People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exhibition: Steve McCurry Retrospective

The Théatre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice is running an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s work until the end of September 2014, and I was fortunate to be in Nice at the right time to visit.

Like most people I knew McCurry first and foremost for the iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ image, so famous that I don’t need to include it here. Beyond that, I knew he had worked a lot in Asia and in war zones throughout the world – but I didn’t know much else. It turned out to be one of the best exhibitions of photography that I’ve seen in a long time. Given that I am studying a degree module called ‘People & Place’, his work is hugely relevant and an excellent source of inspiration.

People

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

At the heart of McCurry’s work are people, and the first hall in the gallery is dominated by head-and-shoulders shots that are reminiscent of Afghan Girl, with the subject staring deep into the viewer’s eyes. The technique of getting the subject to stare intently at the lens looks deceptively simple, but I can’t imagine that every time you do so, you produce work as powerful and affecting as this. Whether through empathy, patience or some other interpersonal skill, McCurry has the knack of drawing the gaze of his subjects in such a way that you feel they are revealing something of themselves to the camera/viewer.

Pure portraiture isn’t the whole story though – in fact it’s a fairly small proportion of the 127 images on show here. The greater part of the body of work is concerned with placing people in the wider context of their place in the world – their community, their traditions and sometimes the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

For me, some of these are more interesting than others. The images of war zones – and they are not overly graphic, they are not scenes of combat but rather of the effects of war on the people and their environment – were surprisingly less affecting to me than I expected. Similarly, the images of the aftermath of natural disasters didn’t really resonate with me. This is a subjective view, of course, but a certain amount of ‘disaster fatigue’ kicks in after a while and as a viewer I became somewhat desensitised.

On the other hand, the images depicting specific traditions of peoples from around the world, I found genuinely impressive. The ones chosen here really lend themselves to being captured photographically, from a point of view of colour, composition or both. The Indian festivals where they paint their faces and bodies bright colours, the Shaolin monks hanging upside down, the Sri Lankan stilt fishermen – they make amazing photographs. They make you think about the wonders the world has to offer, the unusual rituals and sights that most people will never see in person – the variety of human life. Put cynically from a visual interest point of view: misery tends to look the same the world over, but people find a limitless number of ways to celebrate and be happy.

A sense of place

I was particularly interested in seeing how McCurry conjured up the sense of place in his images, as this is the brief for my next assignment. For the most part he does this with people in the context of the place – sometimes posed environmental portraits, often candid moments. The light, the architecture, the clothing, the landscapes. After a while, looking at photos before reading the captions, I became pretty good at guessing where in the world the picture was taken, and this is testament to his ability to distill a place down to its essence. With regard to the balance between people and place in his images, on the evidence of the work here he concentrates very much on the people, with the place as a secondary character.

One of the best examples of this, as well as demonstrating his love of vibrant colours and his eye for composition, is ‘Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India’.

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Verdict

My overwhelming first impression was that I was in the presence of a photographic master, the kind of annoyingly brilliant genius that makes me disappointed in my own shortcomings! Once I got past the general sense of awe I looked more closely and saw that what I really admired were two quite distinct aspects of his work: first, on a purely aesthetic level he captures some beautiful images, full of colour and with a careful eye for composition; secondly, he has a rare skill of highlighting the human elements, making you feel like the subject has shared something of themselves with the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.

One simple sign that I’ve been impressed with a photographer is whether I subsequently seek out more of their work. Straight after getting back from the exhibition I ordered ‘Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs’ [1], which seems to be a comprehensive source of more great McCurry images to feast upon after having this show whet my appetite.

One of the things I find myself thinking with regard to certain photographers is “I like the way s/he sees the world”… and with McCurry the emphasis is more on the last word. He brings to life amazing, exotic aspects of global culture, opening windows onto parts of the world I’ll most likely never see in person. If anything, the fact that he is so associated with one iconic image is something of a shame – it overshadows what is a consistently excellent body of work.

