September 11, New York City, 2001
If you search the internet for lists of the most well-known photographers working today, American photographer and photojournalist Steve McCurry, who has been responsible for capturing some of the most captivating images of the past 50 years, is almost always among those distinguished names.
However, for a more personal and comprehensive view of how this photographer came to be included on those top-tier lists, you should take a close look at his most recently published book, Steve McCurry: A Life in Pictures (Laurence King), which is the most comprehensive volume on the photographer’s images and life published to date.
Forty years of McCurry’s incredible imagery are intertwined with unfiltered comments from his sister, Bonnie, allowing us to gain a more personal view of the photographer behind the lens. Plus, personal notes, telegrams and memorabilia from his travels are included in this revealing opus.
You also learn much about his early life: For instance, Bonnie and Steve’s father was an avid photographer, documenting his family with an Argus C3 and a Kodak Brownie. Steve’s first camera was a Kodak Instamatic, which he used to document his first extensive trip to Europe the summer after he graduated from high school in 1969.
It’s intriguing to find out that McCurry majored in film and cinematography at Penn State since he continues to be an avid fan of the moving picture. “Citizen Kane,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and two films by Stanley Kubrick—“Paths of Glory” and “Barry Lyndon”—are among the films he cites as inspiration. In fact, “Barry Lyndon” stands out for its scenes shot by candlelight using ultra-fast lenses developed by NASA. And while a third-year class in fine-art photography redirected his interests toward shooting the frozen moment, his training in filmmaking at Penn State gave him a firm understanding of how to tell a story through images.
In 1978, after a few years working as a photographer at Today’s Post, his local paper in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, McCurry took the major step that put him on a path that eventually led him into the pantheon of great photographers: He bought a one-way ticket to India to build his own personal body of work. He later said, “If I were to choose to photograph in just one country, I would choose India” because of its “beautiful chaos.”
Less than a decade later, his portrait of a 12-year-old green-eyed Afghan refugee named Sharbat Gula in Pakistan graced the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic. However, what’s revealed in the book is that McCurry’s best-known single photograph almost never saw the light of day: Bill Garrett, then the editor-in-chief of National Geographic, pulled it from a pile of rejects after the story’s photo editor had chosen an alternate image during his edit.
In A Life in Pictures, McCurry’s sister reminisces, “From the time he was a kid, Steve was never still, and he’s never been one to wait for things to happen to him. I’ve heard it said that only amateurs wait for inspiration; professionals just get up every day and get to work.” Now in his late 60s, Steve McCurry is still proving his sister’s comment to be true and shows no signs of slowing down.
McCurry’s fascination with daily life and the human condition continues to be the driving force behind his images, perhaps best summed up by the late, famed National Geographic photo editor Bob Gilka: “McCurry’s success did not come from the bang-bang syndrome of the swashbuckling combat photographer. Rather, it is because of his versatility and sensitivity.”
Digital Photo Pro: The extensive text in your new book by your sister, Bonnie McCurry, gives us incredible insight into the makings of you as both a person and your evolution as a photographer.
Steve McCurry: My sister is the person who knows me the best. She has a great eye and memory, so it was obvious she would be the only one capable of doing this huge, extensive work in gathering stories, going through my work and selecting pictures that have never been seen before. It was also important to give some context to situations I lived through, witnessed, with ephemera and texts, and could be potentially an educational tool for future generations. I believe she did an amazing job.
You started out studying cinema and, as your sister wrote in the book, the medium has had a major influence on the development of your eye. You’ve cited Stanley Kubrick, for instance, as a major influence. What made you adjust your focus to a life capturing frozen moments?
Kubrick was a master of light and composition. His color palette was poetic and harmonious. He started his career as a still photographer for Look magazine, and I think his eye for design and light carried through to his filmmaking.
While I was studying cinematography in college, I took a fine-art photography class. I just fell in love with the medium and the work of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange and Elliott Erwitt. Their work is full of humanity, emotion and great artistry. They turned universal stories into art. They photographed the world from their personal point of view. Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész generally used one or two lenses and worked mostly in available light. This simplicity, as well as the mastery of light and composition, helped contribute to create this timeless quality.
I knew I wanted to spend my life traveling and exploring the world we live in. Photography has a solitary element that I’m attracted by. You can walk out your door and start shooting images. It seemed more spontaneous than film. I thought it was more immediate. I liked wandering around with my camera and making pictures of things that interested me.
What has drawn you to focus so much of your photographic efforts on Asia?
There’s such depth of culture and geography, and there’s so much variety. It’s truly a unique part of the world, and so often misunderstood.
When you think of a place like Afghanistan, and then next door you have India, Nepal and Tibet…the cultures go back thousands of years. The architecture, the language, the way people dress, everything is so distinct and unique, unlike Europe or the United States, which has become this homogeneous globalization of culture.
Afghanistan has been one of the central and most important stories of my career. I have traveled there more than 30 times.
