Title: Magnum Cycling
Author: Guy Andrews
Publishers: Thames and Hudson
Order: Thames & Hudson UK | US
What it is: A peek inside the Magnum agency's archive of cycling photography with more than 200 photographs shot by Magnum's members at bike races
Strengths: It's not about the bike, it's about the cultural context of the (racing) bike
Weaknesses: It really was the best of times but even I have to accept that sometimes we're a bit too ‘eighties-centric (but they are beautiful images of a beautiful decade)
"Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner,
a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see."
~ Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
In 1937 Henri Cartier-Bresson - then a thirty-something jobbing photographer who was also sidelining in the world of cinema, working for the French film-maker Jean Renoir - was sent to London by Paris's new Communist daily Ce Soir1 in order to photograph the coronation of George VI. Cartier-Bresson - who had been educated at Cambridge at the end of the ‘twenties and so had a certain familiarity with British people - focused not on the crown and the head that wore it but instead on the new king's subjects.
This was and was not a revolutionary stance. Since the invention of photography in the early nineteenth century photographers had been making subjects of ordinary people. But for Cartier-Bresson to report such a major news event as the coronation of a new king without ever actually photographing that king (Ce Soir's other photographers were left to do that), well that was somewhat revolutionary within the realm of photojournalism. It helped to popularise - on editorial desks as well as in the minds of readers - an alternative way of looking at the news2.
Two years after George VI's coronation the weekly news magazine Match3 dispatched Robert Capa - then a twenty-something photojournalist famous for his reporting from the Spanish Civil War - to the Tour de France and the same sensibility with which Cartier-Bresson reported the coronation of a king was brought to the reporting of the grande boucle. Two images in particular sum up Capa's way of looking at the Tour, a pair of photographs taken opposite the bike shop of Pierre Cloarec in Quimper, Brittany, as the Tour passed through the town:
Capa's diptych captures the anticipation of arrival and the longing of departure, with the Tour itself lost in the void between the two images. It was taken as part of a story focusing on Pierre Cloarec, from nearby Pleyben, who was riding the 1939 Tour as part of the regional Ouest squad. The day before the Tour passed his bike shop in Quimper Cloarec had won the stage from Rennes to Brest
By the time the next Tour de France rolled around, in 1947, Capa and Cartier-Bresson were partners in the newly created photographic agency Magnum Photos4, which Cartier-Bresson described as "a community of thought, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually." Today, nearly 70 years after its creation, Magnum has become a byword for quality photojournalism, reportage of the highest order. For Magnum Cycling Guy Andrews - Rouleur founder and one of the team behind Bike Mechanic - has gathered together more than 200 images from Magnum's archives, showcasing different aspects of bicycle racing, from the road to the velodrome and from cyclo-cross to the Paralympics5.
Magnum Cycling is not, it should be pointed out, yet another coffee table collection of champagne cycling images, iconic moments such as Anquetil and Poulidor on the Puy de Dôme, Hinault and LeMond on l'Alpe d'Huez, Armstrong and Pantani on Mont Ventoux. It is not in thrall to such sporting clichés as the agony of defeat and the ecstasy of winning. Nor is it a collection of portraits of thick-thighed sprinters or thin-hipped climbers staring blankly into a camera lens. Few of the great champions of the sport are to be found within its 254 pages. The truth is that Magnum Cycling is not really about bike races. Or, at least, it is not really about the sporting aspect of bicycle racing. It is about the other, deeper, more important aspect of bicycle racing: its cultural significance. It is about cycling as spectacle more than cycling as sport.
Richard Kalvar - a New Yorker living in Paris - captured the crowds awaiting the Tour in Paris at the end of the 1978 race ("I was curious to know what it looked like, with all these people lined up, watching it," he told Andrews)
Central to Andrews's selection of images from the Magnum archive is an unasked question: who is cycling for? In answering that question we should first ask who these images were originally for. Most cycling photography is commissioned for newspapers, magazines (and, today, websites) squarely aimed at cycling fans, or sports fans in general. Magnum's commissions, however, come from a different sphere. Andrews's selection includes Christopher Anderson shooting Lance Armstrong in 2004 for Esquire magazine; Harry Gruyaert at the 1982 Tour de France for the reputationally-challenged petrochemical conglomerate Elf Aquitane (co-sponsor of the Renault team of Bernard Hinault); Guy Le Querrec with the Renault squad throughout the early part of 1985 as part of a project he was working on with the team; John Vink at the 1985 Tour for the left-leaning daily Libération and at Belgian 'cross and track races in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a wider project he was working on, documenting what Belgians got up to at the weekend (similarly, there's a couple of images of the 1964 Berlin Six, shot by René Burri, as part of his Die Deutschen (The Germans) project). Occasionally, someone will shoot something on spec, such as Chris Steele-Perkins covering the cycling events at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics as part of a wider project covering the whole of the Paralympic Games. And there are opportunist images within Magnum Cycling's pages, such as Martine Franck photographing the Tour as it passed her apartment building on the rue de Rivoli. What is absent are any commissions from the major cycling or sporting publications. Freed of the need to deliver the daily bread of victory salutes and podium presentations, Magnum's photographers have generally been able to approach bike racing from a different angle.
