The second exhibition visit organised by the OCA took a group of students, director Gareth Dent and myself, to Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. The stunning Victorian building was the perfect venue to host a selection of some of the most memorable and distinctive photographs by the renowned Magnum and National Geographic Photographer. Steve McCurry – Retrospective offers a compelling visual experience where a sophisticated use of colour and composition works hand in hand with photographic documentation.
Looking into the eyes of the people that McCurry photographed, whose presence is very much felt in the large-size prints, is captivating, even hypnotic. His trademark portraits are stripped of context and show more than just people; they show individuals, individuals with whom one can’t help sharing a feeling of common humanity.
However, impressed as we all were by the exhibition, the group discussion that followed raised some interesting questions. I was mildly annoyed by the introductory text that accompanies the images. Describing McCurry’s images as ‘snapshots’ is both simplistic and inaccurate. If anything, they are not ‘snapshots’. They may look like that, but their execution is far more sophisticated that what the term snapshot implies. As for whether the label of ‘street photography’ is appropriate, well, that’s up for discussion. Personally, I think that pigeon-holing them as ‘street photography’ couldn’t be more wrong. But, what is ‘street photography’ anyway? This is drifting off from what this post is all about but definitely worthy of another ‘We Are OCA’ post – keep an eye on our site.
There are issues revolving around this exhibition that need further consideration, no doubt. The fact that reportage images originally produced for a magazine are now displayed as art objects; the lack of contextual information about the images other than a generic descriptor, a geographic location and a date; the obvious omission of some of McCurry’s photojournalistic images which show harder, more gruesome content – see the war gallery on McCurry’s website. An exhibition is not unlike photography itself. It involves a process of rejection as well as selection; it is also the result of a person’s own sensitivities and taste – the curator’s.
In any case this exhibition was an excuse to show, once again, the most iconic image ever taken by McCurry: the Afghan girl – did she have a name by the way, or don’t we bother? There is something almost otherworldly about those green eyes which mesmerize me. No matter how many times I’ve seen the photograph of the Afghan girl, every time I look at her she renews in me a sense of guilt and inadequacy which I can’t avoid. In that image she’s still angry and resentful after more than 25 years since McCurry took her portrait.
And that’s the greatest achievement of the Afghan girl image: its current value as a symbol for those universal human qualities which are dignity and resilience to adversity. But I will confess that after all these years I still haven’t found a convincing answer to the question that always hovers on my mind when I look at the Afghan girl.
What is it exactly that made this image – and not any other – such an enduring symbol?