BRITAIN’S Ian Berry and Moroccan-born Frenchman Bruno Barbey, two of the longest-serving members of legendary photo agency Magnum, are the subjects of a joint exhibition running through May 25 at the Shanghai Center of Photography (SCôP).
Each joined the agency in the 1960s, with Berry first coming aboard in 1962 following a personal invitation from Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson. He later became a full member in 1967. Barbey, meanwhile, became an associate member in 1964, before going on to hold executive roles within the organization.
According to Liu Heung Shing, the center’s founder, the show is a chance for visitors to admire and compare the works of two photo masters who have had front-row seats to history.
As with all candidates awarded the honor of Magnum membership, both have produced seminal bodies of photojournalism that capture the essential qualities of our modern age. At the current exhibition, visitors can find a medley of iconic images from both Berry’s and Barbey’s decade-spanning careers.
For Berry, the exhibition focuses on his early work in South Africa. There are also images from his study of the English people, whom he began documenting in the early 1970s.
Berry’s photographic career began when he left his native England in 1952 for Johannesburg, South Africa. There, he worked under Roger Madden, a South African photographer who had been an assistant to Ansel Adams.
Berry’s first breakthrough moment came on March 21, 1960, when South African police opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protestors in Sharpeville, killing 69 and injuring 178. Berry was the only photographer in Sharpeville and his startling images offer a vital record of the day’s tragic events.
In 1964, Berry moved to London, where, following his entry into Magnum, he began working for Observer Magazine. Over the years, he has traveled all over the world in search of compelling images and stories.
In many of Berry’s iconic images, the viewer can detect the subtle presence of the photographer himself as he captures the drama of everyday life.
“As a photographer, you’re always looking for shapes, for people to fall into the right place,” he says, “but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as you’d like. You must either grab the decisive moment on the hoof, or see a potential situation and hover unseen until it develops; simply to wait until you become part of the fixtures and fittings so that when you raise the camera, no one’s attention is drawn by an unusual movement.”
As a photojournalist, he is interested in documenting social issues. For this reason, he’s less concerned about capturing scenes and moments — but rather life itself.
“I want to show how things affect people in life. If I’m shooting here in Shanghai, I would like to show people in London and Paris what life is like in Shanghai — what the problems are, what the people are like, good things and bad things. That’s what a photojournalist does.”
These days, Berry is working on a project about water around the world. He has documented water shortages and water pollution in many countries.
“Water is the most important things in life. Some countries are changing so fast. Mexico City in ten years will not have any water and they’ll have to bring water in. In Bangladesh, they are cutting down the trees so rampantly that sea water is coming in. Where they used to grow rice, there is salt water from the sea.”
Whether challenging or life-affirming, Berry’s photographs remind us that while the world is still imperfect, humans can still come together to transcend prejudice and adversity.
As for Barbey, the exhibition includes dozens of his richly-colored travel photos, as well as studies of people and places.
When Barbey was young, he wanted to become a pilot in order to indulge his longing for adventure. He eventually turned to photography, a career that allowed him to travel the world and meet many different people.
With Magnum, Barbey served as the agency’s vice president for Europe in 1978 and 1979. He was later president of Magnum International from 1992 to 1995.
He has published close to thirty books of photography, many of them studies of single countries. Barbey has also been the focus of nearly two dozen exhibitions since 1970.
The son of a French civil servant posted to North Africa, Barbey was born in Morocco, where he spent his childhood amid a “mixture of sensations, smells, colors and sounds that steeped his perceptions” and where, he says, “the color and light is unique.”
These early experiences were formative; with contrasts and subtleties in light, shadow and hue being a constant feature throughout his photo career.
His use of color film was also considered pioneering, especially in the 1960s when color publication by the media was still in its infancy. Barbey saw the potential of color early on, and during a 1966 trip to Brazil at the request of Vogue magazine, he couldn’t resist capturing the country’s rich palette on color film.
Whether traveling on assignment for Magnum or pursuing personal projects, Barbey says he shies away from news scoops but never misses an opportunity to witness history.
In tandem with the exhibition, SCôP is hosting a Leica Master Class which offers local shutterbugs the chance to go shooting on the streets of Shanghai with Barbey and Berry.
“We created an opportunity for local photographers to shoot at the same spot with two Magnum masters. This will make it easier to understand and communicate with these masters than simply listening to them in a classroom or lecture,” said Liu.