Magnum Paris Gallery Director Samantha McCoy Brings New Photographic Talent to the Medium’s Ancestral Home

Photography’s links with Paris date back to its origins. Louis Daguerre first revealed his new daguerreotype in the City of Lights in 1839, sparking a symbiotic relationship between the medium and the city that lasted nearly 200 years.

So it’s only fitting that Magnum Photos – the legendary cooperative founded by a group that included Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson and now counts among its ranks leading photographers like Steve McCurry and Alec Soth – chose to inaugurate a new gallery enlarged. space in the fashionable 11th arrondissement of Paris in October last year. The first exhibition, “New York,” combining historical photographs of the city by Bruce Davidson with recent images by contemporary photographer Khalik Allah, was curated by Samantha McCoy, director of Magnum’s Paris gallery. McCoy, who took on the role in 2020, has spent her life in the arts. His father established the Jason McCoy Gallery in Midtown Manhattan in the 1980s. His great-uncle was none other than Jackson Pollock. And she has big plans for the gallery space of this special year, the photo agency founded in 1947 is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

We recently caught up with McCoy to find out more about what’s on the agenda for this anniversary year, his favorite part of his job, and some up-and-coming Magnum photographers to keep on our radar.

Khalik Allah, Harlem, New York, USA (2018), from the “125th & Lexington” series. Courtesy of Khalik Allah/Magnum Photos.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, how did you get interested in the arts and how did you find your way to this position?

My father has a gallery in New York, Jason McCoy Gallery. He mainly deals with modern and contemporary works, and I grew up going to his gallery in the Fuller Building on 57th Street. My great-uncle was Jackson Pollock, so I guess it’s in my blood! I have memories of being a young kid at the gallery, typing letters on the typewriter. I worked for my father for several years. I started to think about how we could incorporate photography into our exhibitions as I became more and more interested in the directness of the medium. His gallery was in the same building as the Howard Greenberg Gallery, the famous photography gallery. Unconsciously, perhaps, I was looking for this medium that seized me. I liked that you don’t need any art background to get into photography; you might just immediately connect with work. After I stopped working with my father, Magnum was an opportunity for me to immerse myself in learning the medium. I’ve been with Magnum for about five years now. I started in New York and moved to Paris a little over two and a half years ago.

Why was it important for Magnum to expand and have an exhibition space in a Parisian location? Magnum has long had an office in the city, but I think this is the first exhibition space Magnum has had in Paris for about ten years, if I’m not mistaken?

For many years we had a building in the 18th arrondissement in the northeast of Paris. It was a fantastic and 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 look more like a office building. It was therefore not the ideal configuration. When I took on this role, I started looking for a new space where we could present 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 shine a light on our photographers and the great diversity of their work, and really puts us on the playing field of the art world in Paris today. Where should we be? We are Magnum, aren’t we? We have an incredible amount of material from our archives that we now have a place for. Prior to opening this space there was a lack of presence and understanding that we even had this whole department here so it was important to me that we let people know that we are here and operate like any what other gallery.

The Parisian gallery scene seems to be exploding. What is the feeling on the pitch?
You get the feeling that more and more galleries are opening here, as well as institutions, and the city is becoming a really important place. In a way, Paris regains the central place it had in the art world before the Second World War. And the city has always been in dialogue with culture, but now it is happening in a new way. On a daily basis, we see a good number of people entering the gallery, people from all walks of life. As I said, photography is a particularly accessible medium, so we attract a lot of families, just as we also attract serious collectors and museum curators. It’s nice to have a gallery space to welcome them all!

As a gallery director, what does a typical day look like?
There is no typical day, there are always surprises. What is consistent is meeting clients, new or old, bringing them through our space and guiding them through the exhibition. One of the great things about our space and Magnum in general is the archive. We have a back room where we have original contact sheets by Robert Capra and a few other photographers, which I like to show photography enthusiasts. Our huge library is also visible. There’s this kind of behind-the-scenes treatment and introductions to Magnum and the gallery.

There is also a lot of work with our photographers; whether it’s a specific series, new work they produce or the organization of their next exhibitions. Really, you never get bored!

Susan Meiselas, MG1107372 USA.  Vermont.  Essex Junction.  August 1973. Club Flamingo (1973) from the series "Carnival strippers." Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.

Susan Meiselas, MG1107372 United States. Vermont. Essex Junction. August 1973. Club Flamingo (1973), from the “Carnival Strippers” series. Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.

Has the pandemic hurt the photography market?
Going back to this idea that photography is an accessible medium, while it’s always helpful to see a work in person, photography is a medium that people feel comfortable acquiring online, whether reason for the price, technique or flatness of the medium and how that translates online. We found a lot of people spending more time at home, canceled plans, and perhaps more able to invest money in photography, in fact.

Something coming up that excites you?
Right now we have an exhibition of works by Susan Meiselas called ‘Carnival Strippers Revisited’ which features works from her famous series from the 1970s. have never been shown before, so the exhibition juxtaposes these color works with the series’ iconic black and white images.

At the end of May we are going to open an exhibition of work by American photographer Alex Webb, who works in color and is less well known in Europe, so I am delighted to bring this work here. In the fall, we will have an exhibition with Martin Parr and the anonymous project. It’s based on the book, Already See, who combine their works, and this is the first time that we bring an outside voice, creating a dialogue between the two. Finally, for our 75th anniversary, I hope that a more experienced Magnum photographer will organize the exhibition of a younger photographer.

Which young Magnum photographers do you think we should know about?

Khalik Allah is definitely on the rise. Plus, people are really starting to pay attention to Matt Black and Nanna Heitmann, definitely.

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Michael E. Marquez