Martine Franck seized the moment to photograph the Tour as it passed her apartment building on the rue de Rivoli in 1980.
Belgian photographer John Vink - commissioned by Libération to report from the 1985 Tour - explained his job to Andrews thusly:
"The purpose was really to show what it was all about. The public, the preparation, the massages, the starts, the set-up, the hanging around, the publicity caravan6. [...] My target was quite atypical - I would not disturb the work of the pros, who needed the shot of the guy falling, or winning, or on the podium. Mine was more things on the side."
One interesting aspect of Vink's comment to Andrews is how he saw the other photographers on the race - "I was not in the same place as the real professional photographers," he told Andrews - and how this shows both a respect for those engaged in photographing the sporting side of cycling, and an acknowledgement of his own status as something of an outsider. A status shared by most of Magnum's members.
The curiosity and respect which Cartier-Bresson spoken of as part of the founding principle of the Magnum agency is still a core part of the way Magnum's photographers work and helps explain why particular shots were taken. Here's Harry Gruyaert, interviewed by Andrews, talking about his time at the 1982 Tour:
"What interested me most was everything that was going on around the race - the people, the whole atmosphere, the villages and the mountains and the motorcycles going down them at hundreds of kilometres an hour...it was so exciting."
Or Chris Steele-Perkins, who photographed the Atlanta Paralympics:
"I'm not a sports photographer at all, but I am interested in sports as part of culture. I'd done stories before on disability sports, and also on boxing and sumo and I did a story with the Observer in 1992 on athletes preparing for the Paralympics, so I had some experience of shooting sport, it was mostly curiosity."
So what is the answer to the question then, who is cycling for, based on the evidence of Magnum's photographers? The simple answer is it for everyone: rich and poor, men and women7, young and old.
Henri Cartier-Bresson's images in particular show cycling attracting all strata of society, particularly at the indoor track racing at the Vél d'Hiv, where he photographed the Paris Six in 1957
While Magnum's photographers are frequently credited with reinventing their art, it is worth noting that, in their view of bicycle racing, they have been drawn to many of the same things that those who have written about the sport have been drawn to throughout the sport's history. Focusing on the spectators at bike races, you can find that in Colette's report from the 1912 Tour, you can find it in Egon Erwin Kisch's report from the 1923 Berlin Six, you can even find it in Albert Londres's dispatches from the 1924 Tour. Photography, though, can say so much more, and do it more quietly. And one thing Magnum Cycling's photographs quietly show is that while bike racing is for toffs and plebs alike, it is also for an audience that is almost universally white. Cycling is very much a people's sport. But it has a ways to go before it can declare itself the people's sport.
Note: due to copyright restrictions the publishers are only allowing us to show you three images from Magnum Cycling. The rest you can see by visiting the Magnum pages for the book.
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1 As well as appearing in Ce Soir Capa's pictures of the coronation crowds were also later reproduced in the Communist weekly Regards
(Images courtesy of Gallica)
2 Cartier-Bresson was not alone here, that same year, 1937, a group of British intellectuals had inaugurated the Mass-Observation programme, which tried to look beyond what the media said the public mood of the moment was and included photography among its tools
3 A French equivalent of Picture Post in the UK and Life in the US, and ancestor of today's Paris Match
4 The first Magnum meeting took place on April 17, 1947 at the Museum of Modern Art (NYC) with Magnum Photos Inc officially created on May 22nd. Along with Capa and Cartier-Bresson its founding members included David 'Chim' Seymour, George Rodger, Maria Eisner, William Vandivert, and Rita Vandivert
6 Thankfully, Andrews's selection of photos does not include any of the caravane publicitaire, which in the eight decades it has been in existence has produced some horrendously clichéd cycling photography
7 While the peloton - in the selection here - is almost universally male the fan base is more gender balanced