Thursday, September 30, 2010

Steve Mac Curry retrospective exhibition in Birmingham

Earlier this year, having met some of Steve Mc Curry’s students while visiting the Taj Mahal, I bought a book of photographs by Steve Mac Curry called “In the Shadow of Mountains”. It is a stunning selection of images that make much contemporary photographic work seem frivolous in comparison. Steve went into Afghanistan undercover for the first time almost thirty years ago and his images reflect the ordinary workings of everyday life and in particular the people rather than politically staged events and those who preside at them. The collection of photographs is hence a unique set of images that speak of the Afghanistan we hear of in the news but see so little of.

The photographs left me feeling mesmerised; they made me feel part of an otherwise hidden world while they have a certain raw beauty to them and have been mostly captured in a simple rather than a contrived way, with natural rather than artificial light. They do not demand any great insight into the workings of photography to be appreciated and their subject is still topical.

One of initial impressions of the exhibition was the disparity between the comfortable, centrally heated gallery in Birmingham and the harsh conditions that many of the people in the photographs are obviously enduring. The exhibition covers not just Afghanistan but other thrid world countries such as India and the Far East.

Not long after my initial brief visit to the exhibition, I visited again in the company of two OCA tutors and some other like minded students. Gareth Dent, the OCA CEO, introduced us all and mentioned the importance of the Afghan Girl photograph which has become an icon. It is reminiscent of Edward Munch's Scream painting and there is endless comment on the internet ...

Was there any particular logic to the sequencing of the photographs? It was certainly not one of subject matter yet as one stood back and looked at an arrangement of photographs on a wall, one could see that they did have a visual relationship. Were these all digital images or might there be some C type prints among them? One assumed the former yet the light on one or two suggested that they might be the product of a chemical darkroom.

One image, that of fishermen in Sri Lanka, did appear to have been photoshopped. One was struck by the ethereal light of the image and yet, it had been made during the Monsoon when the light can be striking and quite uncommon. The give-away was the dark bodies of the fishemen, lightened to reflect a skin tone perhaps a little too light for people in this area; certainly there were areas of noise suggesting the image had been lightened while a printed version in a magazine had shown much darker images.

There were captions above the photographs by Steve telling how he had gone about the assembling of the images yet one was still left asking questions as to the way he went about making them. For instance, a boy with a tragic face looks directly at the photographer with still quiet eyes. Was he posing or just responding naturally to the photographer's presence. There is perhaps no great secret in all this since Steve gave a talk around the time when the exhibition opened in which he explained the story behind many of the photographs.

There is the image of a girl in a green shawl who someone thinks look angry; to me, she just looks beautiful. Was Steve Mc Curry aware of the subtle colour contrast at work in this image when he made it? There is the green shawl and the blue eyes while a touch of red can be seen around the neck. I find myself wondering just how many of these images were seen at the time rather than chosen later for their editorial and artistic appeal.

Probably the most distressing image of all, I was not alone in thinking this, is that of a Peruvian boy from whose eyes run tears; he is dirty and poor and points a gun at his head with his finger on the trigger. Is it a real gun? Is it loaded? We do not know but that such a young child should appear to be contemplating suicide is certainly disturbing. Gareth pointed out the Cruel and Tender in this image as the photographer holding back from such a situation, preferring to photograph rather than offer care, and the necessary feeling on the part of the photographer to capture such as situation.

Does Mc Curry have a formulaic approach? Gareth wonders whether the photographer is moving from a documentary point of view towards a more artistic approach in his work. From images that might appear in a magazine like National Geographic magazine to images that are more at home on the walls of a gallery!?

The gallery contained about 100 images of Steve Mc Curry. I wonder how many images he made to get this many. Perhaps as many as a million since National Geographic photographers were always given a generous supply of film while in these days of digital, countless images can be made and discarded.

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