Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Steve McCurry: Perfecting the Art of Observation

Here a crowd holds aloft a reveler during the Holi Festival in Rajasthan, where Hindus mark the onset of spring by tossing multicolored powders at each other. Here a crowd holds aloft a reveler during the Holi Festival in Rajasthan, where Hindus mark the onset of spring by tossing multicolored powders at each other.
© Steve McCurry

From his iconic street portraits to his final roll of Kodachrome, globetrotting photojournalist McCurry is a master at finding personal connections with his subjects

Steve McCurry is filled with wanderlust. Even before he became a photographer, the desire to see and experience the world and its incredible diversity of life and culture was strong in him — so strong that he eventually created a life for himself that continues to take him all over the globe. For McCurry, photography is more than a job; it is a way to savor the world and everything in it. Photography has given him a reason for life itself.

"Photography and travel really go hand in hand," he says. "I could have been happy photographing at home, but I really wanted to travel and see the world. There's nothing more important that you can do with your life than to experience different cultures and see how different people live and see all the amazing variety of life in this world — human life, animal life, the natural world, the seas, the oceans, the mountains. To try and experience that is about the most interesting way you can spend your life."

Up close and personal

Street portraits are one of McCurry's specialties. Most photojournalists tend to be somewhat removed from their subjects, but McCurry has perfected the intimate, close-up portrait in documentary photography.

His most famous portrait is the iconic "Afghan Girl," the now-ubiquitous image taken in 1984 during the Soviet occupation, showing an Afghan child with penetrating, pale eyes. In this portrait, we see the girl face to face, eye to eye, with no pretenses or distractions. And that is how McCurry creates the connection between us and his subjects. His portraits have a strong emotional core that goes beyond merely recording an image; they have a life of their own.

"In a portrait," he says, "you want something of that person to reveal itself. Some portraits look too controlled. I like to see the naked personality; I want to see something that is real and something that is raw. You don't see the hand of the photographer; you see the uniqueness of that person."

In getting that close to his subjects, McCurry has to work hard to create a situation where people feel comfortable and safe to be themselves in circumstances outside their everyday lives.

"I want to create an environment that is completely normal and very simple," he explains. "Generally, with the people I'm photographing, it's kind of a brief encounter ... in a marketplace, a church, a hospital, a school, a bazaar or in a neighborhood. I always approach them and ask if we can do this together: ‘Can I photograph you?' Whether it's done verbally or nonverbally, there's always some consent that is given to me. People can be suspicious or curious or amused, but I want to get beyond all of that to a point that it's just that person and me trying to take this picture. The only thing I do is establish eye contact with the person I'm photographing. If you have a genuine interest and a compassion for your fellow man, I think they sense that. It's all about your attitude."

Traveling times

McCurry has always been full of energy. Growing up in Philadelphia, he played most of the sports available to him in school: baseball, football, basketball, and track-and-field. But even with all that structured activity, McCurry was hard-pressed to curb his energy, which sometimes conflicted with school. It was also then that he discovered his love for being outdoors.

"We had these big woods near where I lived, and I loved climbing trees," he recalls. "I was really more interested in that than with anything to do with school. I needed to have some way to unleash all that energy, and it just didn't seem to me that spending time in school was the best way to do it."

Perhaps as a way to deal with all this excess energy, the urge to travel hit McCurry early in life. "I lived in Europe after high school for a year with no particular plan, no particular idea," he says. "I just wanted to travel in Europe, live there, and experience it. So I got odd jobs and traveled all over. That really set me on the path."

When he decided to go to college, studying filmmaking at Pennsylvania State University, he also managed to squeeze in a couple of fine-art photography courses. They changed his life. "I decided during my film studies that I was more interested in still photography than motion picture photography," he says. "That was the pivotal point which really set me on a path of pursuing photography as a lifelong passion."

After college, McCurry worked at a local newspaper for a couple of years and then left to go to India in 1978. It would be the first of many trips to that country. He didn't have a job; he just wanted to see the exotic land and its people.

"I spent two years in India simply just wandering and observing," he says. "It wasn't an assignment; I was just trying to learn how to photograph in these places. I'd gone from being a black-and-white newspaper photographer to being a color photographer virtually overnight. Just being in an exotic location, you quickly learn that there is no guarantee of making good photographs."

And then came the moment that changed everything.

"At the halfway point of that two-year trip, I went into Afghanistan and happened upon this civil war," McCurry says. "I was one of the first people to be there and witness what was going on. Six months later, when the Russians invaded, I already had photography on the story, and suddenly my pictures were being published in The New York Times. Then the Associated Press picked up some pictures and they started running all over the world. Paris Match, Der Spiegel and Time magazine started running my pictures."

This work landed him the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award in 1980, after which he started getting magazine assignments from everywhere. "I went from Afghanistan to India to Lebanon to Africa, back to India and then to Los Angeles," he says. "I was photographing all over the world, and it was exactly what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to travel."

He began shooting for National Geographic and numerous other publications, and that work has never stopped. His life was finally matching his dreams.

