Category Archives: photographers

Steve McCurry Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent

Originally posted on NJWV as part of an occasional series of posts where Nick revisits books which he grew up with.

Steve McCurry Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan
Steve McCurry
Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan

My earliest memories of just looking at photos all involve National Geographic. My parents had a subscription and I looked forward to the day each month when a thick magazine slipcovered in brown-paper arrived in our mailbox. I was too young to read the articles but I devoured the photos (and the maps of course) for at least the following week. I also would go through our magazine files and pull out my favorite past issues—reading the spines until I found the one with the feature I wanted—and revisit the photos all over again.

June 1984 was my favorite issue. By far. I paged through Paul Theroux’s By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent repeatedly as I was captivated by Steve McCurry’s photographs. It wasn’t anything specific about the quality of the photos which got me. I just, like many grade-school boys, loved trains and these were like no trains I’d ever seen. Instead of the commuter train pulled by diesel engines which took people up and down the peninsula between San Francisco and San José, these were steam trains which wound through mountains and countrysides, were packed with people—including riders on the outsides of the cars—and had dining cars to accommodate multi-day journeys.

The recent McCurry pile-on which started with Teju Cole’s A Too-Perfect Picture coupled with some photoshop disasters encouraged me to both revisit McCurry’s train photos—the first set of photos I can remember loving—as well as to finally read the text which they accompany.

At some point in the past decade or so, McCurry’s work has lost all the context in which it was originally made. He has indeed gone full White Guy Photography, peddling a mythical third-world exotic beauty via photos that function as desktop backgrounds or hotel art.* Teju Cole says they’re boring. Paroma Mukherjee points out that the ethics behind these photos are dangerous. As McCurry packages them now I completely agree. They don’t tell us anything beyond confirming our stereotypes of the region and suggesting that modernization will ruin the “real” soul of the place.**

*A use case I actually witnessed at The Tech Awards.

**As stated in Image on Paper’s Jimmy Nelson Post: “It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant.”

While I would be a bit worried about looking through all the 30-year-old National Geographics and seeing what I grew up with, this particular article is thankfully not too bad. Rather than being concerned with any sort of “authenticity,” it’s unabashedly a travelog and photos—most of which do not look like what has become the McCurry brand.

Travelogs, when they’re about the author’s trip and don’t claim to be speaking for the country,* are great. The same goes with travel photos. The more specific and personal the topic is, the more likely I am to like them. And I still like these.

*Or in this case, the entire subcontinent.

The railroad is a wonderful thread to anchor the entire trip. It grounds the narrative and allows for historical diversions where the infrastructure is older than the political boundaries which it crosses. It also offers glimpses at a large range of the people in India. While Theroux is mostly riding first class, he and McCurry are also interacting and talking with the locals crowded in second class, the people riding on the roof, the white tourists in the separate better-than-first-class tourist cars, and the service workers and public workers who run the trains and the stations.

That I still love trains, and train photography, doesn’t hurt. But there is something distinct about the rail travel and the way it filters how you see both the countryside it cuts through and the built environments which have grown up around it. It’s simultaneously part of the landscape while completely imposing itself on that landscape. And it waits for no one. If one of the chief tenets of photography is taking your time and thinking and picking the right moment, the way the train keeps moving introduces a variable which is out of the photographer’s control.

Steve McCurry Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India
Steve McCurry
Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Seeing McCurry’s work in this context also serves as a reminder of why he became an acknowledged master. There’s maybe only one of those McCurry™ Portraits and all of his colors are more subdued by the necessity of having to stick with the railway itself. But the photos are great. Strongly composed and timed with a sense of place—and on occasion the photographer’s presence—they illustrate the text so well that I have no use for the captions except when they offer a bit of additional story where McCurry’s experiences differ from Theroux’s.

Even the photo of the train at the Taj Mahal—which out of this context becomes about the men and “how well they work as types”—is instead a perfect “holy crap you can see this from the train” photo.

Despite completely agreeing with the critiques being heaped on McCurry now, I’m still glad that these were some of the formative photos of my youth. I’ve kind of grown out of him but I’m happy that I had access to these. It’s always good to be reminded of both my own growth, and what it means if an artist doesn’t grow.

