Interview: Steve McCurry on Street Photography and Change
Boys- like these fifth graders at an all-boys school in Bamian -still fill the majority of classrooms. But at least...
Boys- like these fifth graders at an all-boys school in Bamian -still fill the majority of classrooms. But at least 40 percent of Hazara students taking college entrance exams are now women. -National Geographic, February 2008, Vol. 213, No. 2
Using simple box cameras, they have captured husbands going to war and sons about to come of age or be married. In McCurry’s portrait, the man’s studio is actually the cubicle in which he sits. After the picture is taken, the negative is developed in the small bowl at his feet.
“The green-eyed Afghan girl became a symbol in the late twentieth century of strength in the face of hardship. Her tattered robe and dirt-smudged face have summoned compassion from around the world; and her beauty has been unforgettable. The clear, strong green of her eyes encouraged a bridge between her world and the West. And likely more than any other image, hers has served as an international emblem for the difficult era and a troubled nation.” – Phaidon 55
McCurry spent days there determining the best vantage point and time. The picture was taken about 10 minutes after sunset. “The lights which illuminate the rock at night have just been turned on and provide an accent light and shadow on the right.” from ‘Steve McCurry’ by Anthony Bannon
Built to house a relic of the Buddha, the brick structure was originally intended to be over 150 metres tall. However, the technology was not capable of enabling its full construction and so it reaches 30 metres. Framed by the massive entrance,
The city had been underwater for a week. I was a bit reluctant to wade through the water because of the dead animals and other debris floating in the streets. After trying to photograph from a boat, it became clear that the only way I could cover the flood was to wade in. I spent days wandering in water up to my waist. One afternoon I spotted this man walking down the middle of the street with the sewing machine on his shoulder. He was a tailor and the sewing machine represented his livelihood. Unfortunately, the machine was ruined, but when the picture was published, the machine’s manufacturer sent him a new one.
Their desperate foraging reflects the environmental plight of a region ravaged by the gulf war. Canby, Thomas Y. (August 1991)
Dwarfed by the crumbling mountains, the newly designed home is heavily fortified to protect against tribal raids.
Over the course of his 30-year career, Steve McCurry has traveled to a laundry list of places, creating some truly iconic images along the way. His most famous photo, “The Afghan Girl,” is one of the most recognizable photographs on the planet. Now, he has a new book (Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs) looking back across his career. He was also recently named as a member of SanDisk’s Extreme Team Legends. Despite his busy travel schedule, Mr. McCurry took some time to talk to us about how photography — and the world around us — has changed over the years.
You have been putting out books for years. Has the process of producing a book changed much since you started? I don’t think it has. The selection process is a bit different. We used to print the pictures and select from those. Now, a lot of the selection process can be done on a computer screen. Apart from that, it’s very much the same.
When talking about change, many photographers allude to the fact that we’re all inundated with images now thanks to Instagram and the web in general. Have you seen a change in the way we interact with photos because of that? People are taking many more photos now, but we have always been inundated with pictures. 40 or 50 years ago we would have magazines and newspapers, but now there’s Instagram, the Internet and all of that. It’s an evolution.
How has that specifically affected the kind of documentary photography that you do? There was a time when a few people would venture out into their neighborhood and photograph their town, village, city, or state. Travel was more difficult and sometimes impossible 50 years ago. People weren’t going to these foreign countries for photography. Now, you can pick a place like Kenya or Brazil or New Zealand and it’s relatively affordable to go there. People are going to virtually every corner of the world. The world is changing rapidly. Take India for example. People have pretty much seen everything and now you need to dig a bit deeper and do something a little bit more in depth. Everyone has seen the Taj Mahal. What else can be said about one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in the world? What other comment can be made? How else can it be described? That’s the challenge.
How do you choose the places you go to photograph?
I go to places that I’m curious about. I like to go to places I have been before so I can examine them further. I’d like to go to Iran. I think that would be very interesting. The decision to a place is based on my curiosity.
**Once you’ve chosen a place, what is your research process like? ** There’s some value in not over-researching a place and to go there and just discover without any preconceptions. If you read too much about a place, sometimes you can be disappointed.
Clearly if you’re going to a place like Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan, you need to have a good understanding of what’s going on. If you’re going to Nepal or South Africa or someplace in Russia, you still need to know enough so you don’t waste time. You have to have a sense of the important places to go.
