‘Let Things Unfold’ – Magnum Photographer Steve McCurry


Steve McCurry strikes a pose for a picture in New Delhi, India. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Steve McCurry seems to be as comfortable infront of the camera as he is behind it.   


( From an  interview published in Deccan Herald March  2013) 

His photograph of Sharbat Gula –the Afghan Girl is probably the most recognizable photograph in history. But when celebrated photographer Steve McCurry  is pushed to pick a favorite  he picks the picture of the  dust storm moment he captured in rural Rajasthan in 1983.

In fact his photographic journey across the world started with India, when  as a young freelancer in 1978 he made his first transatlantic trip here from the US armed with a suitcase full of Kodachrome.  The story of how he intended it to be a  six week excursion  and how it  turned  into a two year sojourn is well known. From then on Steve McCurry has been a New Yorker in absentia, travelling almost eight months of the year. In a photography career spanning close to  four decades, he has made more than 85 trips to India but his fascination for the subcontinent  remains undiminished.

In India recently for the Kumbh Mela and a talk, he is still enthralled by the  life and energy he finds here.

McCurry made his reputation on his haunting close-ups but he is equally adept  at depicting  the drama and energy of a street scene. Photographing India, he has demonstrated his skill in both.   His photograph of a solemn boy smeared in Holi colors or the poignant portrait of a mother with a child begging at a traffic signal exemplify the close-ups. While the photo of the boy in mid air as he runs around   a bend in a Jodhpur by lane with red hand-prints  on the blue walls working as leading lines  or the picture of two men balanced precariously on rocks  in the foreground of a gushing waterfall in Goa–one of his photographs for his book on monsoon- demonstrate his expertise in street photography.

Steve McCurry says he never thinks whether it is going to be a portrait or a street scene,  ‘’Its better to be curious and let things unfold and not try to be so frantic and try to look for great pictures . It may be better to just to relax and let it flow as opposed to looking around. It almost seems too much like work’’, he says.

But is it easier to photograph in the chaos and crumble of developing nations like India, Pakistan and Burma than in the sanitized neighborhoods of New York or London- places which the maverick Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden called the real “war zones” because in other places “people don’t give a fuck to what you are photographing. Here (New York side walk) people do care. Its like a war zone’’.

Steve McCurry however has an unabashed fascination for Asia. Africa comes a distant  second.  His images from these developing countries has invoked awe in the viewer, showered a kind of benediction on the subjects and contributed immensely to our  knowledge of some of the lesser known cultures from these parts.

“ I think you should just photograph what interests you. I don’t think we should feel compelled or required to do this or to do that. There are millions of places in the world. And they  don’t interest me’’, he says.  He points out at the vanishing cultures around the world and the need to document them before they disappear.

“Lets take the nomads in India. It’s a way of life that has evolved over thousands of years. Its a whole way of life and its disappearing right before our eyes.  It  will be another generation or two and end of story. I think its good to have some memory.  I think its important to have a memory of that and look back and think’’, he says.

One of the ephemera of time  that did disappear  right before our eyes was the grand old Kodachrome film- the Holy Grail for all   photographers. It  took a final bow to the onslaught of the digital era and shut shop in 2011. And to chronicle its last glory for posterity and nostalgia was Steve McCurry who requested Kodak to give him the last roll off its production line in Rochester, New York.

Armed with this last roll and its  36 frames,  he shot  around the world. In India besides his street portraits of  ascetics, Rajasthani women, passersby, he  shot Amitabh Bachchan, Shekhar Kapoor, Nandita Das and Amir Khan in Mumbai.  But it was  Aishwarya Rai he really wanted to photograph. “I would have traded all those guys for her-  Amitabh Bachchan, Amir Khan, Nandita Das all.  Just give me her. Unfortunately she was in Sri Lanka and I was on a very tight schedule’’, he says.

One of the other areas he left his unique mark on was an unchartered territory for him – the Pirelli calendar. The calendar which traditionally had  fashion models in the buff and employed top fashion photographers for the job,  turned a new leaf for its 40th anniversary by roping in photojournalist Steve McCurry.  He not only broke the hallowed tradition by shooting full clothed women –one of them pregnant – but he also chose women who were contributing to charity and social issues.

The calendar (2013) , despite the no-nudes disappointment for some, was well received and needless to say is  touted as one of the most innovative  Pirelli calendars of all time.

 As Steve McCurry explains, “ I think you want pictures that are effortless and without a lot of fanfare around the technique. I think that’s where you want to strive.  If a picture has insight into the human nature and condition I think its going to be honest’’.

After the interview I have the  the daunting task of  photographing the famous photographer. But Steve McCurry is as comfortable in front of the camera as he  is behind it.  He positions his body three quarters to the camera. Brings one leg in front of the other.  Shifts his weight to his back leg. Cocks his head slightly to one  side.  Buries one hand in his pocket while the other  -his left hand, which he uses for all practical purposes from  shaking your hand to pressing that shutter- probes his ear, his chin and his button. And I  know I have got my  shot.


Photographer Steve McCurry is as comfortable infront of the camera as he is behind it. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

5 Responses to “‘Let Things Unfold’ – Magnum Photographer Steve McCurry”

  1. Navin Kumar says:

    such a great write up, am amazed to know about the no. 85

    thank you for such a great info

  2. farah khan says:

    gud picture,nice editorial

  3. Sundreysh Sarup says:

    Very well written. Learned few more things about the legend.

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