When it comes to photography, there are image-makers, and then there are masters whose iconic shots become etched in history. Steve McCurry, whose evocative portfolio vividly depicts the richness and resilience of humanity, clearly stands among those legendary few whose work transcends time and culture. Best known for his iconic 1984 photograph “Afghan Girl,” with its mesmerizing portrayal of a young girl’s piercing green eyes, McCurry’s influence extends far beyond one masterpiece. Over a decades-long career, McCurry has journeyed through diverse landscapes of human experience, with his portfolio serving as a poignant reminder of our universal humanity.
Born in Philadelphia, Steve McCurry’s path to photography was anything but traditional. Initially studying theater arts at Penn State University, he discovered a profound connection to the camera while working for the college newspaper. Early in his career, in 1978, McCurry undertook a perilous journey into the heart of Afghanistan, a nation embroiled in conflict. His audacious expedition yielded some of the earliest visual documentation of the struggle between the US-supported Mujahideen fighters and the Soviet-aligned Afghan government, offering the global audience an unprecedented glimpse into the war-torn region.
Later, McCurry’s lens captured numerous other global conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars, gaining him international acclaim and earning him awards such as the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad.
On the eve of his new exhibition at Cavalier Gallery, running February 8 through March 9, Jing Daily Culture spoke with McCurry about his prolific career, approach to choosing subjects and places, thoughts on the revival of analog photography, and more.
Jing Daily Culture: You’ve had an impressive career and photographed a lot of pivotal moments around the world. When choosing where to go and what to focus on in your work, how has your approach changed over the years?
Steve McCurry: I kind of go to places that fascinate me, places that I want to go and spend time in and am attracted to. I mean, I went to India because I was fascinated with the culture and the country, and I ended up going there 80 times or something, something crazy like that. So the criteria is perhaps a place I’ve read about – I remember as a 12-year-old boy reading about or seeing a photo essay about the monsoons. And I just thought, when I grow up, I want to experience that. I want to go and see all that rain. Then when I was in India I was reading in the news about Afghanistan and kind of wandered over there.
So I think it’s just places that have intrigued me, places that have kind of captured my imagination. And then off I go to places that inspire me. I think you do your best work when you’re inspired and motivated and fascinated with a particular place.
Your new exhibition at Cavalier Gallery is a great introduction to your portfolio for those newer to your work, as well as those who already know and love it. How do you strike that balance when choosing what to display?
Part of the selection process is a collaboration between myself, the gallery, my my studio, finding pieces that I think are uplifting. Pictures that show the diversity of the people in the world. There’s an element of beauty in some of the pictures like the smoking coal miner that are more about the human psyche, or the human condition, or some stories talk about fortitude or dignity.
There’s this fellow in the exhibition who is covered in sugar, it looks like frost, or the old guy covered in all that color. Then there’s a couple of young shepherds going out with their goats to take them to graze. The guy has a blanket and he’s trying to herd his goats. And then there’s some portraits of an old monk and a young Afghan refugee girl who has a green shawl. And I thought that it looks like some kind of Renaissance painting or something.
When choosing your subjects, what draws you to a particular scene or person, and how do you decide to capture that moment? Do you frame it in your mind ahead of time, or is it a more emotionally driven process?
I think it’s intuitive, you’re always kind of looking and it’s more working from your gut. It’s more of a reaction, seeing something or suddenly being struck by something that you feel tells an amazing story or something that’s really unusual. Which kind of is enlightening about people and how we live. I think it’s just more intuitive. There’s certain faces, certain people that stand out and you find them particularly fascinating.
After such extensive travel, do you still find yourself surprised by new places? Can you share a location you discovered over the last year that influenced or inspired you unexpectedly?
I was in Antarctica just over Christmas – that’s a pretty inspiring place. It’s like another planet. I was in South Africa last year, and I kind of felt like this was a new experience that I hadn’t really had before.
I guess I’ve been to so many places over the last 40 years that sometimes maybe it doesn’t really reach the level of “this is some shocking thing that I’ve never seen before.” But I was in Burma (Myanmar) like last week, and that’s always a place that fascinates me because of the Buddhist culture. It’s also sort of a place that you kind of feel is stuck in the past because the government is just kind of a strange setup they have there. It’s always fun to go back to the same places such as India or Japan or Italy because you always see them a little differently, and it’s always fun to go back and see the changes. I’m a big fan of going back to revisit places that I’ve worked at.
As someone who spent a significant portion of his career shooting on film before transitioning to digital, how do you feel about the resurgence of analog photography?
For me, it’s whatever interests you, fascinates you. I mean, some people shoot with a pinhole camera or 8”x10” view camera or a Leica or Instamatic or film. I think that young people maybe just want to go back to something that’s maybe more simple, something that they can actually shoot and develop the film and do that whole process of printing it. I mean, I enjoyed that whole process. I spent hours in the darkroom, but I don’t really have any nostalgia for film. Now, I think digital just works for me. It’s it’s more immediate. You don’t have all those chemicals. You can shoot in much lower light. Much, much lower light, so that extends your day.
If people want to shoot on film, I mean, I don’t quite understand it, but it’s fine if that gives them pleasure. I like being able to shoot into the night, whereas with film it’s much slower, [ISO] 400, 800, or 1600, but with digital you can go to, you know, [ISO] 6000 or more and get pretty good results. I mean, it’s like, I want to go back and use a typewriter. I mean, why not? I want to use a horse rather than a car. Sure, whatever makes you happy.
What locales do you have on your ‘wish list’ for 2024 and what makes them intriguing to you?
Well, I have a number of locations I’m going to, but they’re mostly connected to assignments. I’m going back to Cambodia. I spent months in Angkor Wat, so it’ll be interesting to go back and see how that’s changed. I might go to Alaska, which is kind of unusual for me because I usually work in warmer climates in Asia. So I thought that might be a thing out of my comfort zone, to go to a place that I’ve never really explored. I might go back to Ukraine and also might go to the country of Georgia for the first time. I’ve worked in that region, so it’s not going to be some huge surprise. But even so, I think it’ll be fun to go and see it in a new way.
I guess I’ve been to all of the places in the world that I’ve wanted to go to. There’s other places that I’ve never really been particularly inspired to go to, so I haven’t gone to those places sort of intentionally. But I can’t say there’s a there’s a lot of places that I haven’t been to, that I’d like to. I always thought it’d be great to go to Iran, but it’s a bit too dangerous. It’s unpredictable. I’m going back to China. I wish I could go back to Russia. That’s off-limits now.
When I look at the globe and think, where would I really want to go? Most of those places I’ve already been through. The only country I haven’t been to in Asia is Brunei, and I never particularly wanted to go to Brunei. And I’ve been through all South America, much of Africa, the places in Africa that I wanted to go to. And then I’ve been all over Europe, I’ve been to Russia, China, and been around the U.S. so that kind of covers the planet.
Steve McCurry at Cavalier Gallery, February 8-March 9, 2024, at their Chelsea and Greenwich locations