Change seems to be an important thread in your work. You seem to be drawn to places undergoing societal and cultural shifts. What is it about change that makes it so captivating to you? To me, that’s an important part of life — how things evolve. The whole process of life and eventually death — I find that fascinating. Once things disappear, they can be lost forever. Having memory of how we were is really important. That’s part of what fascinates me about looking back at my work from years ago and seeing how things have evolved.
People have always been a central aspect of your photography. As photography has become more prevalent around the world, has that changed the way you’re able to interact with your subjects?
I think people are a lot more suspicious. There’s this whole business of model releases. I’ve never cared about model releases. I don’t think I’ve ever asked someone for one for my personal work. I can’t imagine asking someone to sign a model release. It’s different if it’s an advertising or corporate assignment. But, now people want to know what the photos are for — where they’re going to appear.
If I’m going to photograph children playing in a park, you’re more reluctant to do that now than 20 or 30 years ago. People want to know why you’re photographing these children. But, I don’t think there’s that much difference for me. I think people are more familiar with cameras, but I don’t see much difference at all.
You have always been a proponent of getting to know a new place by simply walking around with your camera. Is that still the best way to experience a location? That seems to be the most natural and obvious way to work. You arrive somewhere and you say to yourself, “Let me experience this place.” I think the best way to work is simply wandering and observing with your camera. If you’re in Paris or a village in Burma, it’s literally just being curious and finding what you can respond to. What is it that fascinates you?
In this genre of street photography you’re present in the moment. That’s kind of a cliche perhaps, but your mind is occupied by the here and now. The sounds, the smells — you can really look and see things for what they are. When was the last time you went out for a walk for its own sake without an agenda? Even when you have the camera, the first thing you need to do is be in a particular frame of mind. It’s not that you have to go out and photograph something. It has to be a natural process, a curiosity to appreciate the world we live in. As time goes on, we start seeing things differently.
The tradition of people like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Dorothea Lange, or Walker Evans for that matter was about observation and curiosity about the world we live in. It was about wanting to document and report a face that has an incredible story on it. That to me is such a wonderful way to spend your time. Take your camera and walk out the door without an agenda. It’s a free flow.
**We talked to Alex Webb a few months ago and he seems to feel the same way, though, he also says it’s getting harder to do here in the USA because of the suburban sprawl and the fact that most places are dominated by driving rather than walking. **
I was in Atlanta recently and I was searching for a neighborhood that was something like Brooklyn or Queens. Someplace with high density. But nobody really walks there. It’s like LA. There’s virtually no pedestrian traffic unless you’re somewhere like Sunset Blvd. The world is becoming homogenous. When I walk through an airport, I think, “This is the future.” All airports look the same. They’re steel and glass. You walk through a shopping mall in India and it could be in Cleveland. There’s almost no difference.
I’m more fascinated with culture uniqueness of a place. What is it that makes Yemen unique? Why would you want to go to Burma if it looked like everywhere else? We go to these places because we want to see how they live. We want to experience the food, music, and architecture. We want to see how they work. We like that difference. We like the unique culture that they have. That difference is what has always fascinated photographers. You’re transported to a different place. You want to be inspired.
Has the advancement of camera technology changed the way you work?
At one time I worked in a dark room, developing myself and printing my own pictures. That’s pretty much over. We can shoot in extremely low light now, which was never possible with film. We could shoot in low light with a tripod or using lights, but we couldn’t really freeze action. Now, we can shoot at 10,000 ISO. That’s a huge advantage.
In the old days, you had Tri-X and you’d push it to 1600 and you thought, “Wow, that’s amazing,” but it’s routine now. You can shoot in much lower light than that. It’s a huge difference.
In the old days, when we printed our own pictures, we’d burn and dodge and make all these cut outs and put them on a piece of wire. You’d spend hours trying to make one print. There’s no more spending three days in the dark room. Today, on the computer, it’s much different. We don’t have to breathe all those chemicals.
Has gear choice become more of an issue?
I don’t want to get too technical. I hate all of that. But, I think digital is a step forward. In the end it just depends on what your picture looks like. You print it out and put it on the table and that’s proof right there. Everything else goes away.
If we’re talking about digital photography 10 or 12 years ago, it would certainly be a different conversation. Today, I don’t think there’s any question.
Having said all that, whatever one wants to do to achieve what they want to do with photography — whether it’s pinhole or a Leica or an 8×10 view camera or whatever. It’s your work. It’s like a poem. You put the poem on the table and you read it and no one is going to ask you if you typed it or wrote it out long hand. No one cares how long it took or how many re-drafts you did. How many pictures did you shoot? It doesn’t matter. The proof is the final print.