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Emily Blincoe

Came across these on Tumblr. Sometimes it really is this (deceptively) simple. This feels like one of my basic design assignments—take a selection of colors and sort them in multiple ways—taken to another level via repetition.

In class, the common mistake was to rely on paint chips—a mistake since paint chips are all based on a white base so the palette is way more limited than anyone realized. The point of the assignment was to really get to know and understand color gamuts and how they interact. You had to sort by light to dark, warm to cool, and bright to dull. It’s not just about hues interacting.

Emily Blincoe’s work is more hue-based but because of the limited palette in each arrangement, does a similar thing since each sorting has to determine the distinguishing feature of the selected objects. They look neat. But they’re also a great exercise in thinking about color.

Paul Strand. Wall Street, New York

Paul Strand

Note: This originally posted on NJWV.

Paul Strand. Blind Woman, New York
Blind Woman, New York
Paul Strand. Wall Street, New York
Wall Street, New York
Paul Strand. Church, Massachusetts
Church, Massachusetts
Paul Strand. Door Latch, Stockburger's Farm, East Jamaica, Vermont
Door Latch, Stockburger’s Farm, East Jamaica, Vermont
Paul Strand. Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France
Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France
Paul Strand. The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis).
The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis)
Paul Strand. Lily Leaves, Winter, Orgeval.
Lily Leaves, Winter, Orgeval

The Paul Strand show turned out to be the motivation I needed to finally make the trip to Philadelphia. I’m glad I went. Strand—like Weston was for a long time—is one of those photographers whose work I’ve absorbed but never really looked at in a specific, comprehensive way before. Sure, some of the images are extremely well-known, but many of the rest I’ve never seen before yet have sensibilities which feel just as familiar to me.

Needless to say, I really like his work—especially his precise framing and composition. He’s able to find the order within the type of scenes that often catch my eye but which challenge me when it comes to finding the photograph in them—door hardware, a clump of plants, items which I can’t abstract to pure texture or sculpture because they contain both an interesting structure as well as their real-world function.

Strand’s work is also very interesting because he was right there at the beginning of photography as an art form. From his early work consisting of “fuzzy” pictorial contact prints to portraits and street photography to urban abstractions and still lifes to contrasty enlargements to finally combining photos and text together in book form, his journey as an artist parallels a lot of the medium’s journey as he learns to embrace what the medium does well and address things it doesn’t. The result of this is that many of his photos remind me of other photographers’ work. Not in a rip off way, just that looking at Strand’s work made me realize how much of an influence he had on other photographers. He’s not someone to ape. He’s someone to study and learn from and take what he learned and apply it to whatever I’m interested in.

What most struck me was realizing that while Strand’s most-famous images—those that you’re supposed to know and recognize—came from his early work, this doesn’t mean that that work is better. Instead it reflects on how his sensibilities shifted and he went from producing individually great photos to collections and books that, while consisting of great photos, are more about the way the photos work together to describe a place.

It’s his later work which has stuck with me after seeing this show. Strand would spend a long time in a location, photographing details, buildings, people, etc. all of which together form a portrait of the area. His images though don’t try and explain the area to us but rather provide a sense of how it was when Strand was there. They’re documentary without feeling anthropological or journalistic. They’re positive and empathic without being propaganda, Looking at them is like looking through an exceptionally high-quality photo album and offers a lot of food for thought as I think about making my own photo albums and books.

The exhibition itself is also noteworthy for having a lot of technical detail about the different printing methods Strand used. It does a great job at demonstrating how they differ—both on the production side and in the final product—but especially the final product. There are examples of copy negatives and interpositives and information about how they were modified before contact printing. There are also displays of the same images, or similar images from the same shoot, reproduced as platinum, silver gelatin, and photogravure prints set up so we can compare the differences in detail and contrast each method allows for. Mixed with these comparisons are discussions about how his cameras impacted his working methods and different printing methods impacted distribution.

