Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tutor and Student talk over tea about Steve Mac Curry's exhibition

placard outside the exhibition entrance

There may be no such thing as a free lunch but as a student of the OCA, one might find oneself treated to both tea and a biscuit with more besides, since Jose Navarro, a photographer and tutor at the OCA, was present to stimulate us into considering the work of Steve Mac Curry while Gareth Dent, OCA CEO, also offered comment. The following is mostly about what they said yet does contain my own reflections as well as the views of the other students.

Jose is a photographer who is also a long term fan of Steve Mac Curry and remains impressed by his work although he does not find it easy to say what makes it so distinctive.

Shadows play an important part in Mac Curry's work; this might have something to do with the use of slide film that dominates his work. There is a consistency to the photographer's body of work and we learn to recognise his style. Is it photo-journalism or documentary? Hard to say since how does one differentiate the two? Photo-journalism tends to be concerned with certain subjects and a modus operandi while documentary can nowadays include a much wider variety of subjects even fashion. The distinctions are blurred particularly in these days of a wide variety of media.

The images that do end up being shown to a wider audience are usually not chosen by the photographer but by an editor. What lies behind such choices?

The Afghan Girl photograph is interesting partly because it has become more than just a photograph; it is now a global icon and created its' own myth. It can mean different things to different people. Does it really contain resentment as someone suggests or is that merely a projection on the part of the viewer? One can hang a lot of what one thinks on an iconic photograph and most of that baggage may have little or no relationship with fact. The caption to the Afghan girl photo that appeared on the cover of the June 1985 National Geographic of which it was the cover photo ran 'Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee's fears'.

tea time for the OCA gathering with discussion an added bonus

Jose showed us his copy of Steve Mac Curry's book of Portraits which is the size of thick paperback book. Looking at images in this form where one can hold them in one's hands and almost possess them is quite different to looking at them on a gallery wall. One can perhaps access more information this way while it certainly shifts our relationship with the subjects.

What might Steve Mac Curry be looking for when he makes these photographs? Is he thinking about all the different elements the photograph contains? In the exhibition there's little if any contextual detail. Might there have been more text accompanying the photographs? Perhaps this might not have been such a good idea, not necessary and could have limited the meaning of the images. Yet it might have helped to explain them more and increase one's undestanding of the images. Perhaps the photographer wanted the photographs to retain a certain mystique. Certainly, the lack of elaborate captions allows us more space in which to consider the images and have a more flexible view. An example of the way his photographs in this situation if not as a whole, lead more towards the artistic than the documentary.

There is surely a great difference between the world of these images from the so called third world and the west in which they are being viewed. If there is resentment in the Afghan girl's eyes we can relate to that since the west, with all its' wealth and apparent happiness, also expriences a great deal of resentment as a mere cursory glance at the newspapers of the day will surely reveal.

Many of the images are newsworthy, at least they were at the time and often continue to be so, revealing a common humanity and that we do share things with people of the 'third world'. Steve Mac Curry has the intelligence and drive to show this in his images while his treatment of other less newsworthy images is also excellent. One might ask what a newsworthy image is or isn't since often Mac Curry is making images that relate to a situation rather than directly describe it. Ruins rather than tanks firing at buildings for instance though this is probably an editorial decision made later rather than the photographer's.

The conversation turned to some of the other images in the exhibition.

There is one of a boy running down a street. There is a certain symmetry here in the winding street, the placement of the boy and the surrounding buildings while colour also plays its' part. One is reminded of a famous Cartier-Bresson image of a street with a cyclist speeding past. Did Mac Curry set this image up? Perhaps he stood and waited! certainly he captured the moment.

Another image shows a camel snaking its' way across flatlands with mountains behind. When one sees it in a magazine the landscape suggests an area that is tribal and difficult to govern while when it is a large print on a gallery wall, one is more aware of the expanse of the terrain. 

The images are by and large not very disturbing; this view may not reflect the depth of the original coverage being the result of prurient editors and gallery designers who want to present a certain kind of general impression that they feel reflects the gallery-goers expectations rather then the actuality of the subject covered.

One image is however deeply disturbing and a number of people present comment on it ... that of a tearful young Peruvian boy pointing a gun at his head with his finger on the trigger.

