But as the Internet emerged as a dominant force over the last decade, Magnum was slow to embrace change, leaving its future and role in the photography business in doubt.
"I think it's fair to say that Magnum was still functioning on a dying business model," said Mark Lubell, director of Magnum's New York office. "There were fractious debates inside of Magnum about where the agency should be going."
But Lubell believes Magnum Photos Inc. is finally starting to find its focus. Lubell has embarked on an ambitious turnaround since taking over in 2004, despite having a limited photography resume.
He updated Magnum's business roadmap, and has launched an effort to sell more pictures online while cutting costs and the agency's longtime dependence on selling photos to primarily newspapers and magazines. Those licensing fees have been instrumental in keeping Magnum afloat.
Magnum, which currently represents 60 photographers and 10 estates and has four offices around the world with 93 employees, is on track to make money this year, Lubell says.
Every year, agency members review the portfolios of aspiring Magnum photographers and those who pass muster are invited to become nominees. If they continue doing high-level work, they can eventually become associates and ultimately full-fledged members.
The agency essentially acts as the agent for Magnum photographers, getting a fee from each assignment generated - mostly from magazines but also from corporate clients. Magnum also has a publishing division. The photographers own Magnum and control its fate.
Arguably the most famous photo agency in the world, Magnum was founded in 1947 by such giants as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson to protect the lucrative copyrights to their pictures, the AP reports.
Magnum photographers distinguished themselves not only using their cameras but also their courage. Three of Magnum's photographers, including founders Capa and David Seymour, were killed while on assignment.
War, though, was not the only story Magnum shooters covered. They have captured indelible moments like Dennis Stock's 1955 picture of James Dean in Times Square and Steve McCurry's 1985 portrait of a young Afghan refugee that landed on the cover of National Geographic.
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