More Than Expected
Have you wondered, “Will I ever
take a great picture?” Taking one
iconic picture in a lifetime is enough
for most photographers, but what if
you took enough to fill an entire book?
Well, you would be Steve McCurry.
-A Glass of Champagne
When I told my girlfriend that Steve McCurry was having a book signing at Phaidon, she said, “Am I supposed to know who that is?” I assured her, ” You know at least ten of his pictures, even if you don’t know his name.”
She typed in his name into Google and said “Oh yeah, the guy who took that picture of that Afgan girl for National Geographic.” Scanning through his thumbnails, she knew his work and had stories of her own to go with each picture. One after another, her trips through South East Asia were connected to his images, even though she had no idea who he was.
Most of us would be happy to have one of Steve’s photos in our portfolios. His pictures are direct, easy to understand, and they make us feel connected to places we’ve never been. His images are of everyday people, living their lives the best way they know how. Whether they live in a war zone or a monastery, there are moments of beauty that exist in everyone’s life. His pictures come from half way around the world, but they are accessible and speak a language we can all understand.
When Phaidon|Store announced that Steve was hosting a book signing and cocktail hour I knew it was worth attending. Why go to a book signing swarmed with people hoping to get a few moments in with a famous photographer? I had a hunch that Steve was going to be a decent guy, without an inflated ego, and would be willing to impart some wisdom on a younger generation of photographers.
For those of you who have never been to Phaidon’s Store (83 Wooster Street) it is worth a visit. Last winter they opened a pop up store on the same block to introduce their approach to publishing. Instead of tilting your head to scan the mess at Barnes and Noble, Phaidon is a hands-on exhibit of photography, art, and design books.
After a successful test run, the store moved into a larger space down the road. The books are on display with their covers out, right side up, and not wrapped in plastic. Trevor Brown, a charismatic englishman who oversees the operation, says people spend up to three hours browsing the collection. No one will rush you out, ask you to buy anything, or tell you its time to go. Their mission is to expand the appreciation for art books, selling them is secondary.
Since its creation in 1923, Phaidon has made books and limited edition art works because they believe everyone loves art, but not everyone wants to invest a fortune to own it. Another photographer they work with, Jeff Wall, recently sold a piece at Christie’s for over $300,000. They offer a limited edition print of his for under $4,000.
All their books are art projects in themselves. Many of the books take a few years from start to finish. They vary in sizes, covers, and materials which are individually selected for each book. The added treat for customers is the opportunity to buy prints from famous photographers like Nan Goldin, Stephen Shore, or Steve McCurry without having to re-finance the mortgage on their homes.
By the time Steve arrived, the store was nearly full. Photographers, a video crew, and a host of eager admirers were waiting for the event to begin. After a few short words from Trevor Brown, Steve welcomed everyone and said that he would be happy to answer questions as he was signing books. Waiting off to the side, I snapped some pictures as an enormous line took shape.
The most surprising thing was the personal attention Steve gave to each person on line. He listened to stories about how his work inspired people, how his images meant so much to others, and a pile of technical questions that come with being a world famous photographer. For over an hour and a half the line kept coming and Steve stuck with it. Maybe this is not so surprising to people because everyone should be nice to their fans, right? Yes, they should, but they are not.
There was one question I wanted to ask Steve, because for me, the most influential aspect of his work is, he shoots the world in color. I was curious to understand why in 1978, when most serious photo journalists were shooting black and white, he decided to use color?
Before winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal or four World Press Photo Awards, Steve was a newspaper man from Philadelphia. He said no one in his family travelled much and heading to India for a six weeks as a 28 year old sounded like a good idea. He ended up staying for two years, without coming home. If you were a customs officer inspecting his bags, you would have known this was a man on a mission. One bag was packed with clothes, while the other bag was filled to the brim with 250 rolls of Kodachrome film. While he admits that his favorite part of photography is working without a script, he at least knew the story would be in vibrant color.
As he signed a book for my sister, he told me taking color film was “A no brainer.” The colors of Asia and his desire to work for National Geographic meant that he had to work in color, even if it was against the grain of high brow photo journalism. Thirty years later with over one million slides, ten books, and more awards than I’ve had birthdays, it appears to have been a good choice.
-Why Buy Photography Books
Its easy to find Steve’s work on the internet. Between his website, Magnum Photo, and National Geographic, you might wonder why its worth buying an actual book. Aside from the shear pleasure of flipping through the pages and sucking up all the color in each image, photo books are a closest thing to studying contact sheets.
Throughout his entire life Henri Cartier Bresson gave the same advice to young photographers “Study the contacts and look at them upside down. “ Unless you feel like flipping your laptop on its head or practicing inverted yoga posses, buying a book is the best way to study someone’s images. And for the fraction of a price of an actual photo they will afford you more money for plane tickets and develop your work in the most unexpected ways.
I want to thank Liz Thompson and Trevor Brown, of Phiadon, for allowing me to cover the event. They went out of their way to give me a better understanding of Phaidon and deepen my appreciation for the books on my shelf. And Steve McCurry for his pictures, his efforts and for listening to all of our question.
For more information on Steve McCurry
A retrospective of Steve McCurry’s work opens tomorrow at Casal Solleric, Palma de Mallorca (16 June – 4 September