Jose shows us another iconic National Geographic cover image, this time from August 1991, by Steve Mac Curry that does not appear in the exhibition; it is a fiery battle scene and the absence of such dramatic images reminds one of the selection process behind the exhibition. For instance, in the same issue there is a photograph of a tank taken at dusk which is an excellent image and might have been included for its' artistry alone as well as its' documentary relevance.

The documentary work of 25 years ago is now appearing as 'art' in galleries. Surprisingly, although one can now look at an
endless supply of photographic images online, the appeal of photographic exhibitions has not been decreased rather there would appear to be a greater interest.

Nowadays, Steve Mac Curry contributes to such magazines as National Geographic Traveller and Conde Nast Traveller, magazines that require a different kind of image, more pleasing than challenging.

One might talk endlessly about the Afghan girl photo/image/icon. For instance, on the cover of the magazine text covers the torn holes in the dress. Is this a deliberate attempt to present a less provocative image to the buyer!?

Jose points out his favourite image of a 'grandfather' with finger raised as he talks to a young boy; they are seated on the same charpoy (bed) which is outside. There is a lot happening in this image as it suggests tenderness, care, inter-generation communication, the old and young; in fact there are universal themes apparent and the background of a camel that engulfs most of the picture is a symbolic reminder of the bigger picture inherent in this image. What was Steve Mac Curry seeing when he made this image? Perhaps he just saw a camel with some people in front of it only realising later the significance of the communication between the central figures. He might even have posed them or just waited patiently until the scene presented itself. The photograph reminds me of a time when I was in the Indian countryside and got lost in the fog; I stumbled upon a similar kind of scene as portrayed here. Before being shown the way, the family treated me to a cup of tea and we talked a little, communicating with ease in spite of the gaps between our two worlds.

Do the "exotic" locations of the photographs make them so specialor is there something else at work?

One of my favourite images from the exhibition is of an elderly man carrying a sewing machine on his shoulder; the flood water is up to his neck and yet he is smiling. Is his smile for the benefit of the photographer? It seems to be saying that in spite of the appallingness of his present situation, he still has his livelihood and his life. Out of the mud grows the lotus.

One photo seems particularly unimpressive. A horse passes two towers, neither in particularly sharp focus as with the rest of the photo, while in the background one can see a lake and surrounding mountains. Perhaps this image has some special significane but as one OCA student remarks, Dave of OCA forum fame, he would have pressed the delete button at this point.

Gareth likes the 'Ask for Astrology' image in which an astrology shop perhaps with the astrologer himself sitting outside is perched precariously at the stop of stone steps above the Ganga River. A figure to the right is a dark, shadowy form (another sign of slide rather than digital photography) while below a boat passes along the Ganga. There is a naieveity to this image.

Another image shows a Tibetan boy with a Bulls basebat hat. One might wonder how the boy came by such a hat. Out of a charity bag perhaps but also it might be made in the east in one of the many sweat shops that turn out cheap goods with western brand names.

There is also a video installation in a corner of the exhibition; it details the search to find the Afghan Gird after a lapse of 17 years. The team eventually do find her but before they can be sure, the photograph of the woman the Afghan girl is today, is compared with the iconic Afghan Girl photo using computer software to verify the connection. What does this video installation say about the rest of the exhibition? It reveals in many ways the nature of these photographs originally made in documentary style that do try to get at the truth rather than reflect an idealsied version of it; the curating of the exhibition however seems to undermine original intentions as an attempt is made to please the viewer or just sell it to a wider audience.

One can not help but wonder whether one wants to find the Afghan Girl again. Obviously, she would no longer be a girl but a woman if she is still alive. The search does seem worth it though because it reveals more about the Afghan situation which is something the West, that has invested such a large amount of resources in and continues to do so, really needs to hear. People have grown up with this photograph, Jose being one of them, and to expose it in this way is perhaps to strip the original photo of its' symbolic content thereby devaluing it. Yet in the rediscovery, a deeper perspective is being revealed to the Afghan situation which is what the photograph was originally about rather than the merchandising of a particular magazine or photographer.

What I got out of this visit to the exhibition and the ensuing talk was a greater awareness of not just the photographs and their possible meanings but also an understanding of what it means to look at photographs. This is the stuff of theory yet in this situation, theory became more practical and relevant to the process of understanding photographs and photography as a whole which is why I and no doubt others, study photography. Probably we all want to be better photographers yet we can benefit by standing back a little and taking a more detatched view of the medium; a good if not great exhibition can help us do this particularly with tutorial guidance.

views of Birmingham from outside the gallery

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