The art of observation

Taking the two fine-art photography courses in college exposed McCurry to many of the great photographers. Those who have influenced him include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Walker Evans and André Kertész — the primary documentary photographers of the mid-20th century. Their work taught him how to see the world through a camera.

"Everything I've learned about photography — my approach to photography — came from those two fine-art photography classes," he says. "That really is the basis of what I am today. What I do and what documentary photographers do is we see the world in a particular way. We make these observations and we photograph them. That hasn't really fundamentally changed for me since I started."

And even though McCurry is known for his sophisticated use of color, that aspect of a photo is never his primary objective. "I never really thought of myself as a ‘color photographer.' I think I handle color well, but it's not really the first thing that I'm concerned with," he says. "To me, it's all about what I'm observing, the thing or person or particular scene that I'm photographing."

A big part of his success as a photojournalist is his finely honed sense of observation. In Buddhist terms, there is a mindfulness that McCurry cultivates, where he is fully present in the world. He pays close and careful attention to everything he encounters. "For me, when I walk down the street in a foreign country, I get into a mind-set and feel very much a part of the surroundings and part of the environment," he explains. "You're in the present, you're in the here and now, and you're in the moment."

A classical approach

The idea of being "in the moment" is a clear connection to the work of the past masters that have informed McCurry's photography. Perhaps the most important role model for him has been Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern documentary photography, and his "decisive moment" approach. Cartier-Bresson was the quintessential street photographer, and his work emphasized the subject over everything else.

"I think when you look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, he's photographing and observing profound situations and people. I've always tried to strive for that kind of way of working," McCurry says.

Cartier-Bresson most often worked with cameras and lenses that were rather limited and simple, in comparison to what most current photographers use. His normal setup was a Leica rangefinder with a 50mm lens. McCurry has chosen the modern equivalent of this. His working lens selection includes a 24-70mm zoom, an 85mm lens and a 50mm lens. He has deliberately chosen lenses that produce a fairly neutral image, giving his photographs little or no distortion or compression. This creates a sense of openness and intimacy in his images.

"I think that the great photographers and the great work that I admire and respect is all very simple, and it's more about what the photographer is observing," he says. "They are full of emotion and they're very well crafted, but you're not aware of a particular lens or particular type of printing. The story is really the most important part of what we do — the narrative. And when it gets too fancy, I kind of lose interest at that point. Then the picture becomes all about the technique. I always try to strip away the technique."

A wonderful chaos

McCurry may hold the record for photographic trips and assignments in India. Starting in 1978, he has gone back two or three times a year — sometimes more — and has now visited more than 85 times. For him, India is a canvas of endless possibilities. The subjects are incredibly diverse, and so is the landscape. "It's such a vast country, with the Himalayas in the north with all the mountain people, and then you have Rajasthan with all the castles and fortresses of the maharajas. You could spend a lifetime exploring that country," he adds.

It is probably the cultural and visual diversity that most attracts McCurry to India. Instead of the homogenous views and attitudes that characterize the West, India revels in variety. The country truly is a cultural melting pot.

"There is a chaos in India, a wonderful chaos," he says. "Everything is happening there on the street. It's not just that they are poor and living on the street, it's that there's all this activity. You have rich people and poor people, and you have Muslims and Hindus and Christians and Buddhists and Sikhs. …You don't really have anything close to that in the States or Europe. It's amazing to witness."

Working in India did a lot to shape McCurry as a photographer. He learned the value of staying in one place and mining it for all of its possibilities. He doesn't give up easily or move on too quickly.

"In India, I hunkered down and spent those first two years living in one place and getting really familiar with the whole life there," he says of his stint from 1978 to 1980. "Once you dig deep, getting below the surface, interesting things start to happen.

"I'm a firm believer in going back to the same places multiple times," he continues. "You're there during different seasons and ... in different kinds of light. You go back when you're in a different frame of mind. … You get different kinds of pictures. I think a lot of it takes time."

India will always be the touchstone for McCurry's photography, and he says he will always return to the subcontinent for as long as he can. "I find it endlessly fascinating," he adds.

Times of trouble

Though McCurry is known for his intimate street portraits, a major part of his career has been spent working in war zones. He got his start photographing the Afghanistan civil war in the late 1970s, and he produced award-winning work during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that followed. He photographed in Kuwait during the First Gulf War in 1991 and has worked alongside men and women with guns in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan, capturing both the process of war and the human cost of it. This year, McCurry sent himself to cover the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan.

Images of conflict have always been a part of his career, but one time, war followed him home. McCurry had just gotten back from an assignment in Tibet on Sept. 10, 2001. He woke up the next morning to find the World Trade Center on fire. He could see the towers burning from his office. He immediately grabbed his cameras, working on autopilot. Though horrified by the towers' collapse, McCurry continued shooting. Eventually he made his way to Ground Zero, where he worked for two days documenting the terrible event.

"I cover war zones all over the world, in Iraq and Beirut and Kashmir and Afghanistan and the Tamil Tigers, and suddenly I'm doing the same thing in my own neighborhood — photographing in a war zone," he says of his 9/11 coverage. "Instead of getting on a plane, I was just walking down the street."

