It's been about 21 years since America was captivated by the pale and arresting eyes of a 12-year-old Afghan girl in a Pakistani refugee camp, displayed on the cover of National Geographic about six years after the initial Soviet occupation of Aghanistan, just after the then-unknown Steve McCurry snuck over the border with 50 containers of film sewn into his native disguise. It's undeniable now that this image will server forever in the American consciousness as a placeholder of events in the Middle East in the final years of the Cold War -- and decisively marks McCurry as one of the most recognizable photojournalists of our time.
Looking East, a 132-page, large-format portfolio portraits taken throughout McCurry's travels through Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Tibet, is ample evidence that the June 1985 cover shot of Sharbat Gula wasn't a stroke of luck, but proof of McCurry's skills of portraiture. In this collection, he takes us through a kind of sidewalk-view of history, led at a dizzying pace through a crowd that runs the full gamut of age, background, and experience. "I always look for a fleeting, unguarded moment and attempt to capture the personal experiences that are indelibly etched on a face, and in South and Southeastern Asia the multitude of experiences and lives is astounding," he explains in the introduction. These experiences and lives testify as they are brightly colored for weddings or celebrations, smeared with ashes from coal mines, scarred with age and experience at the age of 9, or infinitely curious behind a road-map of wrinkles at the age of 70 -- stilled moments that witness a changing history across a panoply of cultures, backgrounds, and landscapes. "Some of these faces are grasped from places or situations that I do not want to remember," McCurry writes, "but all are faces that I shall never forget."
(Looking East, by Steve McCurry. Phaidon, $40)
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