Reviewed by Bojidar Dimitrov
Even if you've never heard the name Steve McCurry, you've surely seen at least one of his pictures. Remember the penetrating green eyes of the young Afghan girl on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic? That gaze full of fear and curiosity that wouldn't let you put down the magazine? National Geographic calls this image its most recognized photograph, and naturally it has found its way into the book Looking East, Portraits by Steve McCurry. But, astonishingly, the book contains several other images with similar impact, so you might end up asking yourself "Why hasn't this image made it? Or that one? Or that other one?"
Looking East is an over-sized and luxurious book that showcases a portfolio of almost 60 portraits by the widely known photographer. Every image is special, each pair of eyes grabs you and draws you into the page, tells you half of its life-story in a photographic instant. By looking through this book you'll travel to Afghanistan, Burma, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Tibet. You will meet school-girls and nomad boys, pilgrims and monks, coal miners and shepherds. You will visit villages and festivals and get your feet wet in the monsoon waters.
Having made 57 trips to India alone, Steve McCurry knows southeast Asia closely and personally, almost intimately. He's traveled to areas and met people far off the tourist paths, and it is the portraits of these fascinating people fill the pages of Looking East. To me these are not purely photojournalistic images, however. While the people are in no way models, they look posed and their clothing and the image backgrounds were probably deliberately chosen. While I feel that these "manipulations" are very discrete and surely worthwhile, some viewers of McCurry's work object to them. Apparently it is okay when a studio shot in the western world takes several hours to produce, but even the smallest interference with the reality of distant or more exotic locations is deemed unacceptable. I invite you to judge for yourselves if choosing a fitting background or throwing a scarf around a woman's shoulders in order to underline the features of her face constitute a breach with reality, or if they are the mark of a master photographer who by changing only a few minor details turns an ordinary scene into a memorable image.
In closing I should note that a small number of the images have been enlarged a bit too much in order to fill the large book pages, but the artistic value of these few far outweighs their technical qualities, and I wouldn't want to miss out on any one of them. In fact, the images in Looking East are so powerful, don't be surprised if after looking at the book you feel compelled to visit Southeast Asia yourself.
Bojidar Dimitrov is a hobby photographer who used to obsess about optics and photographic equipment, but as can be seen from his blog, he is currently focusing on making better and more expressive pictures. Bojidar is probably best known for his Pentax K-Mount Web Page.
Featured Comment by Christopher Lane: "Steve McCurry’s wonderful and evocative photographs are also featured on the cover of each CD in the Bach Canata Pilgrimage series by the Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique under Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Find out more about these recordings here. Even if you don’t like classical music, the covers are an amazing example of great portraiture."
If the samples are any indication, sounds like some pretty rousing renditions of the cantatas, too. Gardinar always struck me as being in the best tradition of the English amateur, like Beecham, or for that matter William Henry Fox Talbot. —MJ