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UT to house famed photo archive

Ransom Center lands Magnum collection of historical news photos with help from Dell.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

The University of Texas' Ransom Center will be home for five years to nearly 200,000 original photographs taken by the legendary staff of Magnum Photos, the long-standing international agency, the university announced Tuesday.

The Magnum Photos archive was purchased last year by MSD Capital, the $10 billion private investment firm for the family of Michael Dell.

Officials from MSD Capital and Magnum Photos would not disclose the purchase price of the private sale. UT officials said the Ransom Center insured the collection for $100 million.

The Magnum collection contains photographs dating from the 1930s through the 1990s and includes images of major world events, celebrities and startlingly candid shots by famed photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Elliott Erwitt, Leonard Freed and Bruce Davidson.

"I am so pleased to be able to entrust this significant body of work to the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas for research, study and exhibition," Dell said in a written statement. "The Ransom Center has a well-known record of excellence and is ideally suited to manage the archiving and study of such a substantial and important collection. Having this incredible collection in Austin is especially exciting to me."

As part of its arrangement with Magnum Photos and MSD Capital, the Ransom Center has agreed to catalog and preserve the entire photo archive as well as host exhibitions and public programs. The Ransom Center will also make digital scans of every image. Magnum and its photographers retain the copyright and licensing rights to the images. Dell's MSD Capital will retain ownership of the photographs.

The cost to UT and the Ransom Center for the Magnum archive's care and cataloging has not been determined, said Ransom Center spokeswoman Jen Tisdale.

Tisdale said the archive, which arrived in Austin recently in two trucks, will be assessed by the center's staff before it is made available to the public. "That assessment will inform the allocation of resources devoted to its care," Tisdale said.

A spokesman for MSD Capital said that both the investment firm and Magnum Photos are making financial contributions to the Ransom Center to support the care and archiving of the collection, but he would not disclose the amount of those donations. Cataloging, digitizing and publicly exhibiting an archive ultimately adds to its value. No plans for the archive have been made beyond the five-year arrangement.

The agreement between the Ransom Center, Magnum Photos and MSD Capital comes as the university is facing budget cuts including the controversial move to shut down the Cactus Cafe and cancel the UT informal classes program.

Mark Lubell, managing director of Magnum Photos, said the cooperatively owned agency was looking to monetize its assets in a shrinking print media industry and a growing digital marketplace where images are plentiful and often free.

"We were also looking for how to secure the legacy of our images," Lubell said. "And we weren't in the position to take the archive and make it into a research archive."

The agency represents 51 photographers and 13 estates. Lubell said that with the proceeds from the sale to MSD Capital, Magnum will "develop new digital distribution platforms" for its photographs.

Magnum, founded in 1947, is owned and managed by its member photographers. The earliest images in the archive now at the Ransom Center include those by Capa of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Photos of the D-Day landings, the civil rights movement and war in Afghanistan are in the collection, as well as photos of Marilyn Monroe, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Andy Warhol and Mohandas Gandhi.

The Magnum archive joins other important collections at the Ransom Center, including the Gernsheim Collection, which contains the world's first photograph, made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. UT's Briscoe Center for American History holds the archives of many noted photojournalists including Eddie Adams, David H. Kennerly and Russell Lee.

And Dell himself joins an exclusive club of high-tech titans who have purchased important photography collections. In 1995, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, through his privately owned digital stock photo company Corbis Corp., purchased the Bettmann Archive, a collection of 19 million prints assembled by German collector Otto Bettman. Corbis sells copies of its photographs to the public and the media.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699