Thursday, October 1, 2015

UPDATED -- Is Steve McCurry a Southern Photographer?

OK, I've now gotten my copy of Paul Theroux's Deep South. Jack Hitt, reviewing this book for the Washington Post, pretty much nails it when he says that Theroux maintains a "posture of exalted condescension" all the way through, while piling on cliche after cliche as though he were discovering them for the first time.  

I feel a bit sad for McCurry, however. His images get shoved off to the end of the book. They get printed small. The paper they are printed on doesn't really show off the color very well.

But I seen nothing in this work to change my mind -- while Steve McCurry is undoubtedly one of the great travel photographers of our time, he is not a Southern photographer.

But there is hope -- it turns out that McCurry's parents were natives of Georgia and South Carolina, and that as a child he spent time each summer in Anderson, SC. So I hope he comes back, on his own time, and on his own dime.

If he could work out from under Theroux's editorial agenda, he might prove himself worthy after all.

His work made, chiefly, in Asia, and published in magazines, especially National Geographic, and in numerous books, has made him widely known and celebrated as a photographer.

The image immediately above, for example, though usually seen in a slightly different crop, is one of the most-seen images of recent photographic history.

McCurry is a master of light, a genius at portraiture, and a whiz at capturing what -- at least to us in the West -- seems to be, all at once, real insight into the souls of people radically different from us and a glimpse of the humanity that we all share. 

Now, he's teamed up with renowned travel writer Paul Theroux for a turn in the American South. 

Their book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, is due out the 29th of September.

Any final estimation of what they have brought us depends of course on seeing the finished product (my copy is on order), but I think we can get the flavor of the book from an essay Theroux wrote for Smithsonian magazine, here, illustrated by some of McCurry's photographs.  

On the basis of this sample, however, I think McCurry's work for Theroux's project raises serious issues about the work of the photographer, and his audience, and the purpose of his enterprise. 

The conceptual structure of Theroux's book is, apparently an ongoing comparison between the poorest sections of the American South and the Third-World countries where he has made his name as a travel writer. 

Theroux says he deliberately traveled the back roads of the South, from North Carolina to South Carolina, and on through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, searching for the stories of folks “poorer in their way (as I was to find) and less able to manage and more hopeless than many people I had traveled among in distressed parts of Africa and Asia.”

McCurry, like Theroux, made his reputation by working in Third-World countries. 

Based on an admittedly partial and superficial review of McCurry's work in this volume, however, I will have to say that while his work in the American South is certainly professional -- strong, well-seen, skilled in lighting and composition -- it is not as compelling, not nearly as personal, as engaging to the eye and to the imagination, as close to its subjects, as the work he's done with which we are more familiar.

McCurry's images indicate that his South is a much duller, more barren, less interesting place than his India, his Afghanistan, his Tibet, or even -- to leave his images of the Third World behind for a moment -- his Italy or his Los Angeles.

They are also formulaic and derivative -- I can think of any number of Southern photographers who have made the Barber Shop photo, or the Abandoned Gas Station photo, or the Small Town Boarded Up Building photo, or the Church Service shot.  

Speaking of derivative, McCurry's image of a statue in the back yard of what looks like an abandoned house is clearly a descendant of the photograph of the cemetery monument in Savannah, GA, already seen by thousands upon thousands of readers of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

We, of course, since we are Southerners, know that the American South is always potentially a source of images charged with color, energy, and the work of vigorous and creative human beings. 

This, in spite of, or maybe alongside of, the fact, that the American South is now simultaneously booming in its urban areas and along its interstate highways, but very much struggling to escape the Great Depression, not to mention the Great Recession, in towns and rural areas only a few miles away from

You can't get by in this business without drawing criticism from someone.  McCurry's images of Asia have been justly criticized as catering to Orientalism, to Western desires for images of an exoticized Asia, a kind of alternative world that is more the expression of Western fantasies about Asia than it is a depiction of Asian realities. 

Since I've been there, I can say that not all of India looks like the world we get in McCurry's images, that vast stretches of its rural areas look as bleak and sterile as the world McCurry gives us in the image of the abandoned service station with its forlorn "INTERSTATE" sign looming in the sky. 

So the images one takes are formed by one's editorial perspective. And McCurry seems to be about the work of illustrating Theroux's claim that the South he found was one inhabited by folks “poorer . . . and less able to manage and more hopeless than many people [he] had traveled among in distressed parts of Africa and Asia.”

So I think that McCurry got the job of visiting the South, finding sites and making images that confirm or illustrate the editorial perspective Theroux uses to organize his book. 

He presents himself here as a pro contract shooter, doing his job as an illustrator. He won't care what I think, because the check didn't bounce. But I don't think his heart was in it. I notice this work does not show up on his website. 

