Stuart Franklin retells the Saharan story of Magnum co-founder George Rodger
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In 1957, Magnum co-founder George Rodger set out with his wife Jinx on a 4,000 mile Land Rover trek across the Sahara, to photograph the then undocumented landscape. Jinx would later describe it as ‘one of the most punishing trips on earth’. That July, while the dauntless duo were crossing the sands, back in London, Stuart Franklin was turning one.
Now a world renowned photojournalist, and erstwhile president of Magnum (2006-2009), Franklin has retraced Rodger’s tyre-tracks to pay homage to his original photoseries.
Egypt, Lake Nasser. The temple of el Seboua on the edges of the lake, 2017, by Stuart Franklin. © The artist / Magnum Photos
The epic retracing comes as part of Magnum’s 70th anniversary exhibition series – ‘Magnum Retold’ – in which the agency has asked a handful of its most esteemed members to retell a notable photo story from its archive.
Rodger’s Saharan expedition immediately presented itself to Franklin. ‘There was a certain monumentality to George’s approach to landscape that appealed to me,’ he explains. ‘I've always been interested in the way landscape relates to us, as individuals and collectively. George’s images of the Sahara have a curious way of handling this. They capture the space, the silence, the enormity of the desert in relation to its population.’
Tafraout, Morocco. Landscapes within 10 km of the town, Morocco, 2017, by Stuart Franklin. © The artist / Magnum Photos
Before setting out in May last year, Franklin read George and Jinx’s diaries, which capture the treacherous nature of their journey, but also its vast beauty. ‘We were up early and on the route to Kerzaz by 9am,’ writes Jinx on 13 May, 1957. ‘Already the wind was messing around and there was sand in the air and a sickly sun.’ Such conditions made their photographic mission near impossible. She later notes, ‘Boiling hot here. Too much sand in the air to take pictures so we went for a walk sans cameras. Came back and drank litres of water faintly flavoured with Anisette.’
As well as being hunted by sandstorms and buffetted by heat, Rodger and Jinx’s trip was curtailed by the manmade braces of visa-constraints. They petitioned entry into Algeria for three weeks before even leaving Paris. Symetrically, it’s a fate that also befell Franklin half a century on. He, too, was refused an Algerian visa, and was forced to redirect his trip through Morocco.
Aswan, Egypt. View of the River Nile from The Winston Churchill Suite, of the Old Cascades Hotel, Churchill first stayed there in 1902, 2017, by Stuart Franklin. © The artist / Magnum Photos
Despite this, Franklin was able to revisit many of the locations that Jinx and George Rodger stumbled upon 50 years prior, like the Colossi of Memnon in Egypt and Tafraout in Morocco. He found them largely unchanged. ‘Of course, the roads have improved drastically, as have the irrigation systems, and the population has increased, but the leftovers of British colonial legacy haven’t shifted, and neither has the overall feeling Rodger rendered.’
Capturing the same, very particular, aesthetic quality of Rodger’s work was another matter, however – ‘It’s one thing to really like someone’s work, it’s another to create something tonally similar.’ Franklin made use of the long-lensed Leica cameras favoured by Rodger, and, as the diaries reveal that Rodger chose to shoot very early in the morning, Franklin followed suit. ‘At this time, the light had a poetic quality,’ he explains. ‘And people weren’t dancing around in the sand because they were in bed. It was near deserted.’
In these stoic images, where sand-washed temples and hand-chiselled stone monuments sink back into the earth, and two men interrupt the empty dunes, Rodger’s vision sings. Though we may travel 4,000 miles and traverse half a century, we do so with Rodger’s eyes and Franklin’s lens – a tribute to both of their journeys, and the long and valuable legacy of Magnum’s 70 year history.