(Not) again, please

Let’s think a bit further than my own box camera today. I nipped into Dublin’s Gallery of Photography yesterday where I looked at an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s photos, entitled “Worlds of Colour“. Having travelled to some far-flung places and loved the colourful ethnic garb there, I was especiall interested to see what McCurry has produced. My photo of the beautiful Namibian basket seller does not reach his masterful portraits at all, but below is my attempt at a proper exhibition review.

Ovambo Woman

A picture can become synonymous with a name. Usually this will be the name of a person who is identified with an evocative portrait of him- or herself, maybe an actress in her most famous role. With photographers it is usually the other way round – their images of another person becomes a placeholder for their name. Rarely do we know the face of the photographer but we associate him with one of his portraits. And there are many photographers whom we associate with their most famous shot. Dorothea Lange and the “Migrant Mother”, Man Ray and the “Tears”, Alberto Korda and “Che Guevara”. Or Steve McCurry and the “Afghan Girl”. 
Arguably the most famous (photographic) portrait of all time, the “Afghan Girl” features in the current exhibition of Steve McCurry’s colour photography in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin, too. The world loves a good story, and the fact that McCurry went back 17 years after shooting a young refugee girl to search for, find and re-photograph the grown-up Sharbat Gula satisfies the public’s curiosity over the girl’s fate. And even better that it turns out a happy ending – Sharbat survived war and refugee life.
Nonetheless, the drama of the circumstances and the soppiness of the story is that little bit too distracting for this reviewer. Surely we have seen the image countless times, do we need to see it yet again in yet another Steve McCurry-fest? It overshadows some of his other great work.
McCurry’s images are displayed in the blacked-out gallery in varying sizes, framed and mounted, and hung on the white wall. An extra display wall was erected in the middle of the main exhibition area of the Gallery of Photography in order to get more hanging space and show more from McCurry’s archive.
Curated by Darragh Shanahan, the exhibition, eponymously titled “Worlds of Colour”, focuses on McCurry’s colour documentary photographs. Travelling all over the world, images from Afghanistan, Tibet, Peru, India etc. are presented in the exhibition. They all feature strong colour references, even in the few images that seem not particularly colourful at first sight. The “Miner Smoking”, for instance, initially feels rather monochrome, the black coaldust in the miner’s face, his dirty hands, the dark shirt. Colour is subtle in this photograph, but it is there – in the miner’s brown eyes, the faintly yellow light on his helmet and the pink-brown bit of clean skin underneath his collar. The hardship of the hard physical labour is etched into the man’s face. The lines on his forehead speak volumes, as do the bitten-to-the-quick, black fingernails. Despite this having been taken near a coal mine in Afghanistan, the image allows representation for miners of all races in all parts in the world – his ethnic origin is “buried” under the coaldust.
While some photography reviewers see this “representativeness” of McCurry’s portraits as a congenial part of the effectiveness of his images, some critics have also rightfully pointed out, that McCurry has a knack for choosing such subjects which will appeal to his (mainly) Western audience. The aforementioned “Afghan Girl” is a case in point – striking green eyes and brown hair which would both not be unusual anywhere in Europe.
And yes, McCurry has an eye for the beautiful, the aesthetic, the colourfully striking subject. His sitters in their ethnic costumes are a feast to the eyes, as are his images taken in India, such as the women huddling in a sandstorm, the boy running away from the camera around a corner or the participants of a Holi ritual in Rajasthan. His composition is flawless (if sometimes a little bit too predictable – viewers nowadays certainly can deal with asymmetrical arrangements…), and the release of his shutter always comes at the right time to also record emotion and personality in his sitters’ faces. Whether in his earlier film photography or in his contemporary digital format, McCurry records the (colourful) life of his subjects clearly and focused.
So a look at Steve McCurry’s images on display in Dublin is a must for anyone interested in photography. There is more to McCurry than the one image that he is most famous for – even if that has been chosen for the poster of the Dublin exhibition. Again.
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