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



Saturday 27 September 2008

Rain drops..

This turned out just how i wanted it. A mass of rain drops had run all the way down the window and formed large droplets at the bottom of the window i was near. I sat and watched them form up and drop for ten minutes or so before i decided to photograph them.

Capturing that decisive moment as the droplet made its final plummet to earth was what i was after. It pretty much sums up visually, the dismal rain drenched weather experienced in Britain over the late summer months of this year. Weather for ducks indeed.

Thursday 25 September 2008

Wet, wet, soaked!

Walking towards Wells next to the sea, Norfolk, UK

You could see it coming. Clinging to the coastline, rolling along and cutting the visibility in half along the coast. A massive black cloud made its way towards me as i walked back to the car park. 'If i move quick' i thought 'I'll make it back dry' but the rain obviously had other ideas and started to come down HARD halfway along this walk.

About five minutes after this photograph was taken, the skies darkened further and the rain lashed down. It was wet, wet, wet. Norfolk is often like this in June and July. Dry, sunny and bright one minute but then dark and stormy the next. For photography i think its the perfect type of weather. You get a nice bit of sun combined with a texture filled sky. For cloudscapes and detailed atmospheric stormy skies, i can't think of anywhere better in the UK.

I was during this walk along the harbour that i came across an old lady totally absorbed in her photography. She had a 35mm disposable camera which she used, quite skillfully, to photograph the bright wild flowers that lined the banks. The look of concentration and the smile on her face as she took her images said it all - she was having a wonderful time.

Friday 19 September 2008

Question of ethics

Crossing over the Millenium bridge, Gateshead, UK

Jill Greenberg's 'portraits' of presidential candidate John McCain have created quite a storm on the photography blogs. Some commentators write about the freedom to express yourself as an artist but for the most part many think it's just incredibly unprofessional. So do I.

Jill Greenberg's
attitude seems to attack the bond of trust placed in photographers. It is a trust thing. A photographer is hired to do a job, and therefore physically represents the company or person they are working for. If you are working for someone and you behave badly, it reflects on them as much as you. In Greenberg's case, she represented Atlantic magazine who had commissioned her to shoot a cover image for the magazine. She did get that cover image shot but obviously had a completely separate agenda of her own. A strange attitude considering the number of magazine cover assignments she has shot - you'd think she'd know better!

I was once asked whether I'd work on a commission where i didn't like the person or subject. I replied that in business you have to make a choice but that financial implications usually have the final say. You have to be mercenary in your approach and, yes, maybe some of your own ideals have to be re-examined or put to one side. I'm no fan of politicians but if i was offered a commission to photograph one of the main political parties.... I'd do it probably.

Whenever someone asks me about starting in professional photography, i always tell them to imagine what their ideal customer would be like. Maybe a second question should be asked too - what client WOULDN'T you accept a commission from on the grounds of ethics, dislike, etc? An oil company maybe? A weapons manufacturer? A political party?

Monday 15 September 2008

Light letdown

Looking down Grainger Street, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK

The light was a letdown this weekend. It was bright enough to do some photography but a little sunshine would have been nice. As it was, i didn't take as many images as i thought, so another trip up north may be called for later in the year.

Carrying on from the work shot at the end of February, more images were taken down by the Quayside and at the very atmospheric All Saints Church that i came across while strolling around earlier in the year. I concentrated on photographing the worn antique gravestones with the 6x6 Bronica SQAi - the textures on the headstones were fantastic. One very worn and battered headstone i photographed dated all the way back to 1796.

I've decided that next time I'm up in Newcastle, I'll be using just a single small camera - possibly my Nikon F3HP. I had too much gear with me this time - my Billingham's weight was particularly noticeable on the climb up the hill to get to the city centre. It keeps me fit i suppose :-)

Friday 12 September 2008

Access art

Engaging with the public - art on the streets of Norwich

The final line in the previous post asked the question -is it time for photography exhibitions to hit the streets too? The way photography is exhibited has always been something I've tried to understand for years, but I always come back to the fact that galleries lack on one fundamental ingredient - accessibility.

