Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Research: Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry needs little in the way of introduction. The afghan girl is probably the most famous photograph of the past 30 years. Obviously I'll be including it in this post, but, I'm mainly going to focus on McCurry's use of colour. In October I went to see a retrospective of McCurry's work at the waterhall gallery in Birmingham. As I was wandering round the exhibition hall, pausing occasionally to listen to the string quartet playing in the corner (I know..I know, I'm sophisticated), the one thing I couldn't help but notice was the sheer amount of colour present in every photo.


McCurry has an innate ability with colour. In my opinion, his use of colour is better than any photographer I've ever seen (though I haven't seen everyone.) Luckily for him, there was a medium available that would not only allow those colours to be seen, but also to remain vibrant..Kodachrome! Produced in 1935 by Eastman Kodak, Kodachrome was the first commercially successful colour film. Though there had been others before, none of them had really perfected the process. Available in a variety of formats, from 8mm movie film, to large format slide film for cameras, and sold in multiple speeds (starting at ASA/ISO 6 and continuing up past 200.) It lasted for 74years, before being discontinued in 2009. Although he has since moved on to other films and digital media, McCurry became the poster boy for Kodachrome, so much so, that when they announced the discontinuation, he shot the last roll of film to ever be developed. I'm not saying the film has anything to do with how good the photographs are, clearly this is just a development process and would be useless without McCurry's talent, but it's almost impossible to mention one, without talking about the other.

Afghan Girl

 Afghan Girl, 1984,
Copyright Steve McCurry

I couldn't possibly do a research post about Steve McCurry without including this picture. That doesn't mean it's here just for the sake of it though. Whilst I can't claim to have been influenced by the picture the first time it was published. I'd have been three at the time, so was probably more concerned with all the interesting things I could stick up my nose, rather than the geopolitical ramifications of an iconic photograph! Later in life, this is exactly the sort of picture that inspired me to learn photography, and who knows, maybe one day someone will be writing a research post about me (stop laughing!) Given that it's become one of the most famous photographs ever taken, it's strange to think it was almost never seen. The picture editor of national geographic thought that the picture was too disturbing to be used. Luckily for everyone, he changed his mind.

Taken to accompany Debra Denker's story about the suffering of the afghan people under soviet occupation, this portrait appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of national geographic magazine. McCurry himself says that when he took it, he had no idea just what an impact it would have on the photographic world. At the time, Sharbat Gula (that's her actual name) was just another young refugee who he thought would make an interesting subject. It was shot on a Nikon FM2 35mm SLR, with a Nikkor 105mm F/2.5 lens and using Kodachrome film (of course!) 

Although it's a relatively simple photo, no fancy lighting rigs, no digital manipulation, there are a number of things that make it stand out. The first is the defining characteristic of the photo...her eyes. I'm reliably informed by the national geographic website they're sea green, but, amazing as the colour might be, it's the depth of meaning they convey which has made them famous.You can see every hardship she's had to endure, every mile she's trekked to get to the safety of the refugee camp in Pakistan. Her struggles are also reflected in the remnants of her headscarf. The colourful scarf offers you a glimpse of better times, a time when clothes could be chosen for their aesthetic value, rather than practicality. The juxtaposition of the bright scarf and the more recent holes, not only represents the hard journey she's made, but also allow her green clothes to peek through and add hints of colour to the picture. Colour that's perfectly complemented by the green background. A background which McCurry's thrown out of focus with a narrow depth of field, thereby adding further definition to the main subject.

Well there you have it, a picture often copied, but never bettered.

However...it would be remiss of me to leave the story there, so, just for you, I've included the next photograph.

Sharbat Gula, 2002, Copyright Steve McCurry

Until 2002, Sharbat was simply "The Afghan Girl." Because of strict rules governing interaction with men, Steve McCurry never had an opportunity to learn her real name. So in 2002, along with national geographic, he decide to start a search for her. After a number of false leads, they were finally able to identify her using biometrics to match her iris patterns. When McCurry finally met her again he produced the above picture, though by this time he had moved away from Kodachrome and used Kodak E100VS film instead.

Although I think this picture offers an interesting contrast to the original. I don't actually like it that much. I appreciate she's gotten older, and her hard life has obviously taken it's toll, but she seems to have lost the passion she had in the original. In the first picture she'd suffered, but she remained defiant. In this one she seems somehow hollow, as if she's finally given up. As far as the composition goes. McCurry has clearly tried to emulate the set-up of the 1984 photograph, though I don't think it works nearly as well. The background in the original perfectly complimented Sharbat's clothes. Whereas the background in the new picture looks like the sort of thing you'd find in a cheap high street studio. It adds nothing to the whole.


The Afghan Girl might be the most famous of McCurry's photographs, but it's not the only great picture he's captured. Many of my favourites actually come from his trips to India.

Jodphur India, 2005, Copyright Steve McCurry

I love this picture! As well as seeming to contain it's own natural narrative, it forces you to ask so many questions. Who is the boy? Why is he running? Is he desperate to get some where, or, is he running away from something he's just done? Who put the hand prints on the wall? Are they merely decoration, or were they put there as part of a festival? Is this a simple shortcut, or is it part of some labyrinthine set of alleyways? These are just a few of the ones I can think off.

McCurry uses a number of clever compositional techniques to give the viewer a real sense of movement. The obvious one is the use of a fast shutter speed to catch the boy in mid-air, just as he's about to disappear around the corner. He's also captured the high walls and narrow nature of the alley, allowing them to lead the eye straight to the boy. Combined with the drastic changes of angle, they all help to add to the sense of speed. Another element I think McCurry manages to illustrate well, is the dichotomy of having gaily painted walls, but then letting them become covered with mud and giving free rein to the general decay of the area.

Rajasthan, India, 1983, Copyright Steve McCurry

This is another of my favourites and a good example of being in the right place at the right time. McCurry was actually travelling to another town when his taxi was forced to stop by a dust storm. As he was waiting he noticed some women who had been working on the road. The weather had also forced them to stop work and they had gathered together for shelter and to pray. 

I like the way that as the storm batters them, they form an island of serenity, each caught up in their own little world, but each relying on the others to keep them safe. Their faith in their friends and religion, helping to insulate them from the outside world. The colourful sari's further unify the group, the richness of the red in complete contrast to the earthy tones of their surroundings. All adding to the sense of separation from the rest of the picture. McCurry says that they were so busy praying that none of them actually noticed him taking the picture. Thus enabling him to capture this natural moment between friends. Never one to focus on the obvious, my favourite part of the picture is the trees. Apparently there had been a drought for the previous thirteen years and this has virtually denuded them of their foliage. Coupled with the dust in the atmosphere, this makes them appear almost ephemeral, like phantoms looming out of the storm, ready to pounce, or, to disappear again moments later.

I've tried to focus on the photos a bit more in this post. Including more about how they were created and how they make me feel. As I said before, hopefully this is more of the sort of information we're supposed to include.

Thank you to Hillary Rose for allowing me to use the photographs.

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