Review: “In Search of Elsewhere: Unseen Images” by Steve McCurry

by J.R. Patterson
Review Steve McCurry In Search of Elsewhere

Steve McCurry – In Search of Elsewhere: Unseen Images (Laurence King 2020). Foreword by Pico Iyer. Hardback, 102 pictures.

This review was prepared alongside an interview with Steve McCurry. Book reviewed by J. R. Patterson.

There was a time when McCurry’s signature photographic style of portraiture seemed in jeopardy not from extinction, but of overpopulation. With the advent of Instagram and cellphone cameras, the world was swamped with close-quartered self-portraits, images that were nothing less than a desperate attempt to convince ourselves of our presence, and have that presence validated. Travel photography suffered especially, as the subject transitioned from place to traveler, the observer becoming the focal point. Vistas were squeezed out to make room for full-framed grinning faces over a caption reading “Italy” or “Guatemala” as though, simply by being in a place, we embody it completely. Not that gawping egoists posed much threat to the McCurry signature, a thousand-yard stare that has become his personal technique for peering into the soul of his subjects. 

No one can call into question McCurry’s photographic mastery. While some photos could be attributed to his uncanny knack for incalculable timing (and it’s true to say that he has been present in some of the most photographically important places of the last forty years, including New York on 9/11, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), they are better recognized as the result of dogged persistence.   

There is, of course, the question of McCurry’s art. While there are always photographers who rush to compete with painting’s abstraction (think of the cubism inherent in New York photographs, the British pastoral fixation, or the Russian passion for derelict buildings), McCurry has always been more concerned with rhythm, balance. As Pico Iyer notes in his introduction, his work is less an optic into a place or person, than a meditation. No surprise, then, to discover that he thinks of his art more aligned with poetry.

But what can photography pull from poetry? From words? From rhyme? It does not take a seasoned eye to apply these questions to McCurry’s work, to see the compression and symbolism at work. A burqa’d woman with her ankles showing glides past a tarpaulined car, its bumper exposed. An orange-seller squats among the rubble of a Kabul street, his back to a mural of a bucolic mountain scene. A bare-chested Hamar woman in Ethiopia looks on while the bare torso of a tooth-white mannequin hovers in the background. Like any good poet, McCurry provides little explanation, letting the viewer’s eye rest where it wants; the detail is there, waiting for committed eyes.  

Here, a boy at the Litang Horse Festival, and a man from Gulmarg, Kashmir, hold a gaze as effectively as that of the Afghan Girl from the cover of National Geographic in 1984. That they will not achieve their fame is only a quirk of circumstance, part of the incalculable timing with which McCurry is all too familiar. 

His street subjects are often dirty, often caught at work, and hardly ever seem to be ready for the camera. Rather, they appear to be acquiescing to the lens, giving in to being viewed while retaining the last inch of their privacy, from where they make a solid stand, guarding their secrets under a metallic gaze.  

McCurry can do action – his animal portraits show that well enough – but here he provides images that are still, or nearly still. There is no anticipation of movement, no mystery of direction. We can feel where his subjects are going; they are in no hurry. Even looking at a crowd at India’s Holi festival, or a group of boys cartwheeling along a beach in Mozambique, there is a sense of arrested motion. With the ticking longevity of a poem, the photo grips us; we cannot be satisfied until the final beat is laid, the rhyme resolved. But, the wheeling feet will never land, the shuffling couple will never reach their destination; they, and now us, are forever held in stasis. 

It’s telling that none of these photos can be fixed in time. Standing alone, uncaptioned, scenes from Mali’s Sahel desert, New York’s Vesuvio Bakery, Tibet’s Serchul Monastery, the Mongolian Steppe – all decades apart – appear as though from the same era, the same wraithlike landscape, a world beyond the concept of time and technology. That is McCurryland, a place full of desolation, and want, and piercing, melancholic glances. There is happiness too, and love, in the tender support of a lover’s elbow, and the warm embrace of a grandmother. 

We all know the world has changed immeasurably in the past forty years. At this point, more photographs weighing the passage of time, of poverty beside riches, new technology beside old, is reductive, and pointless. It’s a salve to see evidence, as we do here, of not what has changed over the last forty years, or what is different, but what has remained the same, and what will never change.  

It ought to be apparent to us all that photography is a humanistic art. It takes, but does not steal, shows, but does not give. Millions of people have gazed at the Afghan Girl, none of them have owned her. Photography is a medium of negative space; people peer out into nothing in one place, and people peer in at nothing in another. Two worlds joined are joined without connecting. Creating that kind of bridge is the kind of work best suited to a poet, one with a good understanding of humanity. The portraits within In Search of Elsewhere are a testament to McCurry’s humanism and validation of the world’s. The proof is in their eyes.

Steve McCurry – In Search of Elsewhere: Unseen Images (Laurence King 2020). Foreword by Pico Iyer. Hardback, 102 pictures.

This review was prepared alongside an interview with Steve McCurry. Book reviewed by J. R. Patterson.

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Last Updated on 25 November 2020 by Travel Writing World

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