The Magnum Photographers Magical Mystery Tour

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Musicians make their money on the road, but can the same logic be applied to photographers? Sure, The Strobist and Joe McNally can give camera-company-sponsored lighting workshops out of a bus around America ($249.00 DVD set not included), but can a motley group of Magnum photographers make money out of an RV named Uncle Jackson en route from Austin, TX to Oakland, CA?

The “Postcards from America” bus tour kicks off next month with Photographers Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky, Susan Meiselas, Jim Goldberg, Christopher Anderson and writer Ginger Strand documenting their journey from May 12 to May 26, 2011. I hope they learn from Willie Nelson’s mistakes and leave the reefer behind.

Make no mistake, this is a branded, sponsored, multi-platform endeavor, meant to support the photographer’s careers and shine some 21st Century light on the Magnum brand. The story will play out in realtime via Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and an audience participation site on Flickr. Photography fans will have the opportunity to buy postcards, books, and prints online, all printed on HP printers. Ultimately, there will be a pop-up exhibition somewhere in Oaktown. The photographers aim to engage directly with their audience, and I imagine they’ll have plenty of opportunities to chat over weak coffee and sugary donuts.

It’s not unlike the Kickstarter and Emphas.is platforms that enable photography fans and lovers to directly support the work of photojournalism. Until very recently, publications would hire photographers to create content that their consumers would then buy. That still happens, but what we’re seeing now is that photographers are attempting to cut out the middle-man by “selling” the content directly to the audience (out of necessity, of course). We can call it a gift, a reward, or donation, but really it’s just commerce. All in all, it’s a good idea if the prints and books sell, and everyone has a good time. Content will be generated. Compelling images will be made.

In the Interview we recently published with Nina Berman, I discussed the fact that the boundaries between journalism and art were beginning to seem arbitrary. This venture seems to validate that idea, as the “Postcards” tour doesn’t seem that much different from Ryan McGinley cruising around the country with a bunch of clothing averse young hotties. If we saw this as a road trip by a group of artists who happened to be friends, and who planned on selling prints after the fact, it wouldn’t seem strange or newsworthy. But the fact that this tour is being done in the shadow of Magnum, an icon of American photojournalism, makes it a much bigger deal. It’s hard to imagine Henri Cartier-Bresson rambling around the American West like Clark W. Griswold, but then again, HCB isn’t trying to pay the bills in 2011.

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There Are 23 Comments On This Article.

  1. Amazing idea and wishing them the best!! This is a GREAT way to stand out in a highly competitive industry. Can’t wait to follow their work.

  2. Demi Grafik

    It sure seems like the only way to make money in photography is to create a spectacle aimed at marketing goods/services to other photographers. Kind of makes me long for the good old days when artists had to be dead before anyone paid attention to them.

  3. DC-Photographer

    Yes, this is like watching a movie where there’s more product placement than plot.

    However, it will be interesting to see their results: will the results reinforce the “democratization” of photography due to the univeral acce$$ to the tools, or will the Magnum “art” be received with a ho-hum stare by viewers?

    Which leads to my question: besides the photographers on the bus, the product sponsors, and Magnum, what’s the point of this?

        • Jonathan is correct, this is the first of a series of trips. I was just in San Antonio and I wouldn’t describe the areas I visited as hipster havens.

          • @Alec Soth, I know some of these towns mostly in Texas and know that here are some very tough neighborhoods everywhere you are going. Hopefully with all of you working in close proximity to each other will push each of you out of your comfort zones and the tropes you each have created for yourselves. I hope someone has brought a DVD of Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” along. it’s always a good prod to keep one from taking one’s noble intentions and oneself too seriously. Hopefully the antic spirit of Elliot Erwitt is accompanying you on your voyages.

            I look forward to seeing you all when you get to Atlanta.

            • @Ellis Vener, look also at the itinerary in hip and scenic California: Fresno, Modesto, Oakland. One of Ted Orland’s “photographic truths” is “A good photograph cannot be made in Fresno”. Makes me look forward to see what the team comes up with there.

    • @Alec Soth,
      Thanks for the link Alec. Much appreciated. And I’m sure you know my tongue was in my cheek… Hope you and the gang have a great time on the road.

  4. >Sure, The Strobist and Joe McNally can give camera-company-sponsored lighting workshops out of a bus around America ($249.00 DVD set not included)

    The Flash Bus tour cost $99, and worth every penny. I’ve never seen two guys work so hard, holding the stage for three solo hours each.

  5. john mcd.

    Photographers have always made road trips to shoot, usually without sponsors, without hype and without having to sell anyone a printer, a workshop or a product. But good for anyone who can get paid to go on the road these days, even if it means spending part of the time talking it up to “fans” for the sponsor, whoever that might be.

  6. I assume this is about connecting with audiences and creating new work in a different mode (maybe more collaborative ?), as I cannot see someone with the standing of, let say Alec Soth, needing to “stand out” or “pay bills”.

    • @QT Luong,
      Unless he’s got a sizable trust fund ala’ Eggleston, I suspect Mr. Soth ( and the others) will always have to think about how to pay the bills.