This week we speak to Sophie Wright, Global Cultural Director at Magnum Photos. A prestigious and unique photographic organisation and longstanding PHOTOFAIRS exhibitor, Magnum Photos represents some of the key names and innovators in documentary photography of the past 70 years. It is a photographic cooperative of great diversity and distinction, founded in 1947 by four pioneering photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. Today it remains a cooperative, owned by its photographer members, and encompasses over 70 working photographers and estates.
At this year’s fair, Magnum featured artworks from artists Marc Riboud, Jim Goldberg and Alec Soth.
The full interview can be found below.
Please describe your arts background and how you became a Director for a unique photography collective organisation like Magnum?
It’s a circuitous career route that of course makes sense in retrospect! I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, in a middle class creative family where my parents, who were architects, were interested in art and design and history. After a Foundation art course in Manchester I did a modern history degree at Oxford (I studiously avoided contemporary history, instead specialising in art history subjects - Italy & Flanders in the quattrocento for example!) which I loved, and then after a year back in Belfast learning secretarial skills, I went on to do an MA at the Courtauld Institute on Art & Patronage in Britain 1945-65 (mostly chosen as I wasn’t proficient in another language). While there, I worked part-time on Cork Street for Waddington Galleries.
I tried to get a job in the art world after this, but despite getting close on a couple of occasions couldn’t get a break, so I took a job as a picture research assistant at Penguin books. That was 1999 and it was the first time I encountered the Magnum archive. It was when the first silver bound Modern Classics were coming out, with plenty of space for pictures and no over-typing, so we could get clearance for much more premium pictures as the libraries knew they would be well presented. I also encountered quite a lot of young photographers who would come to show their work, and so I got used to being an intermediary between the photographers and the design departments. When I left a year later, to work for a new start up photo agency, the book I was given as a leaving gift was...Magnum Degrees!!
After a fun, brief time at the photo agency, I then moved on to work with Daniel Newburg and PLUK (photography in LONDON & the UK) magazine. There I got to write on photography, curate, work with the graphic designers on layout, and generally get a lot of lowly paid but great experience, while making a good network of contacts.
After that I had a brief freelance interlude before the role of Exhibitions Manager at Magnum came up. That was 2003. I had left Penguin for a number of small creative organisations, with the support of my parents who had their own small business, but by that point I was ready to work for a big brand again. I had a three year plan when I joined, and here I still am 15 years later. Not only did I meet my husband there, but I’ve grown up and gained huge experience in my role, now leading our Cultural & Print Sales strategy & programme globally.
Who or what is your greatest inspiration as Global Director of such a prestigious brand?
My family (my actual family and then Magnum, which is also a family of sorts). A large inter-generational collection of photographers, fractious at times, but bound by their membership of the agency and their joint exploration of documentary photography. There are a number of incredibly smart, driven individuals who I collaborate with, both photographers and my colleagues in the global management team with expertise in licensing, digital, editorial and commercial departments. I get to work with them, and an archive of over 71 years of history. Magnum is a complex organisation that drives me crazy at times, but is also hugely stimulating. I know that I am lucky
When you attend fairs and exhibitions, what kind of works are you on the look-out for? What opportunities do you seek out for Magnum, and its photographers?
My job is to introduce and excite curators, commissioners, publishers and buyers with the work of Magnum photographers. I’m also keen to understand the context - the market, the ways of presenting work, the audience, the opportunities for them and for Magnum to develop.
What was your highlight of this year’s PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai?
It’s clear that a process of refinement has taken place in terms of the layout and presentation. It’s also clear that effort is being made to build an engaged audience for the work. I respect what the fair is trying to do in a young and at times challenging photo market.
What do you hope to exhibit in coming year?
That would be telling!