Sylvie Rebbot, our collaborator, knew Bruno Barbey very well. She sent us this very beautiful tribute.
New York, March or April 1979. Five in the morning the telephone rings. Convinced that Mom is at the end of the line, I growl Hello, a moment of silence then a male voice: it’s Bruno Barbey who invites me to come and take charge of the Archives of the Paris office of Magnum, of which he is Vice-President.
I had been working for two years for a small New York agency Woodfin Camp. Woody had been the director of the Magnum archives a few years before; some Magnum photographers knew him. Marc Riboud, whom I had met, asked me to go and see how Woody was handling the archives, those of Magnum needing to be reorganized. Woody hired me. I was thirty years old, I had left a companion with whom I had lived according to our desires, the climate, the need to be near the sea or the mountain or to join a big city to find books and music… I needed to take my life back in my hands and plant some roots, New York suited me, I had friends there and it was the city my brother had adopted. But Paris, Magnum I said: yes. That year under Bruno’s leadership, there were a lot of changes at Magnum.
Director Anna Obolenski had left to open her own agency. Power had been divided by three, an editorial director, a financial director and a director of the archives. Three women to ensure the responsibilities. I did not know Bruno and when I arrived in Paris after an internship of a few weeks at the NY office I arrived without a helmet and without a rifle – the gifts that René Burri in New York had deemed essential – the two offices having the reputation of strong competition. And since I had just arrived from NY, I was the spy, the evil fairy that the employees of the Paris agency, entrenched at their posts, were going to want to kill. So the first day I expected to meet Bruno, but in his place a nice letter wishing me good luck with in the envelope a photo of my brother taken in Poland kneeling in front of John Paul II a bit in front of the photographers to be as close as possible to his subject. It is not much, but it’s already a lot, there is total confidence. Upon his return shortly before the annual Magnum meeting – which accepted two new photographers, Sebastiao Salgado and Chris Steele Perkins, we sat down to work out plans for the archives. Bruno was to leave soon for Portugal and before their departure Bruno and Caroline his wife gave me the key to their apartment on the Ile St. Louis. They are open and extremely generous, and both very attractive. This summer there will be a few parties up there under the roofs in this very beautiful loft. Magnum parties of course. At that time I was free and my life became Magnum from morning until late at night. Little by little I got to know Bruno, I discovered that I had to be patient with him. You could make proposals, ask questions, but he took time to think it over to give the right answer after thinking about all the angles of the problem. Since I grew up in Morocco like him, he called me “my sister”, a term of familiarity and friendship. I dove into its archives: our Morocco of course, and discovered the precise framing, the radiant colors, I found the light. He is an accomplished photographer, we quickly feel in his images the respect he has for people, we feel his kindness, his generosity. He takes pictures, he doesn’t steal them, he also gives a lot. His sense of history is obvious, he is everywhere at the right time and everywhere he takes his time to get to the bottom of things. Our collaboration will not have been very long in Paris. With his support I left for Magnum New York and the archives. Then two years later, after my brother’s death, I decided to come back to Paris. N-Y didn’t have the same appeal for me anymore.
Back in France, I had to make a difficult choice. I called Bruno, with his advice he gave me the freedom to choose. He had the right words, calm and posed as he was himself. Thank you, I salute you Bruno “my brother” from over there.