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Posted on 20th November, 2011

Review of Steve McCurry exhibition,

at Chris Beetles Gallery, Swallow Street, London (Sep 2011).


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'This is Steve McCurry, so do you really need to know anything else before going?'. That's what I was thinking of writing as my full review of this exhibition, but there's a bit more to say really.


Firstly, that it's low on quantity (just 40 images), but, the expected tops on quality. But here, the word 'expected' hides a downside I'd say, as I've already seen virtually all these pics beforehand. Not surprising mind you, as the 37 I knew already are probably at the top of his most-famous list, and most featured strongly in the last McCurry exhib I saw, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery a year ago. So, being mainly his classic, familiar pics was a disappointment really, but it does lead me to my second point.


That second point is that it's not really 100% an exhib, but a sale as well. No prize for me guessing this though, as it's easy to find a pricelist on display. And no problem with it being a sale either, as I was very pleased to find that a signed print I bought at Birmingham for £25, was on sale here (as a photographic print) for £2300. And although I was chuffed with that Brummy purchase, of 'Mother and Child at Car Window, Bombay, India, 1993', I'd have been even more pleased if I'd also picked up 'Dust Storm, Rajasthan, India, 1993', which was going here for just £22600. I'll have 2 I think.


So, amongst McCurry's many classics, you can see 'Herat after 10 years of bombing ...', 'Fishermen, Weligama ...', 'Red Boy, Holi Festival ...', 'Flower Seller, Dal Lake ...', 'Smoking Coal Miner ...', 'Boy in Mid-Flight ...', etc, etc. And not forgetting 'Afghan Girl' of course, "the most recognized photograph" in the history of National Geographic magazine. Common to most of the images is the beautiful, saturated colour that symbolises the McCurry / Kodachrome combo. Also present are the facial expressions, and the soulful, piercing eyes, that can haunt you forever. And then there is the timing: a bird caught precisely between 2 houseboats in Kashmir for instance, or the 2 human feet in mid-flight in the 'Man Beneath Stairs ...' shot.


So it was pleasing to visit this exhib, even with it not breaking much new ground for me. After all, it's inspiring to re-visit photographs that convey such powerful emotion, that they can often bring you to tears. What was new to me though, was the answer to something that has bugged me for a long, long time. Just how is it that McCurry managed to capture the situations he did? I certainly knew it wasn't pure luck, or having the perceptive eye even. They both play a part in a brilliant shot that's true, but McCurry has something really magical and unworldly I thought. But not true, as it turns out. Yes, when he writes that he trailed those Rangoon nuns for several days, that he travelled for 2 weeks with the Dal Lake flower sellers to get that one great shot, you know he displays absolute extremes of the human condition he seeks to portray in others: he's single-minded, he's obsessive, and he's very, very patient. But when you then read that he shoots 800 to 1000 rolls to get just 25 exceptional pics, it really comes home to you that he's not a god at all: no, the brilliant Steve McCurry gets it wrong as often as we all do perhaps. I'm relieved to find therefore, that my hero is human.


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