One of my first photographs published by The New York Times was from my first visit to Afghanistan when I traveled with the Mujahideen in 1979. When the Soviet Union’s Red Army invaded Afghanistan, it was extremely difficult to get access to the country. I was one of the few people who had a body of work from there.
Since then, I have been following the political situation that is evolving constantly. No matter how often I return, this country always changes in my absence through conflict, change of regime, modernization. I feel a real personal relationship with the Afghan people, who I’ve met and who have helped me while traveling the country and who have become extended family. I also captured images of child labor, young boys and girls working in candy factories, images that still haunt me, and always wanted to make a change regarding this situation.
And you have in part done that through your nonprofit organization.
I founded ImagineAsia with family and friends a couple years ago to help young Afghans from the Bamiyan region where the Hazara people live. We are providing textbooks and materials for schools to promote education. We do drives to provide blankets and coats for the hard winters. We wanted to do something very manageable where one could actually see the benefits directly to the people. Afghanistan’s children represent the country’s hopes for a better future, and education is the only key to that future.
What is it about India that also has been a major focus in your career?
India is also fascinating because it is so culturally rich, with a varied geography and strong social and cultural disparities among its people. It was the first place I traveled to as a young photographer, and I was struck by the unique variety of cultures, customs and religions. The mix of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity—and to see how they all intermingled—has been a constant source of fascination.
I find the people to be some of the most outgoing, warm and generous on the planet. Celebration is abundant, exuberant, dramatic and colorful. There is a vital spirit that is alive and continuously connected to the ancient history of the country.
Above all, no matter how much it’s changing, there’s something about India that makes you feel like you’re stepping back into another time and age. In terms of specific places, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Ladakh and Kolkata are extraordinary spots that I keep wanting to return to.
One of the aspects of India you focus on is the monsoon. How do you translate something so massive like that into a cohesive story?
I researched what was the fundamental meaning of the monsoon and how it affected people’s lives. The monsoon is an important part of the Indian culture. Often, it is either too much rain, resulting in flooding, or not enough rain, resulting in drought and poor crops. In either case, it creates devastating results. It is a dramatic situation, and sometimes can be life-threatening for thousands of people.
Having lived through two monsoons I understood I would need to travel to areas with extreme weather conditions in order to tell the story.
During and after the monsoon, there were very interesting festivals. Take the city of Varanasi. People have to cope with flooded streets, sometimes using boats to commute and adjust their lifestyle with the weather.
My first encounter with the monsoon was through the pictures of Brian Brake, published in LIFE magazine in 1962. I was inspired, and I wanted to go to these places as a 12-year-old boy. I decided when I got older to see these places myself. That is what I did 20 years later and spent two years in India.
In addition to the reportage work you’ve done in the region, you’ve produced many powerful portraits of locals often working in open shade and with a shallow depth of field.
I’m using the selective focusing, and I’m selecting what I want the viewer to focus on. Besides the technical and the composition, the most important thing is the human aspect, and telling a story through the empathy that you feel for the person you are photographing. I like the fact that a photo tells something about what it is like to be the person that I photograph.
What camera equipment are you working with these days?
I’m currently shooting with the Nikon D850 and limit myself to two lenses—the 28-70mm and 28-300mm zooms—and the Hasselblad H6D-100c with the XCD 120mm Macro and the 45mm. The Hasselblad allows me to make large prints. I typically do not spend too much time on settings and dedicate most of my time to the situations and the people I’m encountering.
Some of those situations and people have been in war zones. How did you go about trying to convey the horror of 9/11, which happened so close to home?
The attacks on September 11th happened in my neighborhood in New York. I live about a 30-minute walk from there.
I actually looked out the window and could see the World Trade Center on fire. Immediately, I grabbed my camera bag and raced up to the roof of my building. I photographed both towers collapsing from there. We were all completely devastated, but you have to keep control of yourself so that you can function…dial your emotions back so that you can put one foot in front of the other.
Then, I went down to do what I always do, to photograph. I arrived at Ground Zero at around 11 a.m. It was difficult to make my way there as all the roads were blocked by police and firefighters, but I knew it was important to document the horrific event.
Photographers starting off now are entering a very different world from when you started. Any suggestions for those making their early forays into the field?
You need patience and discipline. Stay focused, be engaged and photograph things in the world that fascinate you. I think if you’re doing something you care about, then it’s time well spent.
You only live once, so you want to have a taste of all the different facets of the planet we live on. It is also important to be prepared, to work with good people—fixers, translators or guides. They are a key to successful projects.
If you don’t speak the local language, you can run into problems. If you don’t know the customs, you need someone to help. I have always traveled with translators. Most importantly, I think if you’re doing something you care about, then it’s time well spent.
For more on Steve McCurry’s book and work, go to stevemccurry.com. To learn more about the nonprofit organization ImagineAsia, go to imagine-asia.net.