It was nice to see an exhibition which realized and explained how much the tools of photographic capture and print production impact the art. It’s even nicer to see an exhibition discuss issues of distribution and display. While his prints are great, that Strand eventually settled on books as the ideal form for his photography puts a very different frame regarding the intended audience of the artwork. Most things we see in museums are elite objects for elite people. Strand’s work is more populist. It’s only fitting that I’ll be aware of his influence everywhere I look now.

Ray Yoshida. Detail of a Chicago shop window, between 1972 and 1981.

Ray Yoshida

Ray Yoshida, Detail of a storefront sign in Chicago, between 1972 and 1981.

Ray Yoshida. Sign with bodybuilders in Chicago, between 1972 and 1981.

Ray Yoshida. Detail of a sign in Chicago, between 1972 and 1981.

Ray Yoshida. Detail of a commercial sign in Chicago, between 1972 and 1981.

Ray Yoshida. Storefront sign in Chicago, between 1972 and 1981.

Ray Yoshida. Detail of a Chicago shop window, between 1972 and 1981.

Ray Yoshida. Detail of a beauty salon sign, between 1972 and 1981.

Ray Yoshida. Detail of a Chicago storefront, between 1972 and 1981.

Something interesting which came across tumblr and caused me to click through to his papers at the Smithsonian. These are too much fun. The signs are great in a vernacular hand-drawn way that we’re not used to seeing anymore. And the polaroids—direct flash and all—are perfect.

Yes, these are hipstagram before hipstagram. But what I love about these is how the camera is placed so as to crop out everything unnecessary and any keystoning or other “issues” are accepted. The only things in these prints are what needs to be there.

Edward Steichen, “In Chateau Thierry Sector showing service bridges destroyed by retreating enemy forces”

Edward Steichen’s War Years

Steichen began to value photography’s capacity to transmit and encode information, and he soon proved his savvy as a collaborator and producer rather than a solitary auteur—new skills that enabled his subsequent groundbreaking career in magazines.

Sharp, Clear Pictures: Edward Steichen’s World War I

Edward Steichen, “Untitled (Vaux)”
Untitled (Vaux)
Edward Steichen, “In Chateau Thierry Sector showing service bridges destroyed by retreating enemy forces”
In Chateau Thierry Sector showing service bridges destroyed by retreating enemy forces
Edward Steichen, “Concrete landing platform for airplanes at Puxieux (each strip about 50 ft. wide by 250 ft long), crescent shape mass was formed by the pile of broken concrete when the platform was removed, altitude 15,000 ft.”
Concrete landing platform for airplanes at Puxieux (each strip about 50 ft. wide by 250 ft long), crescent shape mass was formed by the pile of broken concrete when the platform was removed, altitude 15,000 ft.
Edward Steichen, “Bomb Dropped From Airplane”
Bomb Dropped From Airplane

These have been sitting in the write-somthing-about-this queue for a few months. Kukkurovaca’s most-recent Minor White post however reminded me of them. It’s not just that these are interesting technologically* and biographically,** they’re also worth thinking about as communication.

*Adding photography to the list of aerial advancements made during World War 1.

**Marking a key moment in Steichen’s development as a photographer

In their execution, they remind me of the scientific photographs—micrography, aerial surveys, etc.—that found their way into the early attempts at photographic abstraction, except that in White’s case, they are not valuable purely for their aesthetics but for their potential to transmit an understanding that could not be put into words.

kukkurovaca on Minor White

This is especially interesting given how I was looking at Doc Edgerton last week and feeling like all those stop-motion photographs felt more gimmicky than anything else. I think the main difference here is that many of the stop motion photos don’t really communicate much beyond “this looks cool”* whereas aerial photos do. It’s not just “I can see my house from here” but the kind of thing that invites us to think about our interactions with the land from a different perspective.

*The best Edgerton photos actually tend to go beyond that and reveal interesting things about the way objects behave— e.g. how the milk coronet elegantly shows fluid dynamics.

We already know how maps are so different than directions in terms of explaining a place and how to navigate it. Aerial photos take the sense of a map but invite us to really think about the real world implications of what’s depicted. At the same time, like with maps (and any other kind of photography), they’re an obviously abstracted version of the world.