art photography

worth a look (and a thought)

By | photography

This morning I heard on BBC radio that there was an exhibition by what was announced as one of the most famous photographers in the world, Steve McCurry. The name sounded vaguely familiar , but did not immediately ring a bell. The interviewer asked the photographer what was it in a certain individual that got him interested enough to approach that person to start photographing him for some time, was it his or her behavior, the clothes, maybe the eyes ? The eyes ? Then I suddenly had the picture in mind: the Afghan girl with the light eyes !  The photographer started telling about a Sri Lankan fisherman that he made contact with, and how his own enthusiasm inspired his subject to cooperate in making beautiful pictures for National Geographic magazine.

Many photography enthusiasts around the world see the photographs of this magazine as sort of an ideal, because of their colorful aesthetics and idealized exotism in the “what a beautiful world” vein. Even when the subjects sometimes touch on the darker sides of life like poverty, natural disasters and human misfortune, it maintains a heroic and balanced colorful view of the world. When misery is shown, it’s hell without the smell, in other words coffee-table worthy. To many this imagery has come to represent how the world looks, a theme park for modern man to be explored, with interesting peoples to be met (and photographed) including their colorful traditions. An invitation for travel indeed.

Inevitably, the conversation comes to the girl with the eyes, the only photo I know by the man. The photographer tells the story again that we already know, stressing the fact that all was done with permission, and that the family had been compensated with a hadj to Mecca, their greatest wish, paid for by National Geographic. In a way I’m relieved to hear they really let them decide, and have not offered to take them to, let’s say Disneyland… The girl – now married to a local baker – also asked for education for her two children. Steve McCurry says that the response to the famous photograph varied widely, from people wanting to adopt the then young poor girl, and even people wanting to marry her after seeing her picture, to an amazing number of sales and publications.

This clearly raises the question, is this really all about “great photography”. Apart from recognizing beauty and skillfully portraying it – or presenting it to the world in a well-organized and packaged way (the cover of National Geographic no less …) the photograph is not a milestone in the photographic sense, it is the girl herself who is so enchanting with her wild beauty, unspoilt innocense, worlds apart from the pleasing sexiness that has become the standard pose we have become all too familiar with in our commercial culture. They even made a followup documentary, searching for the girl now grownup. Even with all the respect and compensation afterwards I have the feeling that this is marketing and hyping of the highest order. Great photography ? Not particularly, I think. The girl in the picture is stunning, her eyes are unforgettable, and we never would have looked at such beauty, were it not for Steve McCurry. But I don’t think I need to see the fisherman whose image was put in the “definitely art” category by the interviewer’s admiring remark that “the image made her think of a Dali”. The exhibition was “worth a look”, she concluded. The least Steve McCurry might hope for, anyway the Afghan girl is a classic.