Beyond Photography: Marx Brothers, Meet Magnum Photos

The Marx Brothers -- Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo -- in 1931 (Image: Public Domain)
The Marx Brothers — Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo — in 1931 (Image: Public Domain)

Chances are, only their mother called them Leonard, Arthur, Julius or Herbert. To the rest of us, they’ve always been the Marx Brothers. The brothers’ schtick had been refined by years of live work in vaudeville and on Broadway before they ever graced the silver screen, and that experience shows through in their movies’ fast-and-loose, anarchic spirit. It takes a lot of discipline to hone your timing to a point where things can look as though they might fly apart at any minute and yet be so incredibly tight; what looked so spontaneous was, in fact, scripted, repeatedly rehearsed, and — in the case of the earlier films, like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — worked out on stage in endless variations.

Part of the Marx Brothers’ appeal and longevity comes from the personae adopted by the three best-known brothers, based on ethnic stereotypes that were popular on stage and screen at the time (Herbert/Zeppo was the group’s straight man, a distinction he sometimes shared with Margaret Dumont until his departure). Leonard, better known as Chico,* was a wisecracking “Italian” pianist, while Adolph (later Arthur, still later Harpo, for obvious reasons) played a supposedly “Irish” type (though generally mute, in any case) and the wisecracking, guitar-playing Julius — that’s Groucho to you — was as likely to play something vaguely German or Dutch, at least until World War I era anti-German sentiment lead him to adapt something broadly Yiddish.

On the one hand, the movies are as effective as they are because the four (or later, three) cohere so well as a unit. This is especially apparent in scenes like A Night At The Opera‘s famous stateroom scene, or a particularly memorable bit from Horse Feathers that… well, watch it, and you’ll see what I mean. On the other hand, there are equally important and even influential scenes that rely on two of the brothers in tandem (Chico and Harpo’s “Tutsi Fruitsi ice cream” interlude, or Harpo and Groucho’s mirror sequence that would later be re-created on “I Love Lucy.” The brothers would also have set pieces in the films that allowed them to shine as individuals, whether they were musical numbers, or some of Groucho’s more memorable (and nonsensical) monologues.

Image from “Looking for America: Ohio” (Photo credit: Alec Soth/Magnum Photos)

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Magnum Photos, or with photography at all. I’ll get to that part in a bit. Meantime, let’s stop to consider Magnum. Magnum Photos was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, and had as its founding members David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and William Vandivert.*** From the agency’s earliest days, its photographers have been a diverse lot, in terms not only of their nationalities but also their distinct photographic approaches and voices. Capa was a war photographer, Cartier-Bresson a street photographer, and subsequent members have been a mix of photojournalists, documentarians, travel photographers… well, you get the picture.

For all the differences in their respective approaches, however, there are still unifying threads to be found among the hundreds of thousands of Magnum images. There’s an innate curiosity, a unique visual sense, and a consistent commitment to quality that means that there’s a house ethic, if not a house esthetic. It’s those things that unite the work of photographers like Franck, Parr, Haas and Arnold, despite their surface dissimilarities. It’s why the Magnum name endures, and it’s also what’s made the rare collaborations among Magnum members so interesting.

The members of Magnum greatly outnumber the Marx Brothers, and I don’t think they’ve been influenced by Vaudeville (I don’t think that Elliot Erwitt is given to sporting a greasepaint mustache), but I’d still argue that there are important similarities between the two. Collective work doesn’t necessarily have to mean the members of the group submitting to some kind of “house style.”

Sometimes, whether you’re part of a photo collective, an agency, a one-off collaboration, or just (in Groucho’s memorable words) one of “four nice Jewish boys trying to be funny,” a sense of common purpose — even if it’s arrived at in a cacophony of voices — is just as important as a sense of common style. The works of these two entities, the Marxes and Magnum, are the result of what each person brings to the table as an individual. What makes it all gel is that the overriding concern isn’t that everyone should sound, or look, alike; rather, it’s a matter of respecting the process, honoring the work, and allowing each to shine so that all can shine.

As with seemingly everything else, there’s a Wikipedia entry on the Marx Brothers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx_Brothers). You can also find a proliferation of fan sites, such as http://www.marx-brothers.org/ and http://www.marxbrothers.nu/  (Google will help you locate plenty more). When it comes to film, there’s The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection**, which anthologizes their earlier films (from 1929’s The Cocoanuts through their 1933 masterpiece Duck Soup), and an anthology of their later work, titled The Marx Brothers Collection**, which anthologizes their work at Warner Brothers. Of the latter set, A Night at the Opera (1935) is the unquestionable highlight. Given that their work after that film fell off dramatically in terms of quality (though there’d be moments of genius in each of the later films), you could just as easily pick up “Opera” by itself in tandem with the first collection and have all the essentials. In print, meanwhile, there are a few excellent options. Glen Mitchell’s The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia** was recently reissued and is a handy reference for all things Marx. Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business** is a good biography of the brothers as a troupe, while Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx** is an excellent study of the most famous Marx Brother.

When it comes to Magnum, there are literally hundreds of options. After all, we’re dealing with an agency that’s employed some of the best (and best-known) photographers in the world over the course of its history. On the web, their own site (http://www.magnumphotos.com/) is the best starting point; from there, it’s relatively easy to zero in on photographers whose work you find particularly interesting. In terms of books, there are two recent standouts on the agency as a whole (you can certainly find plenty more if the mood strikes). Magnum Magnum,** by Brigitte Lardinois, is a fairly comprehensive overview of work from the agency’s entire history, while In Our Time: The World As Seen by Magnum Photographers** (William Manchester et. al.) actually picks up some time before the agency’s founding.

*Actually pronounced “Chick-o,” in case you were wondering.

***Calling HCB, Seymour and Rodger founding members gets into a bit of a gray area, since none of them were present at the initial meeting.

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