Marks out of 10 - Window on a hidden world

16th July 2010 at 01:00

Steve McCurry

Waterhall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Until October 17, admission free

The image of the Afghan girl is one of the first to catch the visitor's eye in this exhibition. With a russet-coloured shawl wrapped around her head and shoulders, the green-eyed girl with her impenetrable stare caught the imagination of the Western world when she appeared on the front cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985.

The photograph, taken in a refugee camp in Peshawar, went on to become a symbol of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, highlighting the plight of refugees around the world. The photograph also secured Steve McCurry's status as a photographer who not only has access to war-torn areas but can capture the spirit and character, as well as the situation, of the people he meets.

American-born McCurry made his name as a documentary photographer back in 1979 when he was travelling in Pakistan. He came across a group of men involved in the mujahideen who offered to smuggle him across the border to Afghanistan. Disguised in a salwar kameez, he entered the country and saw first-hand the beginnings of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the effect on the Afghan people.

McCurry got the photos back across the border a few weeks later by sewing the films into his clothes. He posted them to his sister in the US, who passed them on to the New York Times and other American news outlets, allowing the West to view the start of the conflict for the first time.

A deal with Magnum photography followed, as well as a close relationship with National Geographic. The rest, as they say, is history. Now, at the age of 60, McCurry has put together a retrospective of his work that documents the changing face of Asia as well as the effects of war and conflict.

On a world tour, its residence at the Waterhall in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is the only showing in the UK. An additional 29 photographs are also only on display in Birmingham. The pictures are arranged geographically, moving east from Afghanistan through to Pakistan, India, Burma and Tibet, to name just a few of the countries represented.

But the exhibition is very much about people rather than countries. Different cultures and lifestyles in each place are communicated primarily through the people McCurry meets. There are portraits in which the camera looks the subject directly in the eye, but often he is just observing people going about their day-to-day business.

Even his dramatic landscapes have a human presence: in one image of the Afghan city of Herat after a series of bomb attacks, McCurry puts an almost biblical scene of a group of men talking around a fire at the centre of his frame.

Like the Afghan girl, some of the portraits stop you in your tracks. They raise sometimes uncomfortable questions: why does the Peruvian boy hold a gun to his head, crying? Why is the Tibetan youngster so defiant? What happened to make this 14-year-old boy a soldier? Some of the answers could have been supplied by more descriptive accompanying notes.

But equally, there is a lot of humour. The photograph of a smiling Indian man bobbing his head just above the water with his sewing machine raised on one shoulder cannot help but entice a smile from the viewer.

His main aim may be to document and inform, but each of McCurry's photographs is beautifully framed and captures stunning contrasts in the natural environment. Each photo has a sense of balance in its composition and colour: the vivid oranges against the ashen grey of a burnt-out car, or the flight of white doves against a blue mosque. But a broader theme of balance and contrast runs through the exhibition, and through the years, between tradition and modernity, youth and age, the natural world and the manufactured.

McCurry once said that each of his photographs stands alone. He thinks of each subject and the framing of it as a complete and individual entity. They may not have been intended to go together, but this collection powerfully and beautifully charts the life and times, not just of the photographer but of the people and places he has encountered along the way.

THE VERDICT: 9 out of 10.

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