Photography is one of the easiest art forms to do - most people have, at some point in their life, taken a photograph. It is just so easy to do whether you use a pro digital SLR or a throwaway 35mm film camera. Kodak even calculated, a few years ago now, the number of photographs taken on average by a person during their lifetime. For me, this familiarity with photography is not exploited by the galleries. A potential audience, far larger than normal gallery attendance, is waiting out there to engage with and discuss images by all of the master photographers and others. I'm sure Robert Dosineau's, Henri Cartier-Bresson's or Steve McCurry's work would go down a storm with the ordinary viewing public, many of whom probably haven't heard of any of these photographers.

Back in 1996, i had the privilege of working at a photography gallery for two weeks as part of a work experience. The work involved putting together an exhibition for the photographer Clement Cooper who was exhibiting his superb DEEP project. Cooper's work was especially relevant because it focused on issues of race, an important issue then and now. The gallery put together a beautiful display of images, they got good viewing numbers and the images were well received but i always wondered what the reaction would have been if they had been displayed outside of the gallery environment. I did notice a number of people walk towards the gallery door, hesitate and then walk away. The reason was summed up by a friend who waited outside for me one lunchtime. 'Why didn't you come in and have a look?' i asked. 'I didn't like to - i might not understand it' he replied. The perceived intimidating atmosphere of art galleries doesn't help one bit and i think that it actively stops people from looking in. I believe that this 'atmosphere' of art exclusivity is a contributing factor to the closure of many galleries. People want to look but dare not enter in case some fine art 'luvvie' makes them look stupid.

The sad fact is most of the general public have probably never been to see a photography exhibition. Photographic galleries are usually only visited by a certain section of interested individuals who love art or photography. Imagine the cross section of ordinary people that you could reach with an exhibition in a city centre, busy tourist location or shopping mall. Potentially thousands rather than just hundreds could see the images.... and that's what we want... right????

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Outside art

Elephant art on the streets on Norwich, Norfolk, UK

Over the summer, I've come across a couple of public art exhibitions that have really impressed me. Both exhibitions were held on the streets of two UK cities and the public response to them has been fantastic....and fascinating to watch.

The image above was taken in Norwich back in July. The elephant was one of 53 positioned at various locations in the centre of the city for a period of just over two months. The elephants have now been removed and will be auctioned on the 23rd of this month for The Born Free Foundation and CLIC Sargent charities.

The second public art exhibition was in York where some of the world's most famous paintings have been displayed on the streets. The Grand Tour in York is described as a 'celebration of great art and the great buildings of York brought together in the historic capital of the North'. Although these exhibits were weatherproof copies of originals, the size, colour and power of these paintings attracted great number of passers by to stop and view these masterpieces. It really was art engaging with a mass audience.

Here are two brilliant summer exhibitions that have benefited from being out there in the real world. Who knows... maybe someone will have been inspired by these works to become an artist themselves. Time for photography exhibitions to hit the streets too?

Monday 8 September 2008

Lost in thought

Tourists at Sandringham, Norfolk, UK

Avoiding attention is essential when taking photographs like this one. Everyone had their own pose, some of them were obviously lost in thought and i didn't want to loose that. I quickly put the Bronica SQAi camera onto my lap, took the prism off, as though i was cleaning it, and focused the camera using the focusing screen only. I pressed the shutter button and bingo.... the photograph taken and no-one any the wiser that they were in it.

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Wonder years

This photograph dates from my early years as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. I came across it during a negative filing session which made me think back to my pre college photography. The photograph was taken in Chester in 1991, where a remarkable disabled man was using his feet to draw a picture. The wonderful little girl was just enthralled by the whole scene, she just stood and watched with an intense fascination as this fantastic artist finished his drawing. It's amazing to think that this little girl will be in her early twenties now!

I've suddenly realised that my early photographic work is starting to knock on a bit. My first really good photographs started to arrive in 1991, when my camera shooting, film choice and darkroom skills were steady enough to produce good results. I was just 19 years old when i took this photograph and yet 17 years have gone by since i took this image. How time flies..... it makes me wonder how I'll feel about my work when it's forty or fifty years old.