Your Opinion of Steve McCurry Doesn’t Matter

May 19, 2016

Allen Murabayashi

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Your Opinion of Steve McCurry Doesn’t Matter

May 19, 2016

Allen Murabayashi

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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On April 3, The New York Times Magazine photography critic Teju Cole penned a piece largely dismissing the work of renown photographer Steve McCurry. The piece caused a minor ruckus in photography circles with people (like myself) writing in his defense, while others castigated his imperialist eye and amplified whispers of staged scenes.

Just when the news cycle was waning, a badly Photoshopped print appeared at a McCurry gallery show, and yet another vigorous debate ensued replete with name calling, more allegations of staged photos, and a wholesale call to re-examine McCurry’s entire ouvre.

None of this matters.

In photography, like in many industries, there is a tendency to get caught in our own echo chamber. This is particularly true in photojournalism, which continues to host on-going debates about ethics and manipulation. Indeed, every contest season, it’s comically inevitable that World Press Photos will generate another round of alleged manipulation and punditry.

This isn’t to say that the introspective discussion is unwarranted. Photojournalism, in particular, has continuously struggled with existential questions of veracity since its inception. However the discussion is academic. Photojournalists can debate the issues until they’re blue in the face, but the public at large simply doesn’t care. The public believes images are manipulated because they are. And they don’t discern between a photoshopped magazine cover of Kim Kardashian and a news photo from Afghanistan. Why should they? They only care whether the photo moved them during the 0.5s they viewed it.

Internet culture demands our outrage. We align or distance ourselves from Team McCurry instead of focusing on the real matter at hand: Can we produce an image that our intended audience believes they cannot make? And does it make them want to consume more? If “everyone is a photographer,” then professional photographers will only succeed if they offer a unique and “better” product to their intended audience, which translates into a high quality image and good service.

Greenwich Village Halloween Parade 2002. Photo by Allen Murabayashi
Greenwich Village Halloween Parade 2002. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

McCurry has an audience. Afghan Girl is so ingrained in popular memory that I’ve seen it used multiple times as a Halloween costume. I can’t think of another photo that has reached that threshold. Castigating him for having the imperialist eye of a white male? Totally valid, but remember he’s a 66 year old white male from Darby, PA who helped define the very genre he’s criticized of shooting within. This is akin to criticizing Bruce Springsteen for having an 80s rock sound.

McCurry’s response to the controversy was weak (and frankly disappointing), but it’s clear that he no longer considers himself a photojournalist. And perhaps this has been true for a while. But what photographers think of him doesn’t matter because he’s found an audience of consumers willing to spend thousands of dollars for a print, and he’s found a cadre of corporations willing to hire him to shoot commercial fashion at presumably top dollar.

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But unless you were planning on buying a $3000 fine art print, your opinion is unlikely to affect his reputation amongst his fans. And given the fashion industry’s support of Terry Richardson, it’s unlikely, that a Photoshop bug will cause his economic ruin.

History will be the ultimate judge of McCurry’s work. Perhaps his work will be viewed a level of skepticism and uncertainty that dogs photographers like Weegee, Robert Capa, Joe Rosenthal, et al. But I suspect the public will simply remember an iconic image of an Afghan girl taken in golden era of National Geographic, which was synonymous with “great photography” for a generation of Americans.

About The Author

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter – a photography workflow site, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here and shared with permission

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5 responses to “Your Opinion of Steve McCurry Doesn’t Matter”

  1. fadecomic Avatar
    fadecomic

    It’s kind of weird, though, because that linked article kind of answers its own questions. “Why photograph these unique vestiges?” followed up later by “Outsider can make the best filters/observers” (paraphrased). Isn’t that the answer? This stuff is hardly unique to India, too. Every time there’s an Americana shoot, especially centered around the southern US, you don’t see cell phones or laptops. You see honky-tonks, and dirt-poor people living in unpainted wood houses. This stuff is pretty rare in the southern US, but it makes pretty pictures.

  2. Beezow Doo-doo Zopittybop-bop- Avatar
    Beezow Doo-doo Zopittybop-bop-

    James Natchwey, Sebastião Salgado, Don McCullin .we still have hope .

  3. Chung Dha Lam Avatar
    Chung Dha Lam

    I think most people nowadays photoshop their photos, like especially portrait photography you often need to clean the skin. Plenty girls use special filter and even apps on their phone to liquify their face to look slimmer. Also nowadays have allot of designers who just photoshop the entire photo like you have held a contest for that yourself. I find it bias for people say he should not edit his photo while most people do it as processing in lightroom and cropping the photo is also altering the image. Especially recent photoshop developements allot of people using the tilt shift blur to make their backgrounds blurry looking like it was shot with a shallow dof. But context of his work is taking photo of people showing how they live but the photoshop messing too much with the image, as some war photographer drag the corpse. And especially the guy who made a small girl pose for an instagram photo at a place where people were mourning are much worser.

  4. Sean Avatar
    Sean

    Seriously, if he’s not claiming the images to be photojournalistic work who gives a flying hoot? Not like they are being published on the front page of the NY Times. They are art and art is created not documented.

  5. AKH Avatar
    AKH

    Steve McCurry is a great artist in my opinion and the journalist just doesn’t like his photographs, so what?