So I can't consider McCurry, on the basis of this work, as an Honorary Southern Photographer. I hope he comes back, with a broader mandate, or on his own dime.  

Then, perhaps, we will see what kind of work he can do in the South. 

If, when I get my copy of the book, I find I have generalized too hastily from a small sample of McCurry's work, I'll come back, revisit, and revise this estimation of his work in the South.

Photography is always -- at least in part -- about finding what one is looking for and constructing images that show that world. Sometimes the world one shows is an artifact of one's process and technique; sometimes, it is a result of the selections one makes from the array of choices the world presents. 

McCurry -- I think -- made his images in the South to illustrate Theroux's argument in the book about the American rural South being worse off than some people in Third-World countries. 

Many well-known photographers -- when they come to work in what is for them a new part of the world -- make the images they usually make, and which they are expected to make by their audiences.

Photographers, like artists everywhere, have a way of developing a distinctive style, whether it reside in subject matter, mode of depiction, or technique of working. Style is not a bad thing in the arts. But it has consequences.  

This is one approach that photographers take -- to produce work in a distinctive style that people come to identify with this person, hence to expect to see it in his or her work, and then are disappointed if new work is not in that style.

Some years ago, the High Museum in Atlanta hired the English photographer Martin Parr to produce a portfolio of work for them in the South. Parr came in, and, as I noted in an earlier blog post, made a set of images that look like the images that Martin Parr makes.  They were really hard to distinguish from the work he does on England, or anywhere else, for that matter.

Last spring, Roger May and some other folks got upset because of the work that resulted when the NYC-based photographer Bruce Gilden was hired to do a photo shoot in West Virginia, later published in the on-line magazine VICE.

May's concern was that Gilden's photographs -- admittedly the result of only 2 days' work -- reinforce stereotypes of life in Appalachia held by those unfamiliar with the region, stereotypes that May has set out to address through his admirable Looking at Appalachia project. 

The only problem is, that when you hire Bruce Gilden to make photographs, Gilden will make the photographs he believes in, and that he makes everywhere he goes. None of the portraits below, for example, were made in West Virginia.

If they are any indication, you might say the folks in West Virginia got off easy. But for Gilden, this way of working is true and honest, and the images he produces fulfill his vision. 

From Gilden's perspective, his subjects in these images are interesting to him precisely because he believes them to be "invisible" 

“A lot of these people are invisible," Gilden said in an interview on Slate -- "and people don’t want to look at them and if you don’t look at them how can you help them? When you pay attention to those who are usually ignored, it makes their day. 

"That’s not why I do it. I’m not claiming to be a humanitarian; I’m a photographer. I always photograph what’s interesting to me and it has always been people who are underdogs because I see myself as an underdog.”

Maybe all this is a reminder that you can't make everyone happy all of the time.  Gilden's work is in keeping with his vision and his understanding of the world, and it doesn't make Roger May happy. 

Maybe, because to May, the people Gilden photographed in West Virginia aren't invisible at all. 

McCurry makes work in the South to illustrate Theroux's editorial perspective, and it doesn't make me happy because I see it as superficial, formulaic, and shaped by a predetermined set of claims rather than being open and responsive to the people and things one finds in unfamiliar places.

Sure is tough, sometimes, being a photographer.


  1. Hi John, I appreciate this discussion. If nothing else it should [but it probably won't] make us that much more conscious of the fact that we, as Americans, basically only know the world through writers and photographers like Theroux and McCurry, and often not as competent. So when we make decisions and judgements about these 'other' people it is probably based on extremely skewed interpretations of who they really are, and most of the time we probably get it wrong.

  2. Thanks John for a great piece. For me I feel it often comes down to editing and your own personal connection to the subject or perhaps lack of one. Also you can’t be angry at anyone if their style is their style as you mention.

    That said….a number of years ago I gave a lecture in NYC and showed two images made moments apart of the same woman. In one she was wearing her “house slippers” in front of an old barn looking a bit off. The other a close up of her warm and smiling, I asked the students what they thought of the two photos. All chose the photo of her in her house slippers, “what great photo” they said. Perhaps, however I told them that was not the image I chose to publish, nor is it one I show except when teaching to use as an example. Had I chosen the one in her slippers it would have been more about me elevating myself instead of my subject.

    When I asked her family if was OK to run the photo of her smiling I learned her story. She was born around the 1940’s, blacks were not exactly given great medical care. Her mother was told the baby would die, no treatment, no help, no support. Her mother did not give up, the baby grew up and lived and thrived, a good life and a loving family she might not have received her PHD, but it was not my right to take away her humanity. I sent the magazine with her published photo in it to her and her family, I called and asked what did she think of her photo, “she laughed and smiled! That is high praise!” I’ll take that any day and at the end of the day, it is up to you what you do.