Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Profile: Steve McCurry

Steam train passing the Taj Mahal, India, 1983 - Image by Steve McCurry

If you are an avid reader of National Geographic magazine then you may be already familiar with the work of Steve McCurry. His evocative portraiture style and distinctive use of colour have guaranteed his place as one of the world's best photographers.

Steve McCurry was born in Philadelphia, USA in 1950. He went onto study History and Cinematography in 1971 which led to a exhibition of images as part of a group show called Envisions at the university's Zoller gallery. After graduating, McCurry worked as a photographer for a local paper until in 1978 he left to become a freelance photographer, departing for India that same year. It was around this time that McCurry first started to use colour film. In May 1979, Steve McCurry entered into a rebel controlled area of Afghanistan, just before the Soviet invasion of the country. The images he would take of there would among the first to cover the remote conflict. A year later he would cover the war for TIME magazine for which he was awarded the Robert Capa gold medal. That same year McCurry was offered an assignment position with National Geographic magazine. For the next few years, Steve McCurry worked extensively in various countries around the world but it would be on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan that he would take one of his most iconic images.

While on assignment for National Geographic in 1984, McCurry entered a girls school set up in an Afghan refugee camp established in Peshawar, Pakistan. He asked if he could photograph some of the pupils. One of them was Sharbat Gula whose portrait has become one of McCurry's most recognised images. The image has all the hallmarks of a typical Steve McCurry's image. The powerful use of colour is just one distinctive element to a image. The green eyes of Sharbat seem to pierce into you as you look at the photograph. They make a deep connection to the viewer. It's not surprising to find out that Sharbat's mother and father had been killed in a bombing raid on their village. Some seventeen years later, McCurry managed to track her down and was pleased to find out that she had a family of her own. ' Her skin is weathered; there are wrinkles now, but she is as striking as she was 17 years ago' comments McCurry on his website.

Throughout the 1980's McCurry worked on various assignments including coverage of the war in the Lebanon. By 1986 he was a contract photographer for national Geographic and was winning awards for his work in the Philippines. Other assignments saw him work in Cambodia but it was in the disintegrating Yugoslavia of 1989 that he was nearly killed. The light aircraft he was traveling in came down in a lake after the pilot was blinded by the light reflecting off the water. Fortunately Steve McCurry and the pilot managed to get free of the sinking plane and were picked up by fisherman but his photographic equipment stills resides on the bottom -60 feet underwater. The early 1990's saw Steve McCurry cover the war in the gulf where an image of a burnt body near to a knocked out tank reflected the true nature of modern warfare. The eerie orange glow from the burning oil wells adds an extra apocalyptic edge to the photograph's poignant message.

In 1992 Steve McCurry joined Magnum as a full member after six years of nominee status. He also returned to Afghanistan to document the rebuilding of the country after the war ended.
McCurry has continued to cover the Afghan people ranging from the children to the workers of the country. The trust and respect comes across in the images. McCurry is trying to understand the person and capture the experiences of the soul. It is like the entire life is reflected in the face of the subject. Many of the images show the ravaged landscape of war, seen through the eyes of the people who live there. On September 11 2001, McCurry was in New York having just returned from working in China. His images of the events that day were exhibited at the New York historical society. It is another image of McCurry's, taken at a high mountain lake at Band-i-Amir in Afghanistan in 2002, that have a strange haunting presence. Two towering pieces of rock can be seen, looking not unlike the World Trade center twin towers, as a wild horse runs of to the right of the photograph. A magical image with haunting tones of the turbulent past. Just another wonderful image taken by one of the world's greatest photojournalists.

All Images are copyright of Steve McCurry
  • Top left - Steve McCurry
  • Middle right - Afghan girl (Sharbat Gula) near Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984
  • Middle left - Painted boy, India, 1996
  • Bottom right - Landscape with horse, Band-i-amir, Afghanistan, 2002

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