It’s happened to me before, but only a handful of times in my life; being aware that I am in the presence of greatness, someone of talent so far above the norm that I want to hold my breath. It’s happened to me with musicians and singers, activists and speakers, even from time to time with politicians, and last night it happened with photographer Magnum Steve McCurry. He who is best-known outside of people who are interested in photography, travel or news stories, for his picture of the striking Afghan girl with the haunting, green eyes, and most famous for his work with National Geographic perhaps. That’s a wonderful portrait, but only one of many in this exhibition, which is clearly a work of love, from the heart as well as the camera of a man in love with life and all its variety.
Caja Canarias is hosting another of its wonderful spring seasons of exhibitions, debates, talks and movies, this year entitled, as last year, Enciende la Tierra (which probably best translates as Light on the Earth, or Focus on the Earth perhaps) and a retrospective of Steve McCurry’s work is a part of it. It opened Tuesday night, and last night McCurry gave a talk with slides of his work.
Seeing these pictures, some of which are so familiar, in life size is an inspiring experience, hearing some of the stories which lay behind them is fascinating; like that the iconic Afghan girl was very shy about being photographed, and how her teacher persuaded her to pose. How it is forbidden to photography women once they reach puberty, which accounts for the tender age of many of his subjects.
He says that he doesn’t consider himself to be a “color photographer” and yet he uses color in ways in which no other photographer I know does. It seems as if he seeks it out, but he denied it, more than once. Between his words in the exhibition and the spoken word last night emerged the image of a man on a mission to celebrate the world, even, very often in its squalor, or at least what seems to us in the “West” as squalor.
His portraits of grubby children, wizened men and women, or shy young girls are, simply, without compare. They capture the essence of the subject so strikingly, and you focus first on the character in the faces, and then, after looking for a long while, you are aware that the child has a runny nose, or the old woman’s skin is smeared with dirt……so you see the beauty first, and the poverty second. They are people and not statistics. His own quote on this subject? “If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.”
His landscapes almost always include people, and you wonder at how he managed to be there at just the right moment to capture the light or a particular movement, and then you hear that he traveled for days with a caravan of camels or repeated a boat journey day after day, until he got the shot which has become iconic, and you can only wonder that a normal mortal has that kind of patience.
His speaking style is very, very informal, more like chatting than lecturing, and almost nervous. He was gracious in his thanks to everyone, not forgetting the translators and backstage workers. I felt it when he didn’t immediately elicit the audience response for which, I think, he hoped. That was because the audience was mostly listening to the translation on headphones, so however good the translation there were seconds of delay in the meaning of what he said being clear. Most of the questions in the question and answer session afterwards were fairly predictable, like how did he feel about taking photos of suffering. The answer is that it’s his job to tell us about it, to tell the story for people who can’t tell if for themselves, to bear witness. Or how often had he been in danger, he actually, modestly played that down if you know anything about him.
One answer I liked was that he thought the internet, modern communications, mobile phones etc were great; that if a photographer could use the internet to promote their work and bring it to the world’s attention, then that was cool, and not an insult to traditional photojournalists. I had to stifle a cheer for that of course. He has his own blog which is http://stevemccurry.com/blog .
He also doesn’t appear to be nostalgic for film. I had the feeling that perhaps the questioner was expecting a different response, a sadness at the change of direction in photography, a longing for the past, but no, he works exclusively in digital mode now, and loves its convenience and versatility. These were really refreshing answers from a guy who is, end of the day, a baby boomer! No dwelling on days of yore but a enthusiasm for the present and the future. You could say I was in double heaven, two of my favorite themes, photography and ageism being addressed in one!
The other thing which emerged, and which some friends will cheer, is that he considers himself in equal parts nomad and photographer. There was a quote to that effect alongside some his photos, but in Spanish I can’t remember exactly how it was, but that is the essence. He considers himself born to travel, and even if he couldn’t take photographs any longer he would still travel. Butterflies in my stomach at that!
Today I’m still a little on cloud 9, wondering if he really was just a few feet away from me last night; resisting the temptation to drive up into the mountains today (because he mentioned that he might be going up there with a view to coming back one day to take photos) in case I might “bump into” him, because last night I just dried up at the thought of asking him a question, although I had a half dozen whirling around my head. I tend to get all tongue-tied, and to do that in front of an audience would have been a killer!
One thing for sure, I’ll be returning to the exhibition a few more times before it finishes! If you’re interested in photography, travel or curious about how others live, or simply about life the exhibition is on until the end of June at the Caja Canarias in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.