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Friday, September 23, 2016

Steve McCurry Photographs at MWPAI

Steve McCurry - Holi Man. Rajasthan, India 1996, color photograph
My  friend and fellow photographer Ben met me recently at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica to see the Steve McCurry exhibition there and to talk shop.

It was well worth the trip. McCurry is a supremely talented photographer who creates beautiful and compelling color images, often choosing them for their storytelling qualities. The show, entitled The World Through His Lens and comprising 60 pictures from three decades, will hang through Dec. 31. I urge you to find time to go see it, especially if you are interested in this sort of thing, but also if you are a human being, as this work speaks directly to the human condition that we all share.

Terry Slade - Mantra for the Survival of the Earth, fused glass
I'd like to add a suggestion that you go by Oct. 2 to see a joyful installation by Hartwick College painter and fused-glass artist Terry Slade, entitled Dreams and Apparitions, as Slade's work is always good fun and this is one of his most ambitious efforts yet. A large-scale piece hanging in the museum's interior sculpture court is "intended to evoke contemplation of our place as humans in the universe," making it a fine companion piece to the McCurry show that hangs nearby.

Now for the shop talk: Photography is a curious medium - since its invention in the mid-19th century, arguments have percolated, even raged, as to whether or not it is an art form, and whether or not it is truthful. Well over 150 years later, these arguments have not been settled, and McCurry's work is a good example of why that is.

Kashmir Flower Seller. Dal Lake, Srinigar, Kashmir 1996
The press release for the show states that McCurry "creates images that bridge the gap between photojournalism and art." Fortunately, McCurry is intimately familiar with life in a war zone, because with this statement he enters into treacherous terrain. Now, he can be attacked equally by people who think they know what journalism is (count me in - after all, I worked for 13 years in the newsroom of a daily paper), and by people who consider themselves experts on art (yep, that's me, too). Does a mere photographer need that kind of stress? And for what?

The "for what" part I can easily answer - with this show (which I assume will be touring in some form) McCurry is seeking to leap from the pages of National Geographic to establish himself in the art realm. Other photojournalists have tried the same thing - notably W. Eugene Smith and Sebastiao Salgado (both of whom worked exclusively in black and white) - but it is a tricky leap to make.

Woman at a Horse Festival. Tagong, Tibet 1999
This is because the difference between art and journalism is one of intention. If an image is intended to tell a story about the subject, or to document that subject, and if it is intended to be published in a newspaper or magazine (or, heaven help us, on the web) then it is properly labeled as journalism (and bound by certain rules). If, instead, the image is intended as personal expression - and therefore bound by none of the rules of journalism, such as the separation of truth from fiction - then it can be considered art.

I question whether it is possible for McCurry to present pictures taken initially as documents (and, indeed, published as such), and then change his intention after the fact to offer them as art. Call me a purist (or whatever else you want to call me), but I don't think there is a way to "bridge the gap" between disciplines with such distinctly different purposes.

Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl. Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984
Meanwhile, McCurry has been at the center of some controversy regarding the digital manipulation of images that are presented as journalistic documents, which is a very sticky quandary to be in. My own experience in the business leaves me no room for doubt: Photographs presented as documents must not be manipulated beyond the simplest techniques of cropping, lightening, and darkening - and those changes must be only done to make the reality captured in the picture more clear, not to embellish or slant the message. It is incumbent on the publisher of a manipulated photograph to disclose this fact, sometimes by labeling it an illustration. Artists, of course, are not obligated to disclose anything.

So, when McCurry's most famous picture, which is a studio-style portrait of an Afghan refugee, was published on the cover of the National Geographic, it was journalism and should not have been manipulated (follow this link to learn details of how it was altered in that instance). Now, offered as the centerpiece to this museum show, with the subject's eyes brightened and the background color apparently changed to enhance them, it is the work of an artist and perfectly legitimate as such.

Monks Pray at Golden Rock. Kyaikto, Burma, 1994
Speaking of McCurry the artist - his style is well suited to the gallery, being graphic and very colorful, and his subjects - essentially landscapes and portraits - are particularly engaging to the viewer. I found a strong connection to fashion in many of the people pictures, and I think McCurry could probably have had a great career in commercial photography if that were his interest.

But he is more interested in the world and our place in it; he is also very interested in our interior life, as expressed through his ongoing pursuit of Buddhist subject matter (Eastern monks, nuns, and holy sites are well represented here), and in a lovely and sensitive series of pictures of people reading.

Through this last body of work, we have the opportunity to become engaged with McCurry himself, and less distracted by the exoticism of his favored subjects. If my sense is correct, and McCurry has become primarily an artist, then he is moving in the right direction.

Mahout Reads with his Elephant. Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010