Steve McCurry: Light Heart Hard Head
Steve McCurry was less reverent than I expected. Perhaps it was cliché of me to anticipate a personified rendition of his photos—someone punctuated by brutal sentiment, flecked with poverty and war—but the vividness of McCurry’s portfolio always spoke louder than my common sense. My expectations went unmet happily, though. The 63-year-old photographer was both lighthearted and hardheaded. Four decades of traveling amongst commoners have rubbed off on him, polishing the icon humble, and his remarkable career even more breathtaking. We met at McCurry’s studio, a modest, cramped space at the heart of Long Island City. The office was studded with young people—researching, making calls, and a few, in the far corner, congregating around Photoshop. Flat, over- sized boxes—presumably of large-scale prints lined the walls that Macs didn’t. Above head, a white board hung magisterially, displaying dates and locations of upcoming exhibitions: Hamburg, Colorado, Helsinki, Isle of Jersey. Steve and I spoke in a corridor upstairs, on folding chairs.
After a sprightly upbringing in a suburb of Philadelphia, Steve went to Penn State University to study filmmaking—a field more akin to photography than the theatrical arts degree he graduated with. McCurry, though, likened his profession to storytelling ceaselessly throughout our conversation, so theater, under those terms, seems fitting. He ended up taking only a few photography classes in college, but that was enough. “I thought, this is exactly what I want to do, it’s more immediate, something you can do any time, any place,” he says. “Film, video it’s much more complicated—trying to make a narrative. With photographs, one picture can say so much and it can be anytime. I can walk out the door right now and take some amazing pictures.” His confidence, unsurprisingly, was that of an expert, and I began to imagine what he might make of Long Island City’s colorless concrete.
After school, McCurry worked at a local newspaper. He quit a few years later at the behest of a travel itch, fleeing to India with a camera, a suitcase of clothes, one of Kodachrome, and a few hundred bucks. It was his first go at a freelance career, and a successful one at that.
His first major recognition came when, in 1979, he crossed the Pakistan border dressed in traditional garb—his film sewn into his clothing—into rebel held Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion was imminent and McCurry’s shots were the first of the nine year conflict. The coverage won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1980, and would become the spark plug for his near half century contribution to photojournalism.
McCurry went on to cover, among so many other events, the Iraq-Iran War; conflicts in Beirut and Cambodia; the Lebanon Civil War; monsoons in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Nepal; the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines; the Gulf War; the Afghan Civil War; the disintegration of Yugoslavia; and 9/11. Many of his galleries also detail starvation, prostitution, extreme poverty, sweatshops, and the incredulous oppression and maltreatments of women and children around the world. I asked Steve if he had trouble sleeping at night.
“I think that as a documentary photographer, what we do is tell stories,” he said. “We report on events and places and situations and, to me, it’s the only way people get their information to understand what’s happening in the world, and maybe make a difference. . . If you’re in a war zone situation, it always deeply affects you, but you have to do your best, at some point, to cope and put that aside and not obsess on it. Like a surgeon who may lose a patient on the operating table, you have to somehow find a place inside yourself to go on and continue your work.”
McCurry’s fortitude in doing so has made possible many of his timeless, haunting images, but psychic dissociation isn’t their only source. The technicalities play as important a role. A shooting day, when McCurry is abroad, lasts from sunrise to sunset. He plans a route as much as he wanders aimlessly and, like all photographers, he’s a slave to the mercuriality of light. Heâ€™s frequently accompanied by a driver and a translator, who create the opportunity for crucial intimacy with locals. “That’s part of photography,” Steve says, “and part of traveling. Part of the point of the exercise is to meet people, to interact with them.”
The requisite has lent itself well to the vulnerability in McCurry’s subjects. When we discussed the nature of openness in his photos—that soulfulness behind so many pairs of eyes he’s snapped—I wondered if he attributed the quality to the third world, if the human spirit was easier to see in destitution and despondency. “No, I wouldn’t agree with that,” he told me soberly. “I think people who suffer have a story and their situation is important. Some people live in a condition that needs to be remedied. It’s our mission to do that. But if someone looks earnest, and honest, and hardworking, and perhaps wholesome, and that feeling is conveyed, then that’s a great thing. Whether they’re that way in reality may be a different situation. It could be complete nonsense but if it’s a moving story, then it works.”
Those principles carry over into the photographer’s more conventional assignments. This year, he was commissioned for the limited edition Pirelli Calendar—a first world venture if there ever was one. Shot in Rio de Janeiro, the pages are a sultry medley of the last decade’s inimitable models. Rio’s back – drop offers tinctures of McCurry’s traditional photography, but the appearance of Petra Nemcova, Liya Kebede, Karlie Kloss, and a pregnant, incandescent Adriana Lima, feels somewhat peculiar. The photos ended up as evocative as his wonted work, though; and McCurry doesn’t find much distinction in their executions, either. “I looked at [the Pirelli Calendar] as a portrait project,” he says, “and whenever you shoot portraits there is a cooperation between you and your subject. You’re trying to create a certain. . . to accomplish a picture which you feel expresses your feeling about the person, or the place, or both.” Brazil, evidently, is as hot-blooded as everyone suggests.
Even as his work spills over into new spheres, Steve is traveling as much as ever, continuing to deliver some of photography’s most respected images. Considering the range of his photos, their endurance can be attributed to one simple feature: for being of people and the things we do. Such tenacity makes McCurry’s career one that no longer begs improvement. A platform of ease has risen before the photographer—and he’s basking in it. “I think we want to constantly learn and have enriching experiences,” he told me. “I don’t think it’s much more com- plicated. Doing something you believe in, something that gives you purpose and meaning and pleasure, that’s enough.”
Steve’s WILD Wish: “I would love to spend a month working in North Korea, unencumbered by political restrictions, to really explore and document conditions and the way of life in that country. The current international climate makes this impossible, but I’ve always been very interested in what life must be like beyond the DMZ.”