Magnum Photographers Showcase Photos That Embody 'Closeness'

Robert Capa once said, "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

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Jun 8 2017, 3:00pm

Iconic photojournalist and Magnum Photos co-founder Robert Capa once said, "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough." By that, he could have meant any number of things—close enough physically to your subject, or psychologically, or not wrapped up enough in the story you're covering to deliver anything of real worth. Or maybe it was just a nice way of letting down bad photographers.

Whatever he meant, it's the phrase Magnum Photos put to some of their photographers when asking them to choose work for the company's $100 "Closer" print sale , which runs until early June, asking them: What does getting close mean? And why is it important?

Below are a few picks, captioned with the photographers' thoughts.

Peter Van Agtmael

© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Robert Capa's adage has become one of the most ubiquitous phrases in photography. Like many iconic quotes, it's both incredibly vague and specific; you can interpret it any way you please. The meaning is neither strictly tied to physical proximity (the "right distance" can be anywhere from centimeters to kilometers,) nor emotional distance (some great photos are intimate, some detached,) To me, being "close enough" is part physical, part emotional, and part intellectual.

This picture of a "second line" parade is from a series that focuses on race and class, as I was looking at the imprints of history on the present. These particular parades came about after the Civil War. Because insurance companies wouldn't cover ex-slaves, African-Americans formed benevolent societies that helped members defray health costs. The dues included a band for funerals and a public parade every year. Today, there are parades almost every Sunday in New Orleans.

I try to take great individual pictures, but most important to me is how the individual image can create a broad-reaching and unexpected, yet coherent, interpretation of the world. That's a lifelong task, and one that demands the enduring need to "get closer."

– Peter Van Agtmael

Bruce Davidson

Subway. New York City, USA. 1980 © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

In 1980, the New York subway system was deplorable—unsafe; it had been scribbled all over with graffiti. Some of it very interesting. I took it upon myself to explore the 500 stations in the subway complex. I started with black and white then shifted over to color because I found a lot of meaning in color in the subway. So I would go each day and night to a different place in the subway system to photograph people, making contact in many cases. I began to have a kind of tunnel vision—a compulsion to explore color, form, and life in this very rich and treacherous environment.

– Bruce Davidson

David Alan Harvey

Kanwaka, Kansas, USA. 1969 © David Alan Harvey / Magnum Photos

After grad school, I moved to Kansas for a job as a newspaper photographer. My boss told me that the most important thing I could do was to get close to the community. He was right. While I fantasized about working for Life Magazine and Magnum, my reality was the Topeka Capital-Journal. Yet, maintaining a closeness with the community led me down a beautiful road. I learned that the most mundane-sounding assignment could yield magic if you just kept an open heart and an eye like a hawk. Hearing the Kanwaka Store was on fire didn't seem like a big deal over the police channel of our newspaper radio. Yet, there really is often magic everywhere. You just can't invent this stuff.

– David Alan Harvey

Constantine Manos

© Constantine Manos / Magnum Photos

I took this picture in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1997, during Bike Week, an annual event that draws thousands of motorcyclists for a week of revelry. In those days, the famous wide beach of Daytona was open to cars. These girls were cheering the passing vehicles from the back of a pick-up truck. Very close to the girls, I was waiting patiently for a brightly colored car to come along with my wide-angle lens. Finally, everything came together. It was a combination of "get closer" and "the decisive moment."

– Constantine Manos

Chris Steele-Perkins

The Teds. Great Britain. 1976 Teds © Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos

Capa's advice to "get closer" can apply to both physical and psychological proximity.

In this case, I was physically close, but the Leica M 35mm lens I was using did not focus at such a close distance, and the foreground is thus quite out of focus. I was not psychologically close; I had never met these young men before, and I think I only took two photographs of them in total.

However, if you spend some time with this image, looking closely, it draws you in, which is a strange sensation, even for me still, and suggests that closeness applies to the viewer as well. Most people in the Instagram world spend very little time looking at a lot of images—maybe liking them, maybe not. But getting close to pictures, spending real time with them, makes the good ones that much more interesting.

– Chris Steele-Perkins

Alex Webb

Cotton Candy. Oaxaca, Mexico. 1990 © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

I've been photographing in the streets of Mexico for some 40 years, and there's one particular city that I feel especially close to—the airy, vibrant, lyrical Oaxaca. Each time I photograph this mysterious southern city I discover another hidden street, another obscure festival, and, surprisingly, something more about myself.

Perhaps Robert Capa's advice about getting closer refers to the heart as well as to the feet.

– Alex Webb

Ferdinando Scianna

Christian militant during the Lebanese Civil War. Beirut, Lebanon. 1976 © Ferdinando Scianna / Magnum Photos

In Beirut, in the 1970s, during the fierce period of clashes between Christians and Palestinians, I was impressed that religious images of saints and Madonnas were often applied to the rifles of Christian militias. Every reason is good for men to kill one another.

– Ferdinando Scianna

Abbas

Tehran, Iran. January 25, 1979, © Abbas / Magnum Photos

"If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough," Robert Capa famously said.

1979, Tehran: The Shah has left the country. Khomeini has arrived. In a couple of weeks, he will triumph. Young revolutionaries are lynching a woman they believe to be a supporter of the Shah. I run backward, as fast as the mob, shooting.

Later, while examining my contact sheets, I am reminded of Capa's iconic photo of a French woman, from the end of WWII. Carrying her baby by a German soldier, she is marched home, her head shaven, as punishment.

What do you think, Bob? Was I close enough?

– Abbas

Bruce Gilden

Cemetery. Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 1988 © Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos

When I first started photography, I remember reading the Robert Capa quote: "If it's not good enough, you're not close enough." These words have remained with me until this day. They're my mantra.

When I first went to Haiti, in 1984, I immediately noticed that every night there were funeral processions. I began to photograph them, not knowing how this would be received. As I took the photographs, people didn't seem to mind. The more processions I went to, the closer I got. This photo is one of my best pictures. I suppose the older I get, the closer I get.

– Bruce Gilden

Magnum's "Closer" square print sale runs from Monday the June 5, 2017, at 8 AM EST until Friday the June 9, 2017 at 6 PM EST. Signed and estate stamped, museum quality, 6x6" prints from over 70 artists will be available for $100, for five days only, from shop.magnumphotos.com.

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