Because of the painful memories of that experience, McCurry shelved all the film he shot of 9/11 and wouldn't look at it for several years. Only recently has he been able to revisit those images.

The last roll

One of the more interesting projects that McCurry has taken on came about over dinner one night in 2009 with a friend who worked at Kodak. They started talking about the ending of an era. Kodachrome 64, the last of the Kodachrome slide films that had defined color photography for a generation of shooters, would be discontinued in June of that year.

McCurry had already switched to digital, but he still had a profound respect and affection for Kodachrome 64, which had been his film of choice for decades; he had nearly a million transparencies in his archive to prove it. He decided that he wanted to be the one to shoot the last roll of Kodachrome off the assembly line, choosing iconic places and people as the final subjects. National Geographic Television agreed to film the shooting and processing.

"I wanted to make every frame unique, and I wanted to come up with 36 great pictures," he says. "I wanted to go all over the world and have each frame represent either a different country or a different region. As you can imagine, that was a pretty expensive proposal."

He started in New York City, with Grand Central Station, and also photographed actor Robert De Niro. Then he went to India and Turkey before making his way back to New York to do some street photography. The project ended in Parsons, Kansas, where Dwayne's Photo, the last Kodachrome lab in the United States, processed the film in July 2010.

The project was both nostalgic and challenging for McCurry, who had since gotten used to the advantages of shooting digital. "First of all, shooting a roll of film, which I hadn't done for some time — that was an experience," he says. "I actually loved that. Loading a roll of film into a camera brought back old memories. I had done that thousands of times. And then to be confronted with an ASA of 64 — where in today's world you can get very, very publishable pictures at 10000 ISO — that was very slow. But I thought it was a great way to bid farewell to possibly the greatest film ever made."

The slides from that roll of film are now kept at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.

The next destination

Not many photographers shoot an iconic image that sums up their career, the way Steve McCurry has. Ansel Adams did it with "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico." Edward Weston did it with "Pepper No. 30." Dorothea Lange did it with "Migrant Mother." When McCurry made "Afghan Girl," first published in 1985, he created not only an icon but perhaps the single most recognized photograph in the world.

After producing such a work, photographers gradually realize that they have made art that will live far beyond their lifetime, even if they never make another image with quite the same level of recognition.

Some might be tempted to coast in their careers after such an accomplishment, but not McCurry. He is driven to keep traveling and photographing. While his work has mostly focused on South and Southeast Asia — from Afghanistan to Japan and from Russia to Indonesia — his assignments have taken him all over the world, covering stories in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the United States. He doesn't see himself slowing down anytime soon.

Even during the rare time he finds himself between assignments, he is never at a loss as to what to do with his time. "I self-assign myself quite a bit," he says. "I've gotten to the point where there are certain places and things I want to do, and I want to be able to do them in a particular way. I think a great way to work is to look at a map of the world and say, ‘What interests me?' and ‘What's important?' and ‘Where can I go that would make a difference?'"

And that is where he goes.

I've gotten to the point where there are certain places and things I want to do, and I want to be able to do them in a particular way. I think a great way to work is to look at a map of the world and say, 'What interests me?

I've gotten to the point where there are certain places and things I want to do, and I want to be able to do them in a particular way. I think a great way to work is to look at a map of the world and say, 'What interests me?

IN THE LOUPE: Steve McCurry

Home and studio: New York City.

Website: stevemccurry.com.

Books: "Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs" (2011), "The Unguarded Moment" (2009), "In the Shadow of Mountains" (2007), "Looking East" (2006), "Steve McCurry: Phaidon 55" (2005), "The Path to Buddha: A Tibetan Pilgrimage" (2003), "Sanctuary" (2002), "South Southeast" (2000), "Portraits" (1999), "Monsoon" (1988), "The Imperial Way" (1985).

Awards: Leica Hall of Fame (2011); Prix LiberPress, Girona, Spain (2011); Abrogino d'Oro, Milan, Italy (2009); Lowell Thomas GOLD (2006); the International Photography Awards' Lucie Award for Photojournalism (2003); Photographer of the Year, PMDA Professional Photographer Award (2002); Photographer of the Year, American Photo magazine (2002); Robert Capa Gold Medal Award (1980).

Favorite Equipment: The Nikon D3x. "It's probably the best ‘35mm' camera I've ever used," he says. Lenses: 24-70mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.4.

Personal Projects: A book about Buddhism and one tentatively referred to as "Short Stories" — smaller-scale photo essays that he has done over the years.

Pet Peeves: "I'm always kind of mystified when you talk to a young photographer and you mention someone like Leni Riefenstahl or Walker Evans, and they've never heard of these people. How can you have a love and a passion for photography and not know the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson? How is that even possible?"

Advice for Aspiring Photographers: "It's important to look at work that has gone before. In my experience, in looking at the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Kertész and Walker Evans and Robert Frank, well, there's no better way to spend your time than to pore over these books."

Hermon Joyner
Story Author: Hermon Joyner

Hermon Joyner is a writer and photographer based in Portland, Ore. To view his work and read his blog posts on various subjects, visit  hermonjoyner.com

Website: hermonjoyner.com E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it