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Monday, 04 April 2016


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I have often been struck by the irony that the vast majority of images we see of eastern and African cultures are taken by western photojournalists.

Most of them do indeed focus on some kind of search for pre-conceived authenticity, which is both patronising and a little depressing.

Surely there are thousands of excellent images taken by indigenous Indian citizens than would pass muster at Magnum?

A few months back, you featured some images taken by a young African photographer. I seem to remember that they were absolutely stunning.

Oh boy ... to actually judge one "vision" (or view, or interpretation, or what have you) over another is a fool's game, in my opinion. In every country/nation/locale there are AT LEAST two realities. Representing any one of them is valuable. I could go on, but Mr. Cole's takedown seems to me to be more about him than anything else.

Completely unrelated to the article topic, but I'm glad to see you tweeting links to posts! I set up a dummy account a couple of years ago (@TOP_RSS_Tweets) to do the same thing automatically via an IFTTT recipe to make keeping up with the blog easier for me personally. I'd be happy to share the recipe with you if you're interested in automating.

It's just his opinion, but if he had said "Well, it's just my opinion but I find Steve McCurry's pictures of India boring" who would have noticed?
Maybe it has had the desired effect

I am always suspicious of critiques that either tacitly or explicitly require you to adopt the reviewer's politics in order to have an "authentic" experience, as defined by the reviewer. "How lucky," my sarcastic self quips, "that you, the reviewer, were there just when I needed you to explain when I was having an appropriate and authentic emotional reaction." Talk about boring . . . (rolls eyes in a gesture worthy of any 15 year-old).

Then again, there is a reason that everyone has heard of Shakespeare, but no one knows his 10 most "important" critics. Shakespeare's eye/ear for universal human emotion has made him relevant for at least the last 400 years. His critics? Well, they are of no significance at all, really. We don't know who they are and what they said makes no difference to how we feel when we hear or read Shakespeare's line.

I do agree Mike, with your basic premise, that the answer is not either-or but and-and. My own reaction to the article: what an odd place to set up a false binary choice. This goes for all sorts of arguments about what should be in or out of any number of canons (film, literature, Star Trek episodes, fan fiction . . . and so on). Give me but time enough and I will read them all.

I thought that it was just ME!

I also find McCurry's photos to be rather boring, but there's nothing wrong with his indulging in fantasy or reflecting his idea of what his subjects could or should be, rather than what they actually are.

"...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."

Exactly. I couldn't have put it better.

The "boring" part is just a cheap shot, regardless of Cole's opinions.

The part where McCurry is presenting a fundamentally false Idea of India seems to be more spot on. Is it because McCurry is a colonialist running dog? Or is it simply that McCurry likes clean compositions and bright colors?

The masses of guys headed out to their jobs at software contracting operations in, I dare say, white button down shirts and so on, are neither tidy nor colorful after all. Nor are the poor, the generalized urban masses, the chaos of roads, and whatever else it is that one might reasonably assign to "modern India"

Regardless, McCurry *is* doing a thing, he's perfectly conscious of what his work shows taken as a whole, and it's almost certainly the case that he's up to is in no way an "authentic" idea of India, regardless of what that might even mean.

Is Singh more on target? No idea.

Is Singh's work complete? There's absolutely no way it can be. India is big. Like, really big.

Control of a particular culture's image and narrative should be intrinsic to any indigenous culture worldwide. That doesn't necessarily mean it should be exclusive to any one specific group of people, but it is a subject that is heavily reliant upon the particular geopolitical factors concerning that specific culture and history. That is subject for many a relevant, in depth discussion going way beyond the boundaries of photography.

So for the sake of brevity, I'll just stick to the visual styles represented; and there, I wholeheartedly have to agree with Teju Cole. McCurry's frozen in amber stereotypes owe their conservative heritage to the stoic, magazine cover, Nat Geo portrait aesthetic. They're more painterly and commercially appealing; Norman Rockwell comes to mind but even his paintings are considerably more dynamic. I have no problem with preserving a disappearing way of life, but you don't have to present it in such a consistently stilted manner. Even Gilden's Face project, despite their in your face dynamism, eventually suffers the same fate of sameness.

Raghubir Singh's photos achieve a more relevant, three dimensional view of then current India. New and old India, modern and traditional were constantly mixing and combining, separating and threatening within the confines of his compositions. It made for an India that had a past, future and most vibrant present- and for a visual aesthetic that never stood still...

A Google search for Teju Cole will lead to his Instagram feed. A sample, presumably, of his personal photographic aesthetic. Observe; conclude.

Colour me weird, but isn't one of photography's main targets to show one's view of the subject(s)? I'm not talking about photo-journalism, I'm talking about photography.
Then who is to say McCurry's photos are not what he "sees", exactly the same as Singh's "view" or any other's, including aunt Flo and her smartphone?
To classify any such as "boring" or "demonstrative of a cliche view" is quite frankly elitist and essentially show a total disrespect for the character of each photographer and their individual interpretation of what reality is.
And a photo is *ALWAYS* an interpretation, it is NOT reality!

Mike I've been waiting years for you to start using your twitter account. And just for fun who is that ONE person you're Following?

"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."

That is the MOST important paragraph in the post.

"The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were."

These are going to be fighting words for a photojournalist like McCurry, aren't they?

Any travel photography how-to book is full of pictures of colourful, characterful foreign people doing colourful, characterful things in their exotic locations, or sad gritty people doing sad gritty things in their poor downtrodden locations. They're not bad pictures and some/many of them might be worth taking but they are perhaps the equivalent of the high contrast, high saturation landscape shots that some of us take you see a lot nowadays. A kind of ethnicity-porn, if you like.

When I take a landscape shot I try hard to avoid power lines, radio masts, etc. I'm making pictures of a world that doesn't fully exist. I think perhaps we could see more shots of "ethnic" people using mobile phones (which I think are now ubiquitous in some parts of what we call the third world), cars, TVs, etc.

"Some folk built like this,
some folk built like that
But the way I'm built,
you shouldn't call me fat
Because I'm built for comfort,
I ain't built for speed."
Howlin Wolf

"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."

Yes indeed. Everything does not have to be a controversy. The ability to hold opposing ideas in one's mind is said to be a hallmark of maturity, or intelligence, or something.

Indeed. It is a big house and it just got bigger...again.
mi dos pesos

Relieved to find I'm not the only one who finds McCurry's work too 'good'. The surface is seductive in a McCurry and the pictures beautiful to the extent that it's difficult to go any deeper.

The most disappointing photobook I have bought is 'Here Far Away' which was highly recommended on TOP. The pictures are clearly examples of very good photography. of a kind that a certain subset of photographers admire. But hell, it's a boring book. I've looked at the book twice. The second time to see if I'd misjudged it. I hadn't.

Cole is right perfection is boring.


Cole writes: "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.'

And in my view, he is right... It is also true to say that genuine documentary photography is not exclusive to artists growing up in the area that they are documenting...

I do not believe that McCurry is wrong to practise his art in the way that he has... I am not sure that he claims to be documenting India... Maybe he is just making pictures? Plenty of artists and photographers do, and this is especially true now that digital photography can present lies as easily as the old grand masters, who needed to flatter their patrons.

But fantasy and pragmatism is the nub of the matter, isn't it... In the historical context, we only get short lives, and my view is that we should just ride the train and enjoy it for what it is...

Left wingery and environmentalism is mostly fantasy... The world gets smaller and nastier for people of this bent...

Whilst whiggery and acceptance of the way things are and laughing, is pragmatism... and the world becomes bigger and funnier for the rest of us.

Here you see the two, writ large.

Each one is entitled to have an opinion. As does Teju Cole. What I can say is that I never hear of him before, but I am glad that McCurry's new exhibition will be showing in Lisbon starting this month.

Boring or not, stereotype of not, Steve's work is already part of photography's history.

Hi Mike

I have travelled, worked and photographed in India. It is a fantastically diverse place that can be, and is, photographed through an endless range of styles. I like the work of both Raghubir Sing and Steve McCurry - I enjoy their different points of view. Of course people should explore and represent their own culture. But what's with the 'white men should keep out' thing. Outsiders do have a role in presenting things back to us. In Steve McCurry's case he has spent a large part of his life in Asia and shows us a sympathetic view of everyday life. He makes it look beautiful - why is that a bad thing?


Interesting point Mr. Cole makes - that the all-too-perfect, the simply beautiful can become boring. Perhaps this is also the problem that some of the TOP readers had with the Cuba portfolio from two weeks ago. But why is this? Is the non-perfect perceived as more truthful, or does it have a richer story, which arouses our curiosity?

Apparently this is also a matter of taste, since a lot of viewers seem to like the discussed book a lot. Probably cultural differences also play a role.

Strangely enough, Steve McCurry's pictures came to my mind a few days ago and prompted me to write a rather lengthy entry on my blog. To cut a long story short, I tend to echo Cole's opinions, but it's not entirely fair to dismiss McCurry as a cliché maker.
The issue with Steve McCurry is that he's probably the most imitated photographer of all times. Indian men with turbans, smoking and wearing vibrant colours? Phew, that's so commonplace it's embarrassing! And what about the porttrait of the Afghan girl with the hypnotic eyes? Can anyone stand looking at it for the millionth time?
This is not fair. Steve McCurry might be known for his clichés, but he was the first to portray those exotic people and places that way. ("Exotic" for us Westerners, as Mr Cole rightly points out.) He's not to blame if he is imitated by hordes of mediocre amateurs without a mind of their own. Yet Steve McCurry started something detestable. In their quest for out-McCurrying McCurry, his imitators push too hard on their pictures' aesthetics. Their field is so crowded they feel the need to make their pictures shout so they can be seen, so they employ colour saturation and HDR in a rather nauseating way. This has become trivial and deservedly earned these pictures a bad reputation. Unfortunately, it became difficult to tell Steve McCurry's pictures apart from the melée of imitations that constantly floods the internet.
Does this mean McCurry is a cliché photographer? Absolutely not! Some of his pictures are simply brilliant. Steve McCurry is one of the greatest photographers of our time, rubbing shoulders with Sebastião Salgado. It's just that his themes have worn out. Yes, he was the first, but he keeps breaking the rule of never getting back to places where he's been happy. His pictures from Eastern cultures were absolutely ravishing back in the 80's; not so much so now.

I took the article as less a takedown of McCurry and more a critique of his audience and the long and entrenched history of crowd-pleasing unchallenging pretty pictures, wedded to notions of exoticism and the practice of colonialism, and "good composition" dulling the senses through confirming expectations (swimming in comfortable ignorance). As opposed to photography that doesn't adhere to all that.

Cole links intellectually un-challenging and bias-confirming with artistically traditional. I don't think he makes such a strong case for that as a general rule, but I thought the distinctions he presents with the two photographers are interesting and provocative. That's what got me thinking about my own photography, the desire to fit things in a traditionally well-composed frame.

I'm trying to get away from traditional framing and traditional balancing of elements and instead capturing the spirit of scenes as they present themselves to our eyes, before we focus down. So much of photography is isolating elements in the frame from those outside the frame -- and that's so much the beauty and source of the surreal nature of photography -- but there are sometimes these simultaneous disparate threads of action going on in front of our eyes where I usually wait for one or another to pass so I (and the photo's eventual viewers) can focus on something. Instead, I'm thinking of how they can all leave their mark.

Somebody had to say this-I waited long enough.

In order not to make the previous comment too long, I haven't mentioned Raghubir Singh. The comparison with Steve McCurry is inevitable, but the latter doesn't always come on top, despite his Magnum member status.
Steve McCurry's pictures of India show this country through the eyes of a foreigner. As so it is unaviodable that his vision is impregnated with the stereotypes that are a 'prius' to Western perception - rich colours, crowded streets, holy cows, men with turbans and so on.
Singh, on the other hand, was able to depict life in India brilliantly because he was an Indian who lived in India. Nothing can replace this experience. His pictures tell us so much more about life in the streets of Indian cities than McCurry's.
This doesn't necessarily make Singh's photography better: it just makes it more authentic. More informative, if we favour such approach to photography.
If I were hard pressed to tell which of these two great photographers I prefer, I'd have to say it's Raghubir Singh. His pictures are just more interesting; they teem with life, as opposed to Steve McCurry's more formal and distant approach. I guess it would have required McCurry to have lived in India like an Indian for quite a long time in order to embed life in his photographs like Singh did.

Cole is a writer not a photographer so who cares what he thinks? Why is his opinion more meaningful than yours or mine? Because he says so?


I don't really have anything to add, but I have noticed over the last wee while that what I now think of as the Steve McC look is incredibly popular on social media like Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, etc. Everywhere you turn there seems to be a photograph of someone, deeply wrinkled, dye covered or turban wrapped peering out at you in stark and often HDR-ed exotic-ethno-otherness glory.

The truth is, I don't really know how much these photographers have been influenced by people like Mr. McCurry, but for reasons that I can't quite fully articulate, on account of it growing too huge when I try, I find all of these types of photographs quite disturbing.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, it is not so much Mr. McCurry that bothers me, it's the (apparent) legions of others turing people into objects in his wake.

I'm finding it quite difficult to respond temperately to that "review". It consists, in the main, of pretentiously worded variations of "I like Singh's work more than McCurry's work, because McCurry takes beautiful pictures and Singh doesn't."

I'm afraid I don't find that convincing.

And that was the temperate version of my response. 8-)

When they shot Lawrence of Arabia, hundreds of workers cleaned a large part of the Wadi Rum desert from the plants that grew there. Otherwise the Western public would never had recognized it as a desert. That’s also what McCurry does. He creates images that live up to our expectations. That photo of those two guys at a locomotive and the Taj Mahal in the sunset lit background is too good to be true. Okay, you can have a lucky shot now and then. With McCurry though it happens all the time.
But he did so much in his life. Not everything is boring feel good photography. I love his Monsoon and South Southeast books.

Raghubir Singh’s sceneries are even harder to believe than the ones of McCurry, but you never doubt about their authenticity. You cannot direct, organize or make up images like that. He also is an aesthete who leaves out all the dirt, misery and disparity, but he photographed in a much more pure and honest way. I rather look at one Singh than at ten McCurry’s!

McCurry is a 'type' of photographer. If you don't like his images that is ok. I remember reading that he goes round an area and sets up/decides on the images he will take the next day. I guess some of his images are caught on the fly but quite how many I have no idea.
He stages his shots and so that puts him in a class similar to a fashion photographer, choosing the scene/subject/lighting. His images are not an introduction to a country but they do convey glimpses of it.

Cole commits the mistake of trying to interpret pictures using the very meager resources provided by his life experiences, attitudes, and education.

It's a cliche, but it's true that whatever you criticize about the content of a picture reveals more about the fight with your own inner demons than it does about the picture itself.

Instead of seeing the photos as they are, he's looking at them hoping to find elements that are missing from his own life or his own work. My hope for him is that he one day understands how misguided this kind of "criticism" is and turns talents to more productive pursuits like apologizing to those he has wronged.

Teju Cole's article is a fine piece of criticism; sharply written, provocative, and making a logical argument on the æsthetic merits. Well done. I much prefer the clean, simple æsthetic of McCurry's photographs to the barely controlled chaos of Raghubir Singh's, but the force of Cole's argument is persuasive.
In my area we have a lot of Amish families; I've delivered babies for some of them. Very nice people, fascinating lifestyle. But they're, well, *people*, with their own individual quirks and foibles, qualities that are admirable and those that are less so. Yet when I look at the idealized, frozen-in-amber photographs of the Amish from folks like Robert Weingarten, I just don't see the Amish people I know. More like a cartoon version. And Cole makes me see that in McCurry's more recent work.

McCurry is to pretty landscapes what Singh is to realism. I also think McCurry is epitome of western stereotyping of Indian subcontinent. Although being Indian, I am guilty of owning and lusting for taking pictures like both.

Also, If you like Raghubir Singh, then you will like Raghu Rai even more.

Sometime in the past I also read an article from someone who reviewed McCurry workshop in Asia somewhere and was VERY critical of him and his style of staging photographs that pretend to be real.

I just read Cole's article last Sunday and It was one of those times when an author put in clear words what in your mind was only a glimpse. I bought some years ago the book South Southeast (which has beautiful reproductions) and found the work of McCurry too dependent on the exotic, eye candy for westerners. I think the article is a good wake up call to the way we look at some countries and some types of photography.

Thanks for sharing the NYT article and your views on it, great food for thought all around.

I don't see Teju Cole's article as a takedown any more than any other good art criticism is a takedown. I think Cole highlights some valid points about the different perspectives people can bring to a subject while making his own preferences clear. These are good points to consider when I make photographs of my own.

I'm afraid I half agree with Teju Cole's critique.

On a very basic level, photography is about selecting what to photograph. When photography is billed as "journalistic", then this becomes a delicate situation - the photograph is equated with a report on "reality". What is going on in Cole's article and related controversy is a clash of two kinds of photo-"journalistic" approaches with wildly different purposes.

One, McCurry's, is essentially esthetic. He looks for the dramatically esthetic everywhere, and often the result can be construed as "exotica" or "orientalist" in the context of the India book. It reminds me of, say, what Gert Chesi did for African traditions in his "The last Africans", or Beckwith/Saitoti's work in Africa.

A polar opposite approach would be to try and select for mundane, contemporary reality. The problem here is that all selections of "reality" are again just selections. So you may find the social criticism of a Sebastiao Salgado more pure and realistic than the esthetic love of the traditional in McCurry or Chesi. Yet if you think about it, Salgado is social photo drama as Chesi and McCurry are ethno photo drama. And I could have used a much uglier word here than "photo drama".

In other words, neither of them are really about an objective representation of reality, they give the reader what he yearns to see, in cinemascope. There is no surprise or new information, just pleasing esthetics.

I didn't mention Africa by accident. I lived in various African countries at one time. As a Westerner I was of course interested in the traditional cultures and arts and the books published about them. But I always missed an equally fair treatment of the modern Africa, the urban cultures, architectures, dresses, fabrics, sculptures and other art. In the West, you really only get to see the "tribal" stuff because the West, by and large, yearns for its own lost tribal past. So the West "buys tribal" from other cultures as a form of totemism - give me the mythic power these "traditional" cultures have. The West isn't too interested in the contemporary, living art and culture of other societies. The market is in ethnic. So, I can very well relate to Cole's approach here. It does make you wary after a while.

Finally, another piece on Africa, a critique much earlier than Cole's, but of very similar aim. It is the 1998 Chinua Achebe foreword to the photography book "Another Africa", by Robert Lyons. Achebe titles his foreword "Africa's tarnished name" and essentially critiques the West's biased vision of Africa. From the near universal stereotype of Africa as a single country, to the Africa's identification with Conrad's "Heart of Darkness": Africa is equated with a kind of undifferentiatedness, a darkness of people, hearts, and conditions. And it is most often portrayed as either mysterious, dark, impenetrable, or worse, as unimaginably savage. Achebe rips into this one sided vision and contrasts it with the "real Africa" kind of photographs of the book he is prefacing. He quotes a report by Amnesty International warning against apocalyptic journalism, and encouraging to rather "... document an authentic humanity".

And I think this goes to the heart of the matter, more than political correctness or "letting only third world people control their own images". There really is a problem of fantasizing in ethnography, and in ethnic photography.

Contemporary ethnically inspired photography, done in a truly realistic way, would look very different from McCurry's. To put it in a pointed way, it would not be about the traditional yogi but about the Mumbai soccer mom. And this would actually be now something useful for scientifically meaningful ethnography too, for learning about other people of the present, instead of endless museal musing into peoples of the past.

I have seen a huge lot of photos by McCurry and I have a big coffee table book by him on south Asia. He has a distinctive and attractive style and it is beautiful. It is not for nothing that he has gained a huge fan following. Attacking him is just an easy way of attracting attention. I am sure he will not make a counter attack. I am ready to just ignore that article.

If McCurry isn't claiming photo-journalism, then his pictures can be whatever he wants them to be. They can be a construct to illustrate the best day he can remember in India, or they can be his opinion of what India is, or his opinion of what he thinks an Indian thinks of India, or he can walk down the street with the camera around his neck and the motor drive on, shooting a picture a minute. All valid.

After 45 years in the business, most of them working commercial/advertising, and speaking with literally tens of dozens of art directors; all I can say is calling something 'boring' is a personal opinion. You'd be amazed how far two different people would be in liking or hating a picture, both visual professionals taught design and composition.

Once you've passed the point where the technical proficiencies expected in a commercial image have been reached; then the buyer/art director/collector pays their money and takes their chance!

I've slept on this issue before commenting.

There's no need to be that hard on Steve McCurry. Cole's points of difference could easily have been made by taking a high road.

His article strikes me as self serving in that I think he's trying to be noticed. He's stooping to a sensationalistic style seen in more common journalism.

Am I being too hard on Cole? No, his opinion and my opinion still stand equally. But I have always felt unless you can produce a better work than that you are putting down you should probably stay quiet or risk being seen as a fool.

I agree with author Teju Cole, though Steve McCurry is not the only photographer who uses stereotypes.

Many photographers, both pro and amateur indulge in the stereotype, not only in India but in other "colorful" countries as well. I've often wondered if Cuba has a contemporary side, which seems wholly nonexistent considering the ubiquitous Old Havana photographs that are so favored by visiting photographers. And are all men in the Middle East shop keepers?

Just back from 6 months photographing in India, I do have something to say about the difficulty of photographing the country and the falseness of Tegu Cole’s article. First the falseness.

Steve McCurry is an easy target in that there exists in the photographic community a pool of resentment against his success in photographing poor third world people as if they were models or as Cole phrases it, using as “the vocabulary of advertising” in his art. However, a writer contributes nothing to our understanding with the statement “Boring, but also extremely popular…,” in other words, ‘boring, but not boring’. The one image he has chosen from the work of Steve McCurry does not even give us the illusion of emotional connection that McCurry’s famous portraits do. McCurry’s most celebrated work is elegant at the same time that it gives us a sense (false or not) of connection with people whose world seems so much more ‘primitive’ than ours. It is in the magic of this seeming contradiction of the primitive and the elegant that McCurry’s work resonates.

I understand where the writers frustration with Steve McCurry’s success comes from, but the falseness of the article is the contrast between the questionable sense of connection we get from Steve McCurry and the lack of any emotional connection in the two example he gives us from his favored photographer, Succession Raghubir Singh. The first of these images rely on the street photographer’s intellectual satisfaction with an arbitrary framing device, the open car window in the first picture. Of the second Cole says, “The image, unforgettable because it stretches compositional coherence nearly to its snapping point…” I love the John Coltrane’s late quartets that with a shattering beauty push traditional jazz compositions to the edge of coherence. But, I don’t see beauty or magic or human connection in the arbitrary montage of reflections and horizontal divisions and I believe that most non-street photography adherents I believe would have a simpler summing up of this image, “boring.”

Yes, it is difficult for visiting photographers to find the authentic moment in India when so much is exotic.

Everyday in popular photography forums street photographers post an image in which, for example, a shadow from a street pole zigzagging as it falls over alternately horizontal and vertical surfaces climbs to the top of a wall to line up perfectly with the top of a palm tree that is conveniently a few yards the other side of that wall. Dozens reply that they wish they could see like that. And I wonder why they can’t aim higher than ambivalent ironical visual coincidence. There is a whole and growing class of street photography that is turning the world into a visual puzzle box, when non-photographer viewers, are still searching for the sense of connection that they get, perhaps too easily, from McCurry’s work. I would have liked to have seen in Cole’s favored photographer a deeper more authentic connection rather an ironic visual jumble.


One point that was missed in the article is that McCurry's earliest photos were special for their day. Yes, he follows the NatGeo style, somewhat set for color by Bill Allard. Still, his early work was groundbreaking for its time.

One of McCurry's problems is that so many travel photographers have emulated his style, so it seems less fresh and innovative than it was originally. And, to be honest, McCurry himself has somewhat gotten stuck in a creative rut, making variations of the same photos over and over. As JK said, McCurry's best work came early.

Singh on the other hand didn't catch the popular imagination so his works didn't get copied to to the point where his style became a bit trite.

I enjoy Teju Cole's personal photography which I follow on Instagram, it may not be to everyone's taste but it's quite sophisticated. I also follow the artist Dayanita Singh's photographic work of her own daily life in India http://instagram.com/dayanitasingh. It's a totally different place to McCurry's India. Ok, not either-or. And.

The potential danger I see in McCurry's presentation is a) it's popular, easily digestible and b) it plays on, supports and reinforces stereotypes that are common in the west of an India where the people, infrastructure, culture and ways of thinking are out of another century. Does that matter? I think so.

BTW I was pleased to see you posting tweets. I've yet to find much useful relating to photography on Twitter though it's great for other topics.

I find Instagram, as horrible as it is for presenting work, a interesting place to check out the daily photos of many many well known and interesting artists including such people as Ai Wei Wei, Stephen Shore, Todd Hido, Martin Parr, and Alex Soth to name just a few.

I no longer recall where I read this, but distinctly recall reading McCurry's comments lamenting the fact that India's national railways had tried to use that very train/Taj Mahal picture for its own advertising without compensating McCurry. What would the rail company's own interest in that photo say about the accuracy of Cole's view?

And if Cole was right, doesn't that also damn everyone who has ever made a career of consistently photographing a city, country or region in such a way to show only its beauty as they see it, such as Peter Turnley's romanticized views of Paris?

Are Turnley's or McCurry's views any less valid than those of someone who shows the dark side of a city or country? Would they be more valid if those individuals had been born in that country?

Personally, I happen to like McCurry's (and Turnley's) work. Some of it, I like a lot, and some not so much. The railroad picture is one I happen to like a lot. There are many other photographers who show totally different sides to Paris and India, respectively. Some of that is also very good, and some not so much. There is more than one way to see and depict a subject, which doesn't make any one of the ways less valid. Cole seems to be just trying to push people's buttons but, at the end of the day, he's just stating his own opinion (which, of course, he is entitled to do, just as McCurry is entitled to show India how he sees it - there is room for both, and so much more, under the great umbrella of photography).

McCurry clearly has his own style. Whether one likes it or not is a different and personal matter. Are Karsh portraits boring? Sure, somebody might find them boring because they are static and carefully set up. Same applies to many of McCurry's portraits. As long as he does not alter the truth, just shows his view of it, I don't see a problem.

The McCurry photos look like an advertisement for an expensive Canon camera for doctors. Not just boring, really boring. 99% of the people given the right camera/lens combination would pick the same shot. The Singh photographs are excellent. I had never heard of him. I just ordered two books of his.

I agree heavily that this is a must read. I think Cole asks viewers and image makers to view their own artistic practices with a lens of criticality. He begs the question, how do great artists portray their subjects' complex and multi-faceted realities in a visual language? Or more simply, how do you approach a subject photographically without taking advantage of them?

Cole's essay offers a poignant criticism at an entire genre of photography that is storied in the medium's history. How does one ethically approach photography and its subjects by eliminating or equalizing the transactional nature of the "documentary" genre. (Transaction occurring between the photographer and the subject and even flowing down to the viewer and the image maker). With photography in its current state, where images and subjects are commodified, how do you accurately portray and document the subjects in your image?

While I still find myself trying to solve this dilemma in my own practice, I think Teju Cole's essay should have a place in the reading lists of anyone practicing photography today.

Note: I had a lot more written but I accidentally deleted it and couldn't "Undo" it. I just got off set after a 10 hour day and feeling fried. Thanks for sharing a great essay Michael.

Interesting discussion. Personally, I find McCurry's photographs simply astounding. Are they profound, or great art? Well, no. But so what?

I have two photobooks dedicated to India - Raghu Rai's India: Reflections in Colour and Steve McCurry's: India. Still pleasure to switch between them and their styles,still not boring. But what I want to recommend to read is book from William Dalrymple's : Nine Lives-In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. He wrote also foreword for Steve McCurry. Thanks for discovery of Raghubir Singh for me.

What flies under the radar of readers is the fact that, against Cole's Orientalist critique of McCurry (justified, IMO), Cole's praise for Singh is a reverse form of Orientalism to which he is himself oblivious. Here's a quote:

"The power of Singh’s pictures lies in part in their capacious content. But it also lies in their composition, which rises well beyond mere competence (...) Singh has cited Edgar Degas and the American photographer Helen Levitt as influences, and you can see what he has learned from their highly sophisticated approaches "

Ah, I see. Obviously the Indians have to learn their authenticity from highly sophisticated Westerners, otherwise God knows how helpless they would have been. It's not like they have a rich pictorial tradition, you know.

If you look at Singh's pictures, you will see shades of Modernist street photography: think Saul Leiter, Walker Evans, André Kertesz, Eggleston, etc. People who also had an infallible eye for composition, and whose pictures are equally "too-perfect" but in Modernist, rather than in a Romantic vein.

What you have replicated here is the good old debate between Straight and Pictorialists, but in political-cultural garb. You know, exactly what Late Period Stieglitz (or Weston) would have said about Early Period Stieglitz (or Weston).

That's the kind of undergraduate blunders that should get an F.

I'm not going to weigh in on the 'debate' other than to say this kind of discussion about photography is so much richer than the kind where we debate gear, copyright and the right to shoot in public spaces.

There are different views! Arguing them isn't about getting everyone to settle on one side or the other, but a way to expand our thinking by getting exposure to other viewpoints. It's easier to do this if the "sides" have advocates.

@Brian: great comment.

Very ancient debate - Aristotle / Plato ... to this excellent article:


Which is summarized in this constant oscillation of aesthetics between Presence (Reality) and Meaning (Representation).

A debate always renewed among the junkies of Sigma Merrill Vs Bayer, and among the opponents of the PP - yes yes this sect exists, which defends the ideal of the film never developed, you see ... Pure Art out of techological impurity.

This "critique" of Steve McCurry's India book so perfectly captures what I detest about so-called art critics. Many of the photographs in McCurry's book are achingly beautiful. I daresay that the vast majority of photographers in the world would feel blessed to be able to make just one photograph that is as well seen and executed. And how does the art critic prove his point about McCurry's India photographs being so boring? By showing a couple of photographs from a "real" Indian photographer that "gets it." Well, I find those examples SO banal. They resemble thousands of my outtakes over the years that I would not stop to consider for a minute. My wife teaches at a major museum. If I printed up one of McCurry's photographs in a large print and showed it to her and said it was mine, she would immediately accuse me oflying. If I printed one of the photographs Mr. Cole is so enamored of and showed it to my wife, she would ask why I was wasting ink and paper on my junk.

[As I said...it's "not a contest, and taking one photographer down never serves to build another up".... --Mike]

Getting here very late. Most everything worth saying has been well-said by others.

I can, however add one note of related interest. In January of 1999 The Art Institute of Chicago hosted a monographic show of Raghubir Singh's work, titled "River of Color: The India of Raghubir Singh".
"River of Color" | Art Institute of Chicago | 1999

Honestly, I don't remember the show at all, as I was still working and not yet as closely involved with the museum as I am today. But just a year or so ago I was reviewing the prints purchased for the AIC collection from that show. As I did not know Mr. Singh's work at all I looked at some other samples in books. I was struck by how amateurish his work seemed. I do not mean this negatively! Quite the contrary! -- it seemed to be very skillful work, but casual-in-appearance photography of everyday India. The prints were a bit contrasty and grimy, giving the viewer another sensory impression of sweaty, sometimes noisy agglomerations of humanity.

In short, Singh's work richly delivers a point of view. As does Steve McCurry's work. Their lives were very different. The forces propelling their photographs were very different. So their points of view were very different...or were they really? Is the stylized, romanticized view of a place like India really any less informative or accurate than a less filtered street view of its towns? Is Pete Turnley's über-romantic imagery of Paris or Havana more or less less accurate to the outsider than less filtered street images of these locales? Who is the audience? Do we buy these images for information or entertainment?

The best question to ask yourself as you take your own pictures is "What's my point here?" The only wrong answer is no answer.

Nigerian-American photographer complaining about white photographer solicits a defense from a white photographer.

Why is everyone so surprised.

Steve McCurry's romanticized, fairy-tale-like rendition of India is India all right, just as Singh's is. Unmistakably. And I don't think that McCurry means that India cannot and should not be photographed in any other way.

A subject, be it a pepper or a whole subcontinent, can be approached and photographed in many different ways. It seems to me that Teju Cole is telling McCurry, in effect, Don't do it your way, you should shoot India in the style of Raghubir Singh.

McCurry's work is photography as a kind of nostalgia. Melancholy and safe. His people are types not individuals. Compare August Sandler for a kind of formal self-presentation, or Inta Ruka for intimate familiarity. Or Dijkstra for, well, strangeness?

Political policing of photography by the dull.
I'd have some sympathy if Cole was just calling McCurry prosaic and clichéd, but he goes much further by mentioning prejudice. A comment on his facebook post congratulated him for skewering McCurry's "heinous orientalism". Cole isn't making a criticism of McCurry, he's charging him, with colonial oppression, with "editing out the present". It's really quite a nasty, boorish attack couched in sophistry. Divisive charlatans like Cole should be at least ignored, but better challenged.

Expensive Canon camera for doctors .... them's fighting words! (M.D. Canon user here, though expense is relative - 6D and Shorty 40)

The McCurry train photo is an excellent choice for a "heritage" or tourism brochure. India is justifiably proud of its historic train network, employing some 1 million people. Western train buffs would have a lot to see, particularly in the "heritage" display trains lovingly kept in functional shape.

And there's the problem. A lot of the McCurry style work seems too romanticized or tourist-oriented to be interesting as documents. I am all for portraiture of less-often-photographed people if the subjects get to choose how they present themselves, and select and keep photos. The interest comes from how the subjects present themselves and from the stories told by the subjects.

Teju Cole has made more of a name for himself as a novelist and essayist than as an art historian or photographer.

My god. The entire premise seems to be the same as saying Richard Avedon 'sucks' because he didn't shoot like Helmut Newton. Is there really only meant to be one vision of a country/subject?

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