Singapore Art Week

Art Titans: Steve McCurry

Being directionless, and being directionless in the right place at the right time, have made Steve McCurry the photographer he is today.

His break-out image - that of the hauntingly beautiful National Geographic cover of the Afghan Girl with unforgettable green eyes - made him one of the most recognisable photographers in the world.

Beyond this much-lauded photograph, more than 30 years of his life and travels come alive through 53 stunning photographs from the man who stumbled into photography because he wanted to avoid getting "a real job".

The American photojournalist and war photographer's second solo show here is a celebration of his iconic images and the many places that have shaped his life and work. In town last Saturday for the opening of Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs at Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Gillman Barracks, the easy-going lensman spoke extensively about the places that have made his work what it is today.

  • VIEW IT / STEVE MCCURRY: THE ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS

  • WHERE: Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 01-05, 5 Lock Road

    WHEN: Till Feb 21, 11am to 7pm (Tuesday to Saturday), 11am to 6pm (Sunday)

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: Call 6694-3378 or go to www.sundaramtagore.com

"India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, they sort of became my beat. I guess I have always been interested in places with soul. My ambition was to travel. When I arrived in India, I was mesmerised, hypnotised, captivated," he told The Straits Times.

A trip that was supposed to last a few months turned into two years and several return visits to a country of what he calls "extreme contradictions".

You get to see these contradictions in several of his images. One of them, quite simply titled Dust Storm, Rajasthan, India; 1983; shows women caught in a dust storm. He often uses this picture in workshops he conducts globally, talking about the biggest lesson for photographers - to get out there and stop worrying about "the real destination".

In 1983, he was on a highway in India when an intense dust storm enveloped the road he was on and traffic stalled.

"I saw these road workers huddled against the elements. It had a masala of emotions. It was not just a pretty picture."

Like most of his other images, it invites revisiting, to see how effortlessly he celebrates the human spirit in moments of adversity. There is something poetic about his compositions. Even when he captures weather-beaten faces in different parts of India, it feels celebratory.

In the portraits, the focus is often on the searing eyes of the subject. Eyes so deep and penetrating, you can feel stories spring to life even in a still image.

This is what makes McCurry's images stand out in an era of instant uploads. He portrays human struggle, joy and sorrow with ease, and his ability to capture unguarded moments has won him fans globally.

His talk at the gallery drew more than 200 photography enthusiasts last Saturday evening. Ahead of the talk, his relaxed manner all through the 40-minute interview made it apparent why his subjects open up easily to him. He posed for photographs with almost anyone who asked and patiently signed copies of his book for more than an hour.

When asked what makes a great photograph, he says: "It is something we cannot forget. It changes us. We learn something from it and sometimes it becomes representative of an era."

He adds: "I don't overplan. You have to be open to what you are seeing along the way."

His advice to young photographers: To get out there and to stay focused on the content. "You need to say something. You need to travel and you need to compose your shots in a way that the story speaks. Photography takes a lot of time, practice and effort."

But above everything else, it is something you need to enjoy. "The beauty of photography is that you never stop learning and it gives me great pleasure."

His preferred camera is a Nikon single lens reflex. His smartphone is by his side during this interview and one is compelled to ask what he makes of digital technology. "I have absolutely nothing against it," he says. "I think it is great. We can do a lot more with digital than we could ever do with film. Digital photography allows us to concentrate more on the picture."

After attending Penn State University and majoring in cinematography, he opted for photography over film because "it just seemed to be easier to do". After two years with a newspaper, he packed his bags and started to travel.

His work has taken him around the globe, covering areas of international and civil conflict and documenting ancient and vanishing traditions and contemporary culture. His photography has been the subject of several museum solos, including at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York and The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and he has been honoured with some of the most prestigious awards in the industry, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal.

Despite all the recognition, the 65-year-old feels there is more he needs to do. He dismisses any idea of "flirting with the idea of retirement", saying he absolutely loves what he does.

"But suddenly you realise 30 years have passed. I feel I have only just grasped the surface. There is so much more I could have seen, there are so many more places I want to travel to."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'Art Titans: Steve McCurry'. Print Edition | Subscribe