Feature Photo: Copyright Steve McCurry
Steve McCurry has earned fame as a photographer who produced some of the most exquisitely beautiful colour images in the past several decades. McCurry’s critics, and there have been many, ask whether his photographs aren’t too beautiful. In contrast to photojournalists, who go for the action, McCurry’s photographs often portray scenes that in the eyes of any other photographer might seem completely mundane. It is the dynamic range and richness of the colours and the composition of these seemingly ordinary situations that turn them into fine art.
Although McCurry started out as a photojournalist, covering the early war in Afghanistan, it is obvious from the body of his work that he has evolved from a simple photojournalist into something quite a bit more. Today his work has a closer resemblance to the work of a fine artist who uses photography to express a reality that he is attracted to through his own imagination. McCurry describes himself as a “teller of stories.”
Part I of our Steve McCurry profile can be seen HERE. For our podcast interview with McCurry, including advice for young photographers, see LINK HERE. Please note that depending on the COVID19 situation in Switzerland, the Steve McCurry “Wabi-sabi, Beauty in Imperfection” exhibition (15 December-15 June, 2021) at the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva is scheduled to re-open late February, 2021.
What bothers some of his colleagues, who are still firmly rooted in photojournalism, is that in several cases, the scenes that McCurry photographed were altered in post-production to make the composition more powerful, or more compelling. In several images, distracting bystanders have simply disappeared, thanks in part to the wonders of photoshop.
A photograph of an antique Indian railway steam engine with the Taj Mahal in the background, had to be photographed twice after the first session produced images that were out of focus. The Indian railway obliged by bringing back the engine for the second shoot, along with the crew that managed it. Another photograph shows an Indian family waiting to mount a train, a porter, suitcases balanced on his head, stands to the side, waiting to put the luggage on the train. The mother in the picture is actually the wife of a photographer friend and the porter is temporarily an actor. The picture captures a reality that anyone who has taken trains in India would immediately recognize, but it is not a candid photograph.
McCurry: capturing the essence, but is it photojournalism?
McCurry spent considerable time putting the pieces together to capture the essence of what is normally a common place event. A friend, who is a hard-core photojournalist, complains that it might take days to capture an image like that without staging it. “McCurry gives the editors what they want,” this photographer says. “It’s not honest and it’s not fair.” That sentiment has not changed the mind of the editors. They still want what McCurry produces. The images are magnificent. Several years ago, McCurry’s approach nevertheless sparked a scandal, and Magnum, the elite agency that represents McCurry, took several of his photographs from its website.
The debate, which still simmers, is really over what a photograph is expected to represent. Photojournalism builds its credibility on the idea that the camera captures an unadorned reality. The camera is nothing more than a machine. The fact that it incapable of holding an opinion or expressing bias endows it with a journalistic credibility. It simply records what is really there. We can be more or less certain that at a certain point in time that reality actually existed. The role of the photojournalist is to choose the critical moment in which to record that moment in time. When you look at the photograph, you are visually plunged into that instant. That is photojournalism, but it is not Steve McCurry, a fact that he has repeatedly tried to explain to critics.
What we have with McCurry is not a chemical-mechanical representation of reality. It is the reflection of a sudden flash of understanding that captures McCurry’s imagination. What interests McCurry is not the objective reality that a journalist seeks to record, but rather the beauty of a moment that captures the artists attention, and which he sees and understands in his own mind.
Looking at McCurry’s photographs, I am reminded of the Dutch master painters. Like McCurry, they chose subjects that would normally have been dismissed as mundane, but which the painter sensed possessed an eternal beauty that belonged to the ages.
From the Renaissance to the Present: Seeing the world in a different way
In fact, according to the controversial Hockney-Falco hypothesis, some of the great painters of the Renaissance may have used various optical and mechanical devices, such as the camera obscura, curved mirrors and projection devices to make extraordinarily realistic paintings. Certainly Leonardo Da Vinci described their design and possible use. When we look at these paintings today, we don’t question the technique that produced these masterpieces. What we look for is the imagination and sensitivity of the artist that made us see the world in a new way.
When you meet Steve McCurry, the first impression is that he is an extraordinarily nice guy who seems disarmingly simple and straightforward in his approach. McCurry believes that certain images stick in your mind and change the way you see the world around you.
When I asked McCurry about allegations that he had changed images with photoshop, he laughed. “When I worked for a local newspaper in King of Prussia (Pennsylvania) and even for National Geographic, we always worked on the final photograph in the dark room. We burned in certain areas and dodged others.”
In fact, McCurry is right. Ansel Adams, the early 20th century photographer who captured the American West, is an extreme case in point. Many of his negatives were perfectly mundane. It is how he manipulated them in the dark room, pushing aspects of the image to extraordinary extremes that turned them into masterpieces. Adams’ first major breakthrough, a photograph of the Half Dome rock formation in Yosemite National Park, might have suffered from the fact that the upper section of the rock blended into the sky. Adams solved the problem by shooting the black and white photo through a deep red filter, which suddenly made the sky stand out dramatically. Of course, the mountain does not look that way naturally, but Adams made us see it in a different way. The images are exquisite. They extend our imagination and in the process, they expand our understanding. Like Adams, McCurry focuses primarily on composing photo books these days.
Experimenting with images: journalism or art?
McCurry, of course, is not alone in arranging elements of a composition. Eugene Smith, generally regarded as one of the greatest photographer of the 20th century, complained early in his career at editors trying to tell him not to set up his photographs in order to obtain a more powerful effect. Smith was fired by a photo editor at Newsweek for using a small camera rather than an unwieldy 4×5 Speed Graphic to take spontaneously candid photographs. The editor insisted that photographing subjects who were unaware of the photographer’s presence constituted an invasion of privacy.
In the 1930s a number of surrealist photographers experimented with images that approached a kind of photographic magical realism. Argentine photographer, Grete Stern, published a book, Mundo Proprio, which consisted of photomontages of metaphorical subjects, a housewife standing next to a giant cracked egg nearly as tall as she was. A beautiful woman stretching under a lighted lamp while a giant hand touched the switch. No one doubted that the photographs were not real.
The real question here is how we define the purpose of the photograph. Is it an automatic recording, made by a machine, or is it a representation of what the photographer sees in his mind’s eye? Is it journalism, or is it art?
It’s an important distinction because the goal of art is to excite the imagination, and that often means pushing what is actually there beyond the boundaries of the normal. The Belgian surrealist painter, Maigritte, sparked a furour with images that seemed to dispense with normal logic. A painting of a smoker’s pipe with the legend, “this is not a pipe.” A man in a suit, wearing a bowler hat with his face obscured by an apple. Maigritte’s point was to make the viewer approach the notion of reality from a totally different viewpoint.
Steve McCurry’s photographs, which most often appear in books these days, show us that seemingly mundane scenes in the countries he has visited are capable of revealing an exceptional beauty. It is not really photojournalism anymore. For better or worse, it has become a form of art. I have no problems with that.
William Dowell, our Americas Editor based in Philadelphia, is a veteran foreign correspondent and author. From Vietnam to North Africa and Europe, he has reported across the globe for TIME, NBC News, ABC News and other major news media.