evans’s stone-like composure in the face of approaching riot police soon drew comparisons to Riboud’s photograph taken nearly 50 years earlier.

Eve Arnold

Malcolm X during his visit to enterprises owned by Black Muslims. (1962)

Eve Arnold
Malcom X during his visit to enterprises owned by Black Muslims. Chicago, , 1962
Milk Gallery

Magnum’s first female photographer cut her teeth photographing subjects from Marilyn Monroe to the cowboys of the Mongolian steppes. One of her most recognized projects, however, was a 1960 assignment for LIFE to document Malcolm X and his early involvement with the Nation of Islam. While Eve Arnold’s presence as a white photographer documenting black nationalists was not always welcome—she recalls finding cigarette burns on the back of her sweater after one day on assignment—she forged an unconventional friendship with Malcolm X. “Malcolm was brilliant in this silent collaboration,” she would later write of the legendary civil rights figure, whom she says helped her to find subjects and arrange shots. Arnold’s portrait has cemented Malcolm X’s image—stoic, powerful, and dressed to the nines—in the popular imagination. Her legacy has more recently featured in the work of Samuel Fosso, whose self-portrait Malcolm X (2008) has Fosso posing as the subject of her original shot.

Paul Fusco

Untitled from RFK Funeral Train. (1968)

Most portraits form a singular vision of their subject. Those in Paul Fusco’s “RFK Funeral Train” series, however, turn their focus outward, capturing Robert Kennedy through the grieving crowds who paid respects as his funerary procession passed from New York City to the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. On assignment for Look magazine, Fusco gained the exclusive permission to photograph from the moving train. The resulting images document the wide diversity of the two million Americans who came to see Kennedy’s coffin, speaking to breadth of his support for Americans of all stripes. In Fusco’s photograph of a small group holding a posterboard message to Kennedy, the motion blur from the moving train lends a kinetic representation to a shaken nation’s sense of loss following his assassination.

Chien-Chi Chang

A newly arrived immigrant eats noodles on a fire escape. USA. New York City. (1998)

Chien-Chi Chang, A newly arrived immigrant eats noodles on a fire escape. USA. New York City, 1998. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.

In a series of photographs spanning nearly two decades, Chien-Chi Chang documented the citizens of Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood. Smuggled from China’s Fujian Province, the undocumented immigrants of Chang’s photographs must work long hours at low wages in order to pay their way to the U.S. before they begin sending their income to their families back home. The spartan lifestyle of the photograph’s subject forms a stark contrast to the bustling city life behind him—a lifestyle few who made the journey were prepared to face. Chang has said that his own experience as an immigrant, first traveling from Taiwan in the 1980s and now living in Austria, influences his photographic approach to issues of alienation and connection. Chang’s photography serves to document a community—and the struggles and sacrifices thereof—that too often remains out of sight.

Alec Soth

Charles, Vasa, Minnesota. (2002)

Alec Soth, Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.

Like the river that lends its name to the series, Alec Soth’s “Sleeping by the Mississippi” meanders through the churches, brothels, and homes of the American heartland. Often compared to Robert Frank’s “The Americans” for its quiet, elegiac approach to photojournalism, Soth’s series mixes documentary-style landscapes with posed portraits. This particular shot of a man named Charles came about by happenstance, after Soth felt compelled to knock on the door of a peculiar house he passed on the road. The man inside, Charles, offered a tour of his home, which he had built by hand. On the roof outside the house’s fourth floor, Charles holds two model airplanes, a hobby he shares with his daughter. Just two years after completing the series, Soth was nominated to join Magnum, his fine art roots a standout among the agency’s photojournalists.

René Burri

Ministry of Industry. Ernesto Guevara (Che), Argentinian politician, Minister of industry (1961-1965) during an exclusive interview in his office. (1963)

René Burri, Ministry of Industry. Ernesto Guevara (Che), Argentinian politician, Minister of industry (1961-1965) during an exclusive interview in his office, 1963. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.  

In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Che Guevara invited René Burri and journalist Laura Bergquist of Look magazine to discuss the conflict. Seated in his makeshift office on the 8th floor of Havana’s Hotel Riviera, the Argentine-born revolutionary quickly fell into a heated argument with Bergquist, which left Burri to photograph him virtually unnoticed. He shot eight rolls of film over the course of two hours, showing Guevara involved in all manner of activity from pacing before a wall-sized map of Cuba to grinning in an animated moment of conversation. The most enduring image shows him reclined, a lit Havana cigar tucked in the corner of his mouth and a somewhat ambiguous expression of contemplation on his face. It is one of the most iconic portraits ever taken of Guevara. As for the photograph’s legacy, Burri was quick to offer credit to his subject: “The picture is famous thanks to the chap with the cigar, not to me,” he would later say.

Mitch Sawyer