Steve McCurry – authenticity and the pursuit of perfection

Old Delhi railway station, 1983. photo © Steve McCurry
Old Delhi railway station, 1983. photo © Steve McCurry

It was about this time last year, that the world of photography was given quite a serious jolt. One of it’s most famous, and popular practitioners- Steve McCurry, a regular with National Geographic and long standing member of the prestigious Magnum agency, best known for his iconic photograph of the Afghan girl, was accused of manipulating his images.

In an exhibition in Italy it was discovered that one of his photographs had undergone some ” bad photoshopping”, in an attempt to remove some unwanted elements. An internet feeding frenzy then occurred that uncovered other photographs that had been altered- making them, cleaner, clearer, more visually appealing.

The respected writer Teju Cole, who has accompanied other celebrated photographers for their stories, laid into McCurry further by criticizing his sanitized, beautified view of the East, dismissing his images as too perfect. It was open season, suddenly everyone was attacking McCurry. His photojournalistic credentials were further called into question, with suggestions that he often staged photographs, using friends and contacts to create seemingly natural reportage-type shots.

McCurry didn’t help himself, when he first tried to pass the buck about the image manipulation as the shoddy work of an assistant, and then when he decided to redefine himself as a visual storyteller. It was not clear what he was really implying, and whether he was truly apologizing for misleading his legion of followers. These critiques of an overly aesthetic approach have definitely undermined his reputation, and he appears to have been lying low ever since.

I myself was shocked as I was, and still try to be, a McCurry fan. I have always admired the seeming simplicity of his work- on one level, his photographs of exotic places seem to be no more than glorified picture postcards. However, on a more meaningful level, his photographs have always delivered more than that, there is more sophistication and complexity than appears at first sight. His picture of the mother and child begging at the window of a taxi in Bombay is a classic case in point.

Bombay 1993. photo © Steve McCurry
Bombay 1993. photo © Steve McCurry

His photographic vision, based on classically defined compositions, with beautiful light and colours, and a search for artistic perfection, is one that I too am drawn to.

The discussions about McCurry’s work resonate far beyond the realms of photojournalism and are relevant just as much in editorial, wedding and street photography, to name just three sectors. What is authenticity- and should it be the defining virtue of all our photographic practice?

Sri Lankan fishermen, 1995. photo © Steve McCurry
Sri Lankan fishermen, 1995. photo © Steve McCurry

The digital age has saturated the photography market.  In this ever-increasing competitive business,  where the current emphasis is focussed on garnering awards and getting maximum publicity through social media, there seems to be an ever-increasing pressure to produce “perfect “ images, which will instantly wow future clients and be hailed by one’s peers.

In reality, how many of these “perfect” images are what they appear to be- captured spontaneously in the moment, and how many have been staged to some degree.

I take a look below at how some of my own work is framed within this complex argument. Should we prioritise truth above everything else, or should we use our talents to get the best image possible that will please the client, and sacrifice a small degree of authenticity in the process?

When I took the photograph below (which has certain graphic parallels with the McCurry’s train station image), I had seen the potential of this type of picture the year before, when photographing the wedding of the groom’s sister. I knew in good weather, I would get great colour at dusk, with the warm glow of the candles set against the peaceful cool blue of the lake and setting sky. I was taking some pictures of the landscape when some silhouetted figures appeared on the scene, taking in as well the majestic beauty of this moment. I took one or two images but realized that I could not capture the scene as I really wanted it. Working in low light and hand-held, I needed the figures to remain as still as possible, so that I could achieve a technically sharp photograph. The three people were more or less naturally placed as they are here, but I did intervene to slightly “ improve” the spacing between them and ” direct ” their body attitudes.

Mariage de Justine et Matthieu, Soustons, le 30 mai 2015, photo Tim Fox

In the end I got, what I considered, my “perfect “ picture and was pretty proud of the result. However,  does the fact that I had to intervene, alter the intrinsic value of the image ? I personally don’t think so, as it also requires photographic skill to previsualise or re-enact a scene where all the visual and aesthetic elements coalesce in the best possible way. Thereafter, it is a question of degree to what extent the final image looks natural enough and not obviously staged. That is maybe a subjective viewpoint and different people with differing experiences and photographic knowledge will no doubt judge this accordingly.

If I compare this silhouette shot with the following wedding picture of the huntsmen and their horns, the main difference here is that, while I also feel that this image is as well-composed as it could be, there was no attempt by me to alter anything in the scene. I just placed myself in the right position and everything fell into place, with the 3 flower-girls perfectly aligned in the middle of the image, and nobody else entering the frame to disturb the unity and order of the final picture.

Enfants d'honneur et cors de chasse-©Tim Fox

Is there therefore any real difference therefore between the 2 pictures in terms of their photographic quality and value ? From a personal point of view there is maybe greater satisfaction and gratification as a photographer, to be able to capture and freeze reality as it spontaneously happens, but in terms of the power of the image and the ability to please the client, surely the two photographs have comparable worth.

The photograph below taken as part of a book and exhibition project for my local town, is another example of this debate around authenticity and visual impact.  I’d arrived at this boulangerie, just as this cool-looking girl had exited, and clumsily tried to grab the moment. Too late it seemed. The colour match and general mood of the scene was just too good an opportunity to pass up, so I asked my subject to reproduce the moment, and after a few takes, I got my shot!  Maybe the fact that she’s looking at the camera, slightly gives the game away, but I believe her general attitude allows one to believe this was a spur-of the-moment photograph. The extra time I allowed myself in re-enacting the scene enabled me to create a stronger picture than would, in reality have been possible, as I first saw it happening.

Girl in yellow outside boulangerie-Vertou, photo Tim Fox


Again, let me compare two photographs from a recent wedding.

In the first colour photograph, the 3 bridesmaids and mother are nicely arranged around the bride, there is warmth in the image, the dress is nicely presented, the light is attractive and overall the picture is aesthetically pleasing. I used my experience to help construct this image, and because I felt a good rapport with these people, the final photograph has worked well and could pass as a real moment. In a way it is a real moment, as you cannot successfully “stage-manage “ these type of expressions, but in a more honest way, this remains a partially set-up image.

Louisa & Alistair_261_web

However, once I’d moved the bride over to the light I spotted a new angle, shooting through the railings of a staircase. As I framed my picture, she looked out of the window and saw the guests starting to arrive. Here I have captured a more authentic moment and no doubt more spontaneous expressions, and I believe the perspective is more original and creative than the colour image. Nonetheless, neither picture would have been possible without some degree of intervention on my part, in terms of moving everybody to the most photogenic area of the room.

Louisa & Alistair_267_web

Steve McCurry defended himself by drawing the distinction between being a photojournalist and a visual storyteller, saying the latter definition corresponded better with his current approach to the photographic process. This defense has not gone done well with purists and is seen as being rather hypocritical in light of the way he previously presented his work.

But he is not the first nor will he be the last photographer, who has been confronted with the dilemma of presenting reality as a documented fact and portraying a vision of reality, with all the photographic and post-production tools at one’s disposal, that accords with a certain personal and aesthetic perspective.

While we all appreciate photography’s ability to synthesise truth in the space of a fraction of a second, is the art of photography not also to make things look beautiful?

No doubt, in the digital age, we have become a little over-obsessed with seeking out perfection. We want all our images perfectly sharp, we want perfect skin, we want stunning light, fantastic-looking colours, geometrically-formed compositions. Real-life is not, fortunately as well-ordered as this, and there is a danger of client expectations and prize-winning photography becoming too standardized if we don’t allow for certain imperfections to shine through.

There is often a fine-line between prioritizing the aesthetic impact of an image and respecting the truth of a given situation.

Steve McCurry will no doubt forever be tarnished, to some extent, by the fact that he was misrepresenting the scenes he had photographed.  To use an analogy from the world of football, his case is like that of Thierry Henry, who hand-balled against Ireland to help score a crucial World Cup qualification goal. The stakes were incredibly high- but the bottom line is he cheated, and knew he was cheating. But this does not detract from the fact that Henry was a brilliant footballer and goalscorer. Similarly, McCurry remains a world-class photographer. The image below chosen as part of Martin Parr, Magnum’s current president’s, pick of the agency’s best images of 2016, is classic McCurry. The colours, the placement of the figures in the frame, and the timing of the shot, are from my point of view, as near perfect as they could be.

Jugglers, Afghanistan 2016. photo © Steve McCurry
Jugglers, Afghanistan 2016. photo © Steve McCurry

His populism and success, has not made McCurry everyone’s cup of tea. Like the impressionist painters, McCurry’s photographs would seem to be too easy on the eye,  the subject matter not deep enough to reflect the complexity of everyday life. His style has been much imitated, but no-one takes photographs quite like McCurry and for all his detractors, I believe there is still a place for seeking out beauty and perfection, just as long as it doesn’t become an end in itself.






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