Temples of stone: In the footsteps of George Rodger

Image copyright Stuart Franklin

Photographers rarely work in a vacuum, their work is usually inspired by - or a reflection of - what has come before.

At times that trigger is hard to define, but some projects use an existing body of work as the start point. Magnum Retold is one such series, where photographers take their cue from work by early members of Magnum Photos.

One of those is Temples of Stone, by Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin, who travelled to Egypt and Morocco in the footsteps of one of the founders of the agency, Briton George Rodger, who made the journey through north Africa 60 years ago.

"I have a huge respect for and memory of George's work: from his powerful wartime images of Bergen-Belsen to his monumental take on the Nuba," says Franklin.

"But I was drawn emphatically to his north African landscapes because they said so much about George, about his restlessness, his curiosity, and his search for some understanding of how nature and society functioned in Africa."

Image copyright George Rodger
Image caption Jinx Rodger accompanied her husband on a 4,000-mile journey across the Sahara desert

The four founders of Magnum Photos, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David "Chim" Seymour, divided the world so they had their own patch to cover, with Rodger focusing on Africa. He made many trips to the continent, including one in 1957 where he crossed the Sahara with his wife Jinx, covering 4,000 miles in three months.

The resulting pictures show the beauty of the landscape, historic monuments and of course the people he met on the way. The world has inevitably moved on, yet the landscapes of today are much the same as those the Rodgers crossed by Land Rover all those years ago.

Image copyright George Rodger

"George Rodger loved the desert, Africa, the open road, the unexplored in landscape, and people untouched by modernity," says Franklin. "This last feature has gone, but I found the rest much as he'd left them in the 1950s.

"Starting points are wonderful opportunities for photographers and artists. A path has been cleared but the road is unmade. This allows for the creative possibility to build something new."

"I've always been interested in landscape and especially the interface between nature and society. The joy is in the way everything overlaps: weathered statues and rock buttresses, human and natural forms, each chiselled out of the desert and stone outcrops in a union of dream-world archaeology.

"This eventually became the focus, the road ahead for me. It led to this project and tribute to George Rodger."

Image copyright Stuart Franklin
Image caption The Winston Churchill suite at the Old Cataract Hotel, where he stayed, overlooks the River Nile

Rodger was working at a time when photographers would vanish for months on end, returning from assignments with bags of film which would be edited and crafted into shape to run in magazines and newspapers. Today, of course, for many it's all instant uploads and social sharing.

"I grew up in that world of waiting weeks and sometimes months to see the photographs I'd shot - especially when working for National Geographic," says Franklin.

"Then there was a long wait for publication, so a lot more tweaking, checking and even reshooting would take place. The faster turnaround of images presents challenges as well as opportunities.

"A lack of depth and context in the world of instant uploads is a serious issue, but one that is widely recognised in the industry. The opportunity is there to work on longer-form stories, on photo-books, but again this demands more financial opportunities for photographers to work in this way."

Image copyright Stuart Franklin
Image caption Ramesseum, Temple of Rameses II, Luxor, Egypt
Image copyright Stuart Franklin
Image caption Stone formation near Tafraout, Morocco

Photographs are about recording traces of things, many of which pass in an instant; others, like these stone formations and statues, last far longer. So why is it important to record these objects that may well outlive the images made of them?

"Photography - images - help us to understand what's going on in different parts of the world in a way that's a struggle sometimes for text.

"Documentary photography, done with sensitivity, helps us to engage socially, politically and environmentally with human and planetary issues from the smallest story about life in a suburban-edge town to the largest story of conflict, various forms of abuse or species extinction."

Image copyright Stuart Franklin
Image caption Stone formation near Tafraout, Morocco
Image copyright Stuart Franklin
Image caption Stone formation near Tafraout, Morocco
Image copyright Stuart Franklin
Image caption Between Luxor and Aswan, part of the Western Desert Road

Temples of Stone, by Stuart Franklin can be seen at the Leica Studio Mayfair, 17 January - 16 February 2018.

You can see more of George Rodger's photographs from his trip in 1957 on the Magnum Photos website. Photographs © Stuart Franklin / Magnum Photos and © George Rodger / Magnum Photos

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