There’s been a bit of a storm brewing over a New York Times piece by Teju Cole about the work of Steve McCurry, one of the legendary National Geographic photojournalists.

I … don’t agree with his assessment but don’t feel qualified to take it on. Allen Murabayashi from PhotoShelter, though, has completely encapsulated my thoughts on the matter.

Having an obvious subject with tack sharp focus and proper exposure doesn’t mean a photo is devoid of layers of interest and interpretation.

Murabayashi’s sentiment aligns with my own here – the current fad of making low quality images to impart a gritty “realness” to them is ridiculous. We have spent nearly 200 years improving the quality of cameras through better lenses, better film stocks and now better sensors – why on earth do we apply “lo-fi” filters and strip out detail, accuracy and comprehension?

My student have heard this rant before – let the content of the image move your audience, don’t screw with their emotions with technique.

Mark E. Johnson

2 Responses

  1. Interesting couple of articles…I’ve never met Steve, but I’ve been to his studio and borrowed his laptop. Cole’s article is interesting because he is an art critic talking about something that he probably doesn’t consider art.

    I think that Teju Cole has a couple of issues – said and unsaid – with Steve’s work. The first is, despite Cole’s objections in the end of the review, is Steve’s outsider nature. McCurry is presenting a white, male, American point of view rather than an Indian point of view purely because of who he is. McCurry can never know what it is to be in India because he is not Indian. Every picture McCurry makes will be Westernized – nostalgic and objectifying. It’s something that photo critics, particularly Martha Rosler, have argued for years – the inadequacy of photography to tell a complete story, especially one like history that’s complicated and complex. I think that this argument falls apart when you look at the amount of time McCurry has spent in the place. He’s not a parachute journalist dropping onto a scene to make pictures without any idea of the context in which he is making them. I would also question how Cole, himself a Nigerian-American, would know what the “true” India is. Stereotypes and post-colonial theory aside, has he been to India? Spent the amount of time there that McCurry has?

    However, I think that the bigger issues for Cole, as an art critic, is whether or not McCurry’s work is actually art. McCurry’s most well known photos employ many of the traits of the best photojournalistic works – sharp focus, proper exposure, attention to composition, clean backgrounds, moment, light, and color. There is undeniable aesthetic quality. These same traits, however, are often not the traits of the best art photographs – especially the best contemporary art photographs. They are instead the traits of commercial photography. I think that Cole is hinting at that when he mentions that McCurry’s photos can be found on calendars. It seems that Cole is arguing that by making photos that are approachable, dumb people will like them. The street photographers that Cole praises – and indeed the well known history of street photographers from Cartier-Bresson, to Frank, and Winogrand, and even someone like Daniel Arnold today – have a grittier, more “real” feel. The world that they present is not pretty or polished, whereas McCurry’s often is.

    I think that this moves towards the even more important question of is journalism art? Can pure documentation ever be elevated to something more? Can the artist remain an objective observer, or is it the artist’s responsibility to provide social or institutional critique? That is an area in which the artist has an advantage over the journalist.

  2. Mark, you’d be amazed at how many photographers I’ve heard complain about how “perfect” modern lenses and sensors are, which blows my mind. They say they want lenses with “character,” whatever that means, and most of them hold Leica in high esteem. As far as I can tell, “character” seems to simply mean a heavy vignette, color imbalances, and a depth of field so narrow that only the eyelashes are in focus.

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