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The French novelist and essayist, Marcel Proust, once wrote that “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Wise words indeed, not least because Proust, for all his accolades, never found renown as either a photographer or photojournalist.
I recently found myself in Birmingham city centre for the first time, where I happened upon a poster advertising an exhibition of one of photojournalism’s most famous modern practitioners, Steve McCurry. Having won not only the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal, but also first prize in the World Press Photo contest four times, its safe to say the he is not only a master, but a modern legend.
Without a doubt, Steve McCurry's most recognised photograph is his portrait "Afghan Girl", a superb study of a then unknown Afghan refugee, shot in 1984 and used on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985. It's a photograph that has gone on to become the most famous of all the National Geographic images and one of the 20th century's most iconic images. The identity of the "Afghan Girl" remained unknown for over 15 years until McCurry and a National Geographic team located the woman, Sharbat Gula, in 2002. (A documentary runs during the exhibition detailing the painstaking search to track down and identify Sharbat.)
Naturally, Afghanistan is covered in the exhibition, though in far greater colour than we are used to seeing today, thanks in part to the Kodachrome McCurry used so effectively, but also due to colour in daily Afghan life which he has captured. McCurry’s work isn’t just limited to Afghanistan, but rather the wider confines of southern and south eastern Asia. From Buddhist monks drinking Coca Cola, ship yard workers in India, fishermen in Sri Lanka and women raising their children in ways unchanged for generations, all are here to be seen, with the impressive exhibition quality printing only adding to the pleasure.
While the landscapes are impressive, the colours rich and vibrant, the compositions precise and the technique flawless, the exhibition is about more than photography. It’s about people. The portraits are all sympathetic to the subjects, enlightening without being intrusive, artistic without being pretentious, his un-stylized photographs captures human emotion in all its glory. His work all the time enables the viewer to see far flung places through new eyes. A world you may think is long gone, but isn’t. A world you might think suffers from lack of technology, but doesn’t. Strip people back to a time less advanced, and the common nature of mankind shines through.
One of the joys of travel is finding the unexpected and to stumble across the hosting of this exhibition was such a surprise. An added and equally unexpected bonus was free admission. The exhibition has to be highly recommended, for everybody, not just those within an easy commute Birmingham.
"Steve McCurry - Retrospective" is on at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Waterside, Birmingham, until the 17th October. Admission is free!