Magnum’s Paris Gallery Director Samantha McCoy Is Introducing Fresh Photographic Talent to the Medium’s Ancestral Home
The famed photo agency is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and recently inaugurated a new Paris gallery space.
Photography’s ties to Paris go back to its very origins. Louis Daguerre first revealed his novel daguerreotype in the City of Lights in 1839, sparking off a symbiotic relationship between medium and city that has lasted nearly 200 years.
It is only fitting, then, that Magnum Photos—the legendary cooperative founded by a group that included Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson and now counts leading lensmen like Steve McCurry and Alec Soth among its ranks—chose to inaugurate a new and expanded gallery space in Paris’s fashionable 11th arrondissement in October of last year. The first exhibition, “New York,” pairing Bruce Davidson’s historical photographs of the city with contemporary photographer Khalik Allah’s recent images, was assembled by Samantha McCoy, director of Magnum’s Paris gallery. McCoy, who took on the role in 2020, has spent her lifetime in the arts. Her father established the Jason McCoy Gallery in Midtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Her great-uncle was none other than Jackson Pollock. And she has big plans for the gallery space for this special year—the photo agency which was founded in 1947 is celebrating 75 years.
We recently caught up with McCoy to learn more about what’s on the docket for this anniversary year, her favorite part of her job, and some up-and-coming Magnum photographers to keep on our radars.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself—how you became interested in the arts and found your way to this position?
My father has a gallery in New York, Jason McCoy Gallery. He deals mostly with Modern and contemporary work, and I grew up going to his gallery in the Fuller Building on 57th Street. My great-uncle was Jackson Pollock—and the importance of art and culture was paramount in my upbringing. I have memories of being a young child at the gallery, typing out letters on the typewriter. I worked for my father for several years. I started to think about how we could bring photography into our exhibitions as I became increasingly interested in the directness of the medium. His gallery was in the same building as Howard Greenberg Gallery—the famed photography gallery. Subconsciously, maybe, I was looking for that medium that grabbed me. I liked that you didn’t need any background in art to access photography; you could just immediately connect with the work. After I stopped working with my father, Magnum was an opportunity for me to immerse myself in learning more about the medium. I’ve been with Magnum for about five years now. I started in New York and I moved to Paris a little more than two and a half years ago.
Why was it important for Magnum to expand and have an exhibition space in a Paris location? Magnum has long had an office in the city, but I think this is the first exhibition space Magnum has had in Paris in some 10 years, if I’m correct?
For many years, we had a building in the 18th arrondissement in the northeast of Paris. It was a fantastic, beautiful building, but not a place to really show art—we hung things on the wall, but the way the building was constructed and the location made it more like an office building. So it was not the ideal setup. When I took this role, I started looking for a new space where we could showcase the photographs. We found a space in the 11th, which is a much more central area and about a 20-minute walk from the Marais. This space allows us to highlight our photographers and the vast diversity of their work, and really puts us on the playing field in the art world in Paris today. Which is where we should be: We’re Magnum, right? We have an incredible breadth of material from our archives that we now have a place for. Before we opened this space, there was a lack of presence and understanding that we even had this whole department here, so it was important for me that we let people know we are here and operate like any other gallery.
The Paris gallery scene seems to be blowing up. What’s the feeling on the ground?
There is a feeling that more and more galleries are opening up here, as well as institutions, and that the city becoming a really important place to be. In some sense, Paris is reclaiming the central place it had in the art world before World War II. And the city has consistently been in dialogue with culture—but now it’s kind of coming to fruition in a new way. In the day-to-day, we see a fair amount of people coming into the gallery—people from all walks of life. As I’ve said, photography is an especially accessible medium, so we attract a lot of families, just as we attract serious collectors and museum curators as well. It’s nice to have a gallery space to welcome them all!
As the gallery director, what’s a typical day like?
There’s no typical day—there are always surprises. What’s consistent is meetings with clients, new or old, taking them through our space and walking them through the exhibition. One of the great things about our space and about Magnum in general is the archive. We have a back room where we have original contact sheet prints by Robert Capa and a few other photographers, which I like to show people who are passionate about photography. Our immense library is also on view. There are these kinds of behind-the-scenes treatments and introductions to Magnum and the gallery.
Of course, I am regularly working with our photographers as well; whether it’s about a specific series, new work they’re producing, or organizing their next exhibitions. Really, there’s never a dull moment!
Did the pandemic put a dent in the photography market?
To go back to this idea of photography being an approachable medium, while it’s always helpful to see a work in person, photography is a medium that people feel comfortable acquiring online—whether because of the price point, the technique, or the flatness of the medium and how that translates online. We found a lot of people spending more time at home, plans canceled, and perhaps more able to put money into photography, actually.
Anything coming up that you’re excited about?
Right now we have an exhibition of works by Susan Meiselas, called “Carnival Strippers Revisited,” which showcases works from her famous series from the 1970s. She actually shot a lot of color works for the series which have never been shown before, so the exhibition is juxtaposing these color works alongside iconic black-and-white images from the series.
We also have an exhibition of works by the American photographer Alex Webb, who works in color and who is less known in Europe, so I’m excited to bring that work here. In the fall, we will have an exhibition with Martin Parr and the Anonymous Project. It’s based on the book, Déjà View, which paired their works, and it’s the first time we’re bringing in an outside voice, creating a dialogue between the two. Lastly, for our 75th anniversary year, I’m hoping to have a more seasoned Magnum photographer curate a show of a younger photographer.
Who are some younger Magnum photographers you think we should know?
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