Photography

A Trip Around Steve McCurry’s Photoshopped World

His gaze is imperialist and his understanding of the locations he visits poor, but his confidence and marketing skills – dazzling.

Photographer, Steve McCurry, poses with a man at the Kumbha Mela Festival, India, 2001. Credit: stevemccurry.files.wordpress.com

Photographer, Steve McCurry, poses with a man at the Kumbha Mela Festival, India, 2001. Credit: stevemccurry.files.wordpress.com

If you like desktop wallpapers, you’ll love Steve McCurry. I don’t mean that with any sarcasm. My generation grew up with the postcard-like Windows wallpaper and McCurry’s work is largely about the same aesthetic. He likes his colours strong, his backgrounds exotic, his audience happy – and that audience is big. These are picturesque, touristy, professional visuals for mass consumption.

It’s obvious to anyone who comes across a McCurry photograph that something about it is out of the ordinary – though not necessarily in the way it should be. This week, when the website PetaPixel revealed a major botch-up in a McCurry print – and unleashed a scandal in the world of photography – it brought to light what that anomaly might be.

Cuba, 2014. Credit: Steve McCurry

Cuba, 2014. Credit: Steve McCurry

According to the report, at a McCurry retrospective in Italy, the photographer Paolo Viglione noticed in a photograph of a Cuban street that part of a signpost had been cloned onto a man’s foot.

Detail of photoshopped area from image above. Credit: Paolo Vigilione/ PetaPixel

Detail of photoshopped area from image above. Credit: Paolo Vigilione/ PetaPixel

This observation sparked a series of enquiries about McCurry’s post-production processes – and uncovered much worse. Other photographs now revealed their own demons: from excessive additions of vibrancy and colour to handcarts, poles and children being erased from images altogether.

As a young adult in the social communication media program at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai over a decade ago, I was exposed to a world of great photographers by our fine educator Jeroo Mulla. While she discussed Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jacques Lartigue and Raghubir Singh with much fervour, she despised McCurry’s work. Though I understood why, it took me longer to fully grasp her critique. I needed to look at more of his work first and form my own opinion.

Over the years, I began to despise his idea of India too. This year, as McCurry was in India promoting a new book, I decided to attend all his talks (at the Jaipur Literature Festival and in Delhi thereafter). While in conversation with Raghu Rai at Bikaner House in central Delhi, McCurry dodged questions about his “outsider gaze and aesthetic” with answers about his early work in conflict zones and how he moved to travelling in India and pitching stories to National Geographic. Everywhere I heard him, he had the same, rehearsed narrative. He never really spoke in detail about an individual photograph, perhaps because he knew he had nothing to say.

McCurry’s questionable ethic draws on subjects who seem happy (perhaps) to be photographed by a foreign tourist who wants to build on a fetish of the underdeveloped world and its supposed charms. Street children, rickshaw pullers, village women in saris – you name it, he had them covered. And not in a manner that expressed any visual interest in their history or ethnography, but more their “value” to the Western world. This value returned to India in the late ’90s, in the form of agency (Reuters, AP, Bloomberg etc.) photography templates. The agencies fed on the fetish, building up a prejudiced and misplaced account of contemporary India.

Bangladesh, 1983. Credit: Steve McCurry

Bangladesh, 1983. Credit: Steve McCurry

 

The altered version of the image above. Credit: Steve McCurry. Author's note: Not only were elements removed, a hand was possibly constructed and added to the child at the right of the frame.

The altered version of the image above. Credit: Steve McCurry. Author’s note: Not only were elements removed, a hand was possibly constructed and added to the child at the right of the frame.

McCurry’s photographs confirm the myth of India’s chaotic, charming “riot” of colour and reduce colour photography to its lowest common denominator. His celebrity is sad, given that we have our own master of colour, Raghubir Singh, to turn to for a more balanced and serious reading of India’s landscape and people.

At an outstanding exhibition, Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s, at the Barbican in late 2012, I saw Singh’s colour photographs in print, on a wall, for the first time. “The fundamental condition of the West is one of guilt, linked to death – from which black is inseparable,” read an introductory quote by Singh. “The fundamental condition of India, however, is the cycle of rebirth, in which colour is… a deep inner source.” This nuanced take on the complexity of colour in a landscape is what makes Singh’s work definitive.

Contrary to Singh’s observational gaze, McCurry was always a tourist, and a shrewd one. He knew what to sell to us, even if it was our own land in a new bottle. In his essay, “A Too-Perfect Picture,” published in The New York Times this year, Teju Cole wrote about the inauthenticity of McCurry’s portrayal of India and his pointed focus on an alternative truth (or fantasy) that edited out present day India’s concerns: “Here’s an old-timer with a dyed beard. Here’s a doe-eyed child in a head scarf. The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were. They are astonishingly boring,” Cole said.

Not all of McCurry’s work is insignificant. Some of it does venture beyond his tradition of merely visiting, and not understanding, a location. But for those of us who have lived in India and travelled, even just a little, it’s clear that oversaturated images are the result of smart post-production technique. This is nothing to be ashamed of, if that’s the note that accompanies the work. McCurry, though, takes pride in his photographs seeming authentic documents of history and exploration. In fact, his gaze is imperialist and his understanding poor, but his confidence and marketing skills – dazzling.

As a photographer with Magnum, the paragon international agency, you assume no McCurry print goes up on a wall without his personal go-ahead. When he was contacted by PetaPixel about his prints, however, McCurry blamed the production “mistake” on a former lab technician. He said that the change in the Cuba image was one “that I would have never authorised,” and “the lab technician who made the mistake does not work with me anymore.” Further, he said he had been away and unable to supervise the prints himself. Yet there’s no longer any denying that McCurry uses Photoshop generously to determine the elements of composition, which is the real, ethical issue. For a visual narrative that is already so steeped in mediocrity, McCurry’s statement only confirms his artistic vision as one that has been focused on the software, not the subject.

Paroma Mukherjee is an independent photographer, currently Photo Editor with Blouin ArtInfo International Monthly Editions.

  • http://instagram.com/chiragwakaskar Chirag Wakaskar

    That he chose to blame someone else for what went on is the most disturbing part of it. Or perhaps the lab assistant just thought it was okay to edit it this way about this particular photo in question as for Mccury this was the norm. Either way I think he wouldve saved much face for many if he had just owned up to it.

  • stevefotos

    You are quite right. McCurry presents a world of pleasant primitive peoples. Cuba like India is a place full of ‘others’ whose colorful clothes and buildings exist outside of the bourgeois universe. Picturesque poverty always sells because it alludes to the need of these others for the stronger, wise white westerners imperialists. This is visual colonialism. That McCurry blamed the Photoshop error or errors on an assistant is just what a superior person would say. It is always the fault of the little people.

  • Bonxore

    I’m just glad that while he is being called out for the photoshop stuff – which to me is rather inconsequential – people are also calling him out for his boring work that works to exoticize others and exhibits a lack of depth. His overall worldview that comes through is the thing that has always bothered me – so good on you – this is the best piece I’ve seen on the issue.

  • Stephen McNulty

    A strong opinion about the ethics of photography? Fine. But the personal attacks on McCurry and his understanding of other cultures was way over the line. I’ve never met a more educated man and he certainly has a great depth of knowledge about the countries in which he works and the people he’s photographing. He reads voraciously and is constantly on the phone with various contacts around the world to keep on top of the issues as they develop. He is not a conflict photographer, though he has put himself in harms way many times. He chooses to celebrate the positivity in these locals, not focus on the negativity. Steve is quiet and reserved by nature, particularly so after 15 hour flights. Considering the thousands of appearances he’s made, and the number of times he’s had to recount his stories of course he’s going to settle on elevator speeches – it’s regrettable the author’s sense of entitlement to a unique interaction was not satisfied.

    He does not do his own photoshopping. Neither does Art Wolfe. They are photographers, not photo editors. And as photographers how they compose their images is their prerogative. The edits made do not change the context, intent, or narrative of the images – they simply complete the vision of the photographer. If the consumer doesn’t like his style, don’t buy his books. But skewering him and trying to tear down decades of dedication to his craft is heinous and likely the product of jealousy.

    • Marta Mara Paglianni

      Stephen, I agree with you about the personal attacks been over the top. But any assistants, DOP, or a digital tech person working for a photojournalist or editorial photographer would never take the liberty of changing the meaning of the image by taking or adding new details to it without the OK of the photographer. Also the rest of the things about him been a nice giving person, in harms way, 15 hours of traveling, all the appearances is gratuitous since many photographers have similar life style. Is a pity since his work, without any digital change, is strong on its own.

  • http://www.nevervoid.com/ Antony Pratap

    It’s the visuals end of the day.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Mhhh your article certainly leaves some bitter taste about McCurry’s work. However, most of your ideas are very simplified versions of the very complex and multidimensional article of teju cole. Your article falls short with the simplistic hypothesis: western photographers are bad and they fake images and only an Indian can take pictures of the real India.

  • sejtam

    What? I find it quite easy to do this when walking somewhat fast (espciallu up stairs). One foot pushes me off (toes just left the lower step) while the other foot has not yet touched down.

  • WhatLooksGoodMustBeGood

    Small issue, but the whole left side looks cloned as well (too many similarities aligned in line, bush-grass-water)

    There is a forensic tool (with many limitation, https://29a.ch/photo-forensics/#clone-detection) that can be used to detect some of the not-well-done cloning like in this case. Did not have much time just got a random picture of his magnum collection to play around a bit, and it could reveal that a window/poster was removed from the small hut in the background.

    When something became too commercial, it always loose value on the way.

  • Sanjukta Basu

    I always thought people have only good things to say about Steve. This came as a surprise. A very harsh criticism not supported by enough specific examples. But it does open questions of photoshop/post processing in photography. I am learning to be a feminist photographer with mostly interested in travel and documentary photography. I use post processing for small things like exposure, noise reduction but I cannot even do major things like adding removing elements. If you totally alter the reality by photoshop then how is it documentary photography?

    • Mridha Saiful Islam Sujan

      Your points are good, but I see your this part “totally alter the reality” is very rare in terms of using real photography. Removing a hand portion can never stay with the statement at all. Manipulation is okay, and it should be, till the story or outcome story remains the same as intended. If you are gathering much expertise in your paths of photography, you must crop your photos are remove some portion useless from your original one besides color-contrast correction, don’t you? I believe – you do, and of course you should; to get a better output finally- for a better presentation.

  • Marta Mara Paglianni

    Mario that is a very lame point. If 4 legged horses at one point can
    have all their hooves off the ground then is even easier for a two
    legged human to do it too.

  • Marta Mara Paglianni

    “His gaze is imperialist and his understanding of the locations he visits poor, but his confidence and marketing skills – dazzling.”

    Your title went all the way to the moon with exaggeration and perhaps, you would have made your point better without been so anti-McCurry or anti-Western.

    When I look at the photo I see a meek looking photographer behind a sword yielding Indian man with strong gazing eyes, ready for the kill and proud of his actions.

    1. “He likes his colours strong, his backgrounds exotic, his audience happy….picturesque, touristy, professional visuals for mass consumption.”
    Instead of wars, famine, sad looking people? That is what travelers like to see and NGeo is not TIME, LIFE or Le Figaro or Stern magazine. Also the western world is all about consumption.

    2. “It’s obvious to anyone who comes across a McCurry photograph that something about it is out of the ordinary”
    You mean the whole world and all his work?

    3. “I was exposed to a world of great photographers by our fine educator Jeroo Mulla… she despised McCurry’s work..Over the years, I began to despise his idea of India too.”
    So she was your mentor and you follow suit.

    4. “Everywhere I heard him, he had the same, rehearsed narrative.”
    Do you know that most people do the same speech over and over while traveling and given speeches across the world.

    5. “McCurry’s questionable ethic draws on subjects who seem happy (perhaps) to be photographed by a foreign tourist who wants to build on a fetish of the underdeveloped world and its supposed charms. Street children,not in a manner that expressed any visual interest in their history or ethnography, but more their “value” to the Western world.”
    Sounds like what most Western photographer would do and for the western world.

    The only thing we agree is that he made is terrible mistake by blaming his assistant in at least a couple occasions. Assistants never change by adding or taking away anything from the original photo without getting permission from the photographer. Still that should not take away the strong catalog that he has created across the years.

  • Sachin Shrestha

    Poorly articulated criticism than a well balanced critique. While Steve McCurry probably should have fessed up instead of blaming an assistant which only makes the situation worse, using Photoshop to present your final vision to your intended audience is not a grave sin. It’s only one of the tools available to you. He presents his work the same way a director would present a fictional feature film – carefully staged, art-directed and photographed. You may not like the film or agree with the director’s vision but that does not invalidate the medium, the tools and the vision itself. The context within which this is viewed is also important. His work is not documentary or photojournalistic. The alteration is not changing the intended meaning behind the work.

  • HuskerFan_1

    This has all been discussed years ago by two anthropologists who had carte blanc access to Nat. Geo. in the late 80s/early 90s. They would never be granted the kind of access they acquired during that period, today. If so, they would find far worse institutional offense than they did back then (e.g. having subjects put on false attire so, that the photo would be coffee table worthy for your kids and granny to view.). It’s all in their critical analysis.

    Go buy their book:
    http://www.amazon.com/Reading-National-Geographic-Catherine-Lutz/dp/0226497240

    There’s nothing new here to discuss.

    Now, if folks would finally wake up and go after the money-printing-machine Joel Sartore and all of his unethical photographic behaviors, you’d more than likely really have a true scandal to talk about, but since he photographs cute cuddly animals these days who are on the verge of extinction, he’s a hero rather than the photographic Satan. This guy’s been setting up images for 30 years, working the “save the planet” angle to the tune of millions of dollars in profits for himself, and worst of all appropriating images and photographic ideas/style from just about everyone else’s work he’s ever looked at (e.g. J. Balog animals near extinction on white or black backgrounds for Nat. Geo. in the early 90s. Sartore’s cowboy images look almost like exact copies of S. Abell and W. A. Allard’s previous works, etc.).

  • Amit Bhargava

    I am told that a picture for McCurry’s “Monsoon” was allegedly staged and photographed on roof of USIS library on Kasturba Gandhi Marg in New Delhi on a dry day! Beyond the Afghan Girl, Steve McCurry seems a big scandal unfolding now…

    That said, your criticism about wires is misplaced. Bloomberg may be least bothered about ethics and I can say that from my first hand experience of reporting such incidents result of which was not only they stopped working with me.

    Associated Press, where I worked more than 1 1/2 decades ago has a clearly defined Code of Ethics for Photojournalists http://goo.gl/X8JLGm . It does fire those who are caught, but you scratch my back and I scratch yours work culture is allegedly fast creeping in the work ethics of AP. A so called “award winning” photographer was hired by AP fully aware that he was fired by EPA for unethical work practices. You know the guy from Kashmir I am talking about?

    And there is an internationally acclaimed “Award Winning” women photographer who came to India at the start of this century, worked for the largest picture source in the world today, and allegedly photoshopped and cleverly misrepresented her images. Also sat on the jury of one of the most prestigious photo contest.

    The list is endless. No outsider will come and do the cleaning…
    Those blowing the whistle are considered untouchables here.

  • Lc Goodfellow

    “Not to dismiss a critic’s work, but criticising something is easy – doing it is another matter entirely.”

  • Lc Goodfellow

    Hi ! I’m back, ” Not to dismiss a critic’s work, but criticising something is easy – doing it is another matter entirely. ”

    ” It’s a Jungle out here “

  • Lc Goodfellow

    … and you really think you know the ‘Business’ ? “An Editor doesn’t pick a photo, picture, because he/ she, likes it. They pick a good photo because they need it !

  • Lc Goodfellow

    You need a picture, you do what you have to do !

  • Lc Goodfellow

    I used to be a people person until people ruined it.

  • RickJ

    The issue absent from all these discussions is the fact that McCurry
    denied manipulating photos for years and told everyone that would cross
    an “ethical line.” While he is now claiming that he is just a “visual
    storyteller” and people were confused, he consistently said the opposite
    in interviews. Below is one on YouTube. Go to 32:30 where he says you
    have to follow the AP and New York Times guidelines for your photos.

    #FanChat wFamed Photojournalist Steve Mccurry

  • Varun Joel

    A lot is being said about how Mccurry edits his images. Paroma if you think color correction or dragging the Saturation bar to the right is photo ‘manipulation’, I think you’re taking it a bit too far. But of course, there are images where a whole person or lamp post has been removed. McCurry’s response too that was satisfactory I thought. That these days he clicks pictures for fun and mostly on his own time. There isn’t must of a story in a man pulling a rickshaw with people on it. He clicked it coz he liked what I saw. The tone of your article suggests that McCurry is a very average photographer who became world famous coz he uses photoshop. Lemme tell you, the places he’s been and the pictures he’s clicked, not many can do that. He’s a world class artist who’s given us some of the most compelling images I’ve seen. You finding them boring is totally your POV.

    Yes, most people expect that a picture by him in photo-journalistic in nature. Hence the uproar about photo manipulation. But he did say he’d clarify. He’s a visual artist who paints a very pretty picture. It doesn’t become any less good just coz there isn’t a ‘story’ behind it. I think we over-intellectualize photography by looking for a story in every photo.

    You don’t like his work. You’ve made that very clear. But he’s inspired millions, including me. And your diatribe wouldn’t change that.

  • Amit RJ Photography

    Deepak, you would have to practice photography and read about it more to understand your question on ‘Photoshop’. A good place to start are the seminal books by Ansel Adams – Camera, Negative and Print.

    Steve McCurry has accomplished a lot as a photog. He is a good example to follow if you want to develop your eye further.