Steve McCurry: Retrospective

UK exclusive photographic exhibition @ Birmingham Art & Museum Gallery, Waterhall.

What is important to my work is the individual picture. I photograph stories on assignment, and of course they have to be put together coherently. But what matters most is that each picture stands out on its own, with it’s own place and feeling” Steve McCurry, Magnum Photographer.

 I visited this exhibition on August 16th 2010  and was stunned by his work. I took a small notebook with me to make some quick observations as I looked around to note my initial reactions to individual images. The rich textures and colours of many his images often seem at odds with their (sometimes)  rather grim subject matter.  What struck me most (and my husband who came with me) was the haunting and compelling power of his work. I was drawn back to  look again, and again, at these images. I will  write a few sentences about my favourites, and what made them so poignant to me. These images  demonstrate the power of photography,  its ability to provoke a  strong reaction and trigger further questions.

His most famous image   Afgan Girl at Nasir Bagh refugee camp,  is obviously included in this exhibition. Her direct stare out of the frame towards the viewer is hypnotic, this type of portraiture can’t help but draw a response from the viewer. His chosen subject’s expression, but especially her eyes, speak volumes, I feel empathy for her. 

Perhaps my favourite, and to me the most haunting portrait , is Boy from Nuristan  Afghanistan 1990. This is another hypnotic image, the boy is a young adolescent, but his direct gaze and facial expression belong to an older man.  So much sadness and suffering in a single frame. 

Girl and her father in a Shikara , Kashmir 1996,  is an interesting image. Whilst the father has his back to the viewer, directing their boat along what looks rather like a narrow canal, his daughter stares straight back towards the viewer. There is no joy in her face,  where are they going, where had they been, what are they doing? The composition creates movement as the eye moves from daughter to father up and down and around the frame.

One of the most powerful images is  Young Boy ,Peru  2004. A very small boy, with tears and snot running down his face, holds a full size gun to his head. It is quite a shocking image to look at. Why is he crying? His distress looks genuine, not posed for the camera. Why is he holding a gun  to his temple? There are no other visible humans’ in the frame. This image makes me want to know about the circumstances behind it, what was/ is  happening in his life and why?

Shoeshine Boy , Tibet 1999  , again his direct stare out of the frame is dynamic , but  most striking to me most is the hat he wears, a very grubby American Chicago Bulls hat.  Young Monk in a Tea shop, Tibet  juxtapositions  a Coca Cola sign  in the frame. The hat and Coca Cola are symbolic of  Western culture and materialism, making their obvious poverty all the more striking. 

I have mentioned the power his portraits have with their direct eye contact but equally compelling and thought provoking is Beggar Woman with shadow, Kabul 2002. There is something rather shocking about the lack of facial expression visible because of her Burqa. The shadows not only create movement across the frame but serve to  reinforce and remind the viewer of the dangerous and misogynistic world she inhabits.

The Afgan Women at Shoe store, Afghanistan 1992 have their backs to us, the faded dusty colours of their garments create a visually attractive image,  the Western style trainers on sale contrast strikingly with their traditional attire. 

The lack of colour, except for the display of oranges , in Orange Seller, Kabul , Afghanistan,2003 is visually striking. The orange seller inhabits a grey world  displaying his goods in the boot of a wrecked car. 

 My review so far makes this exhibition sound very depressing, but there were images that made me smile (wryly) , even if the subject matter caused food for thought. Afgan Fighter  1995 depicts an Afgan soldier reclining on a red settee in the midst of bombed destruction. The settee and a red armchair provide the only colour in the frame and seem incongruous against the bombed, bleak, sandy coloured background. This area  once contained someone’s home , all that remains is the red accent  to  serves a visual reminder.

Tailor in Monsoon India 1983,is an optimistic portrait. Up to his neck in flood water he has little to be happy about, but he smiles as he walks through the flood water with his sewing machine held aloft. Why the smile? Is he happy because he has managed to save the one possession that is crucial to his livelihood? Questions , questions , with no answer, that is the potency of photography, it makes you stop, think, and ask why.


One Response to “Steve McCurry: Retrospective”

  1. I went to see this exhibition today and the image “Young Boy In Peru” really hit me in a way that no other image ever has. I actually found myself crying in the exhibition and unable to look at it for more than a few seconds. I’m not sure if I want to know what the story is behind it for fear it may be too tragic.

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