Seems like the entire photo world—or that subset of it that cares about pictures, anyway—is talking about Teju Cole's article "A Too-Perfect Picture" at the New York Times Magazine. In reviewing Steve McCurry's new book, India, Cole calls McCurry to task not just for taking pictures that "are staged or shot to look as if they were" and that are "astonishingly boring"—his charge goes a little deeper than that. He argues that McCurry is invested in an imaginary, idealized India, a land mainly of Western stereotype. "To consider a place largely from the perspective of a permanent anthropological past, to settle on a notion of authenticity that edits out the present day, is not simply to present an alternative truth: It is to indulge in fantasy." That's a more serious charge than boringness when it's aimed at a guy who's spent a large part of his life as a photojournalist.
Teju Cole contrasts McCurry's work to that of the late Raghubir Singh—taking care to address the apparent political correctness of his choice (the liberal idea that disenfranchised, disadvantaged, and third-world people should control their own image, rather than leaving it to Western white males). No fool he. In fact, though, it's a great comparison from a purely artistic standpoint. I've loved Singh's work since I first saw it in a Washington, D.C. museum 25 years ago, but I like Steve McCurry's work too. But the contrast between the two both as artists and in terms of the way each conceives both of photographs and of the subject—and the way they tend to like to organize pictures—is indeed very instructive. Seeing how they handle the same subject brings up some core issues in how different minds and eyes approach the photographic venture.
I don't think you need to be familiar with a broader subset of the work of both photographers to see Cole's point clearly. It's a short but trenchant article, as close to a must-read for photography enthusiasts as any such article I've come across recently. Both photographers are worth investigating, especially together, and—Cole is right—especially considering their differences.
Although Cole's language is contentious and confrontational (or maybe not—maybe he just really thinks McCurry's work is boring), I'm not really sure the issue has to become a standard "controversy," in that I don't think there's really any need to "take sides" to get a lot out of the comparison and the discussion. However, Allen Murabayashi has written a post "In Defense of Steve McCurry" at PhotoShelter.
Good to keep uppermost in mind, though—photography's not a contest, and taking one photographer down never serves to build another up. Differences are interesting. It's a big house, of many rooms.
(Thanks to many readers)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Richard Hall: "I first went to India when i was 19 in 1971. I married an Indian woman in 1981 and have lived and worked in the region on and off for 40 years. My pictures represent what I see. Of course, not on contract. Arguments about who has a right to capture a vision are a hopeless wag."
Alan Carmody: "It is interesting to note that there has long been a tradition of great photographers traveling to India, and of great Indian photographers simultaneously creating great work on their home turf. Felice Beato's photography from India in the 19th century is famous. Raja Deendayal's photography in India from that century is equally extraordinary. So, the Steve McCurry/Raghubir Singh dichotomy has a long history. India inspires photographers, both local and visiting. And speaking of Raghubir Singh, I'm partial to his contemporary and equal, Raghu Rai. If you view the work of one, you must check out the work of the other.
"Lastly, as to Teju Cole's argument, I agree with it in regards to McCurry specifically.
"I've always had misgivings about McCurry's approach after reading about how he went about re-discovering Sharbat Gula in mid-life, the subject of the famous 'Afghan Girl' teen portrait that he took in a refugee camp. When McCurry did finally track down a likely candidate, a lady in mid-life living in near poverty, he aggressively and intrusively had a U.S. team do a laser scan of her retina rather than believe the evidence of his own eyes and the lady's story that she was the girl he had photographed. Kinda crass and cold and, I daresay, a behavior he would never exhibit within the confines of his own society.
"On the other hand, I don't necessarily buy any all-encompassing theory of the 'Western Gaze' in regards to all outsider photography in India, specifically. India has too large and vibrant a press (3,000 newspapers and magazines in the English language alone) to worry about what pictures outsiders are taking of it. I do think that distortion exists in the case of reportage from Africa, but it is arises from a complex interaction of photographer, photo editors, media and news-story needs and preferences and so on, rather than the methods and mindset of any individual photographer, as in the case of McCurry."
BERND REINHARDT: "I practice quite a bit of street photography, but my late mentor Ben Lifson used to refer to it as 'figures in landscape.' A lot of my peers like to focus on the homeless and the plight of society, which when done respectfully is a noble undertaking. I myself like to focus on the beauty in this world, rich or poor. My photography is subjective. I am not a photojournalist. I am not saying that this is the way to go for everyone; it's just what I like to do with my photography, and it seems that I share this objective with Steve McCurry and Peter Turnley. What's wrong with showing the beautiful side of a place, a person, or a situation? There is so much sorrow in this world that I don't feel the need to dunk everyone's nose in it. That's what why we have the news."
JK: "While McCurry might be one of the best known and most successful, Cole's critique can certainly be extended to other globe-trotting Western photographers. That's something that often stuck me about the 'A Day in the Life' series of books, especially when they went to less developed countries. The fly-in-fly-out photographers, relying on their visual instincts and no doubt certain preconceptions, tended to come up with striking images that, to my mind, seldom went very deep. The local photographers' contributions, while usually not as immediately impressive, were more likely to offer clues about what life was really like in those places. At their best, the two styles complemented each other quite nicely. I think that a more specific criticism of McCurry would be that most of his best work came early, and that he seems to have been coasting for some years now. By all accounts he does set up or at least direct a lot of his shots, and that always runs the risk of falling into formula."
Victor Bloomfield: "This controversy is remarkably similar to the one involving the portrayal by Edward S. Curtis of 'The North American Indian' in his monumental volumes of photographs of that name. The Portland (Oregon) Art Museum is currently featuring the exhibit 'Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy: Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, Will Wilson,' which contrasts Curtis's work with that of three contemporary Native American photographers. The exhibition's web site says, in part: 'Curtis, a non-Native who believed that Native Americans were a "vanishing race," produced a meaningful yet romanticized record of tribal life at the turn of the twentieth century. The photographs he included in The North American Indian document significant aspects of daily life and material culture and encourage nostalgia for societies under threat of elimination. This beautiful but often idealized representation of Native culture has elicited both praise and scrutiny, as many photographs were posed and manipulated in order to eliminate signs of modern life and create the artifice of a pre-European snapshot in time.'"
Mattias: "as ever you offer the balanced view of things photographic. Thank you for that. Instead of taking sides I will say just this though. I have great respect for Cole as a maturing critic. Previously mostly known as a celebrated writer of fiction he has moved steadily, through his column at the New York Times Magazine, into this new role over just a few years. He also offers a sligthly different viewpoint than what is often the case among established critics in the West, which is refreshing and much needed. In addition to Murabayashi's defence of McCurry I also appreciate the well-written defence of Cole by Andrew Molitor (in PhotoShelter's comment section) which I tend to agree with."
Shubh Mohan: "It is basically the same critique that Edward Said made in orientalism. What is important is Steve McCurry is immensely popular because his work is easily likable for many people. That should not make him any less of an artist even though his work may come across as boring or easy to some people. At least it is more accessible, and the photographic community should be thankful for that."
SR: "Raghubir Singh was born in Rajasthan, probably the most photographed and stereotyped region of India. That may partly explain why his images lack the romanticism of the so called western stereotype—he had broken the spell of exotic veneer that charms most visitors to India.
"Having said that I must confess that India seems exotic to Indians themselves. Every morning, Lakshmi, the elephant, walks down my street on her way to temple duty, and in the evenings a small crowd gathers at the corner temple which specializes in the removal or charms and spells cast on children (which makes them sick and cranky). Last week marked the conclusion of a festival where young men suspend themselves from a crane with sharp hooks inserted in their backs, in a trance induced by the pain. How can I not photograph that?
"The everyday existence is so full of color and ritual that it is extremely difficult not to be captivated by it as a photographer. So the western stereotype is hardly western—a lot of Indians produce similar images.
"I have found that the best way is not to resist it. I given in to the exotic charm of my country, photograph the color, pomp, ceremony and sadhus to my heart’s content and eventually if I hang around the place long enough (and this could be days), I do come to a stage that I am no longer distracted and am able to look deeper, past the surface charm. Then India’s most unusual and outlandish affairs reveal themselves to be nothing more (or nothing less) than humanity’s universal preoccupations."
Roger Bradbury: "I'm not impressed by Teju Cole's piece on Steve McCurry. I think it's a load of old nonsense; Cole doesn't like the view of India he sees through McCurry's work because it isn't the view he would like the world to see. Well, tough.
"There's no misrepresentation to be seen here. the example Cole gives of the two railwaymen on the front of an engine shows me two men at work, one of whom Cole tells us has a beard just as I do, though my beard is bigger. It shows that the transport infrastructure runs close to the Taj Mahal, a World Heritage Site, just like the transport infrastructure runs close to some World Heritage Sites in the U.K. It isn't a fantasy view of the place, but how it is in real life.
"'Astonishingly boring' is an oxymoron, and if Mr. McCurry's photos were that boring, why does he have well over a million followers? I should be so lucky, except it's not luck but years of effort that made this happen.
"Steve McCurry's Afghan Girl photo, together with the photo of the woman she became 17 years later, makes me think about what it means to grow and age. With these two photos, the whole is greater than the sum.
"As far as I can see, Steve McCurry treats his subjects with dignity. Here is McCurry's website. See what you think."
Bill Poole: "I agree with much of the Times piece and particularly like the phrase, applied to one of Singh's images: 'unforgettable because it stretches compositional coherence nearly to its snapping point.' There are so many, many pretty pictures in the world—billions more every day. The struggle is to use familiar graphic 'materials' to say something new without stretching coherence beyond the snapping point."
Piers Smith: "To Sam Abell, who also worked at National Geographic, the issue of excluding too much in the search of the perfect photograph seems to have been a serious concern. In his book The Photographic Life, he mentions this in the context of when he was photographing the American West. He said how he eventually had to stop 'overlooking' real life, i.e. excluding the mundane in the search for an image good enough to be published in the magazine. One can understand the tendency to do this with the kind of pressure these guys must have been under.
"He talks about the same thing here."
Animesh Ray: "Raghubir Singh's photographs have always seemed to me to be quite cerebral, as opposed to McCurry's photos, which appear rather sensual in comparison. They are just two aspects of art. While I gravitate to Singh (I am an Indian) and more so to Rai, some of McCurry's photos from India are unforgettable, such as the cluster of women sheltering themselves against a dust storm, or a boatman in Kashmir's Dahl lake. These lyrical masterpieces constitute a small number of McCurry's output from India. I am struck by the far more numerous compelling images from Henri Cartier-Bresson in India, though he was there for little over a year (I think)."