Magnum photographer Peter Marlow (pictured below) reveals how he overcame a stolen lens and competition from 200 other photographers to capture this telling shot of the historic first meeting between US president Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev…
It was the first time Reagan and Gorbachev had met.
Both sides realised the Cold War had to end and came together in November 1985 in Geneva for talks about the arms race. Gorbachev was belligerent and Reagan was uncompromising; the whole thing was considered a failure, although it started a process of dialogue. I went on to photograph them again a year later in Reykjavik and the talks there, though also difficult, led to a major breakthrough with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
I was photographing the summit for Time magazine and as a Magnum project. I had been part of a French photo agency called Sygma but had left three or four years before this. Sygma was a real dog-eat-dog agency – very competitive. There must have been about 200 photographers at this press conference, including many of my old Sygma colleagues. We were all set up at the back of the hall. One highly experienced Sygma photographer, Alain Nogues, couldn’t get into the press conference and his colleagues wouldn’t help him. I surreptitiously handed Alain my pass on the other side of the barrier so he flashed it and came through. The Sygma photographers were appalled but I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t help the guy – from the same agency.
When I got back, the lens I wanted to use – a 180 mm Nikon lens, which is quite expensive and ideal for this sort of thing – had been stolen out of my bag. I said to Alain, “Some bastard’s taken my lens”. He said, “OK borrow mine”. And with that lens I took this picture. The moral of the story is obvious: be nice to people. But the other thing was that even with 200 other photographers in the room, nobody else got that picture. The gesture and the expressions must have been incredibly momentary.
You’re always aware, when working for Time or Newsweek or Life magazine, that people only turn the page once. You’ve got to get the story across in one picture. One of my colleagues, Gilles Peress claimed he saw a better picture than this when Reagan and Gorbachev and the two interpreters were shaking hands at the same time. He said it made a beautiful cross but I couldn’t see it.
Peter’s advice to young photographers:
Be persistent. Often my reaction when there are loads of other photographers around is to disappear and go somewhere else but this story shows that it is always possible, even when you’re working with other people, to get something unique.
More Iconic Image:
Peter Marlow's new book, The English Cathedral, is published early October. Read a blog by Peter about the creative process behind the project on the Magnum website. Click the following links for the trade edition, collectors edition and to see it on Amazon.
Peter Marlow was talking to Rachel Segal Hamilton.
Main image © Peter Marlow / Magnum Photos.
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