  1. Purcell, K.W. (2012). Steve McCurry: the iconic photographs. London: Phaidon


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Exhibition: Bailey’s Stardust

As I’ve just started People & Place, and the first section is about portraits, it seemed highly appropriate that the first exhibition I go to is David Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Look

Look – © David Bailey

Bailey is probably Britain’s best known living photographer, and for a while his name was synonymous with the craft (“Who d’ya think you are, David Bailey?”). He is undeniably ‘mainstream’ in this respect and I guess many critics might look down their noses at this ‘East End lad made good with his one photographic style’. But of course the reality of his career and work is a bit more complicated than that.

Yes, over half of the 250+ works on display are indeed in his signature style: celebrity portrait, mono, plain white background, starting with his ‘Box of Pin-ups’ and going right up to the present day. There’s also a surprising amount of other styles he worked in: there’s colour work; there’s the 1960s fashion shoots that first brought him to fame; there’s some more personal, family shots; there’s images from humanitarian trips to India and Africa; there’s candid images from the old East End; there’s nighttime city shots taken on smartphones.

The untypical works

Some of his un-Bailey-like photos really impressed me, giving a glimpse of the kind of photographer he might have become on a different career path – the early East End picture essay material in particular had a real warmth to it, that doesn’t come across so much in the celebrity work. The poster they give you as part of the programme (above) is just a great shot, not typical Bailey at all but full of visual sparkle – the lines, the shapes, the text, the face, the jacket just being pulled down off the shoulders, the cheeky eyes.

But I have to say: some of it was entirely unimpressive. The inclusion of the smartphone shots is troubling: Bailey has famously said many times that the camera doesn’t matter, it’s just a tool – if this is so, why dedicate a room to (adequate but not gallery-worthy) phone shots, except to say “aren’t these good – for a smartphone“? Although to be fair I did appreciate the humour of juxtaposing the 2013 phone pics with a 1972 double-selfie with Andy Warhol…

The signature Bailey style

For most of the visit I was drawn back to the classic Bailey portraits. Some I’d seen before and still work fantastically well – Jack Nicholson, Lennon and McCartney, Jean Shrimpton, Kate Moss, Mick Jagger, the Krays of course – and others were entirely new to me, despite their age. The mid-60s portraits of David Hockney and Brian Epstein, for example, showed he could be experimental with posing and editing when he wanted to be. Looking at many of the portraits you initially get the sense that he has the knack of getting under the skin of his sitters to bring out aspects of their character… but the more of his celebrity portraits you see in one place, the more you get a feeling that it’s actually quite a surface thing – he’s isolating and heightening what we already know about the sitter, almost like a subtle form of caricature. He rarely seems to give any hints to the hidden essence of a person, or secret undercurrents of their character. He prides himself on getting to know the sitter quickly and rattling off the pics, click-click-click.

The work where he has more of a personal connection is quite different – the Shrimpton pics and particularly the room dedicated to his wife Catherine show how much more depth you can mine in a subject when you really know them. By comparison the celebrity shots are like one-night stands.

Brian Duffy

Brian Duffy – © David Bailey 2010

I noted in various bits of publicity around the show that one of his hobbies is ornithology – there’s an obvious parallel with his work, particularly his celebrity portraits. He’s quickly identifying aspects of quite fleeting subjects, collecting them, ticking them off. He’s a professional people-watcher.

On a technical note – and this is relevant as Bailey himself produced new prints expressly for this show – some of the images are so underexposed as to look faintly ridiculous: Don McCullin, Brian Duffy and Damon Albarn look as if they’re wearing blackface makeup – not a good look. A perplexing creative decision indeed, and very distracting.

Summary

So, on the evidence of this exhibition, one can see why he gained the reputation that he did: he is exceptionally good at simple, black-and-white celebrity portraits, as long as you accept that these are what they are; they’re not deep, insightful, thought-provoking pieces of art (Bailey himself has several times described his job as ‘taking sophisticated passport pictures’).

A more discerning curator may have chosen a smaller selection of his untypical work. Having said all of that: I did buy a book [1] in the gift shop, the poster above is now on my office wall, and I’m trying to get hold of a print of a Morecambe and Wise shot of his that I love. If this isn’t damning with faint praise, he’s very good at what he does!

1. Bailey, D. (2014) Bailey exposed. London: National Portait Publications