Bibliothèque nationale de France (Richelieu)

Although the number of visitors may not be the best criterion for judging an exhibition, the crowds that made their way to the Bibliothèque Nationale to see the Magnum photo agency’s “Essais sur le monde” (Essays on the world) are worthy of note, and not only in quantitative terms. For these were visibly not the usual tourists “doing” Magnum between Beaubourg and the Louvre, or professional gallery-goers popping in between the Marais and avenue Matignon, but members of an elusive social category that all curators doubtless dream of attracting: the general public. They came alone, in pairs, sometimes in larger groups: teenagers to seniors, students taking notes, businessmen in suits and ties (occasionally also taking notes)—everyone moving slowly from one group of images to another, standing back, coming closer, studying, questioning, discussing what they see.

The object of this unusually intense attention is, it must be said, an unusually intense exhibition: more than four hundred photographs by fifty-six Magnum photographers, conceived both as a belated fiftieth anniversary celebration and as a ten-year retrospective, measuring the “temperature” (hence the degree sign in the title) both of the planet over the past decade and of documentary photography today. Magnum, founded in 1947 by a motley group of photographers including three war correspondents (Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, and George Rodger) and one Surrealist with pacifist leanings (Henri Cartier-Bresson), was the first cooperative press agency, and to this day it functions more like a private club than a business, with a membership spanning five generations of outstanding photographic “authors” (Magnum’s term), from Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt to Raymond Depardon, Martin Parr, and Lise Sarfati.

The photographers themselves proposed an initial pool of images—five thousand in all—from which the two curators, Paris bureau chief François Hebel and special projects director Agnès Sire, developed the three-part presentation seen in Paris (the third stop on an international itinerary): “Persistance of Rituals,” focusing with great elegance on traditions, ancient and modern; “Chronicles of Chaos,” relentlessly documenting a decade of uncivilization; and “Aesthetics of the Everyday,” offering extraordinary views of ordinary life. The force of the photos, in their themes, their forms, their points of view, is what might be expected of Magnum. So are the weaknesses, which may have less to do with photography than demography—an aging membership that remains predominantly white, male, and Western. But what makes “Magnum°” exceptional is the conception and design of the show itself. By opting for mini-essays over isolated photos, by dispensing with most of the “packaging” (glass, mats, frames) that makes photographs into pseudo-paintings, by thinking of the gallery space in terms of the bodies that have to move through it, the curators and their production team have orchestrated genuine encounters between image and eye.

The emotional impact of some of those encounters is very strong. To cite only one, the twelve black-and-white photos from “Sons of Abraham” (1987–), an ongoing study of religion by Iranian photojournalist Abbas, give off in alternating (shock) waves the order and excess, poetic form and archaic content that inhere in religious rituals, from Jerusalem to Mecca to Kingston, Georgia. As the eye moves back and forth among the photos grouped at varying heights across a large expanse of wall, as the subjects become more familiar and the specific religious labels lose their importance, what comes to the fore is that other eye, the photographer’s, which is so remarkably attuned to what is there, in black and white, so to speak, but also to the less visible areas of paradox and enigma. In discovering what is shown and what is omitted by the choice of angle, framing, and distance; in savoring the rhythms of forms, patterns, gestures; in intercepting, not without a certain surprise, the glance of someone looking directly into the camera or even gesturing toward the photographer, the viewer is confronted with the essence of style in art: the expression of a point of view, a stand that is taken—and given; not necessarily to change the world, but at least to change the way we see it.

Miriam Rosen