Website Review

Inside the Decisive Network

Nadya Bair in Collaboration with the Yale Digital Humanities Lab

A self-described ‘experiment in visual storytelling’, Inside the Decisive Network presents a behind-the-lens look at Magnum Photos, the legendary photographic collective founded by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Besson that has been integral in the capture and publication of some of the most famous photographs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Eschewing the traditional focus on the myriad legendary photographers that the organisation has counted within its ranks and the iconic images they captured, the website focusses on telling the stories of the people, processes, and institutions that enabled the meteoric rise and success of photojournalism since the end of the Second World War.

The website consists of a clean and well-composed user interface that features four major sections: ‘Project Intro’, ‘Staff’, ‘Agents’, and ‘Stories’ as well as a discrete sidebar that contains an overview of the project, a brief discussion and link to Bair’s monograph, a biography of the author, a list of collaborators, a bibliography of relevant works, and terms and conditions for the site. ‘Project Intro’, as the name suggests, provides a brief overview of the project and highlights the features of the other sections. The people featured in the ‘Staff’ section are the heart of the site—and Magnum Photos—and consist of eight personnel from the Magnum offices in Paris who were integral to ensuring that photographers in the field were well-supported. In this part of the website, visitors are provided with a timeline of the major staff members and their professional lives before and after Magnum with many working in other photo agencies newspapers and magazines, radio and television, as well as NGOs. Clicking on the names of individual staff leads to a detailed biography with many also featuring a timeline of their work at Magnum as well as a neat chart mapping out their professional networks. ‘Agents’ explores how the agency sold its pictures in the post-war European market. The initial page features a map with a time slider that shows how Magnum’s markets grew and clicking on individual nodes—though this is only limited to the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy—leads to a photo-essay combining text, images, and archival material to demonstrate how picture distribution operated in the select countries. In ‘Stories’, visitors are invited to focus on an individual photographer and one of their iconic photo essays and examine the broader network of how the photo essay came to be. At the moment, there is only one module about Henri Cartier-Besson’s trip to the USSR in 1954 but the author promises that more stories are forthcoming as archival research continues.

Histories of photography can shed light about particular historical contexts but the agents behind the production of a photograph have rarely come into focus. By shifting the frame away from photographers towards the staff that supported them, The Decisive Network represents an important contribution to the scholarship that demonstrates the importance of networks and connections in the creation and distribution of some of the most iconic images of the twenty-first century.

For educators and students, there are a number of ways in which the website can be used. In the first instance, the ‘Stories’ section itself actually has education in mind with the individual modules containing questions that prompt considerations of why a particular story was being pursued, the broader context of its production in terms of political, economic, social, and cultural factors, what analysing the photographs and captions can tell us about the subject of the photo essays, and how the image selection and page layout can be ‘read’. In addition to this, teachers can also set the students a combination between a mapping and biographical exercise that uses the website in concert with Bair’s monograph in order to flesh out the details and connections of the staff even further in order to demonstrate the critical role these individuals played in the rise of photojournalism in the twentieth century and beyond.

Developing our understanding about photography and the circumstances behind the production of the image, Inside the Decisive Network is a much-needed flash of brilliance that problematises the image of the lone genius photographer and highlights the work of all those behind the camera. It gives credit to the people who have oftentimes gone unnoticed or have been confined to the background, thus improving our understanding of photographic history.

Reviewed by Bernard Z. Keo, Monash University

How to Cite This Source

"Inside the Decisive Network," in in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/inside-decisive-network [accessed December 3, 2021]

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Screenshot of the 'Staff' page of The Decisive Network
“Developing our understanding about photography ... Inside the Decisive Network is a much-needed flash of brilliance that problematises the image of the lone genius photographer and highlights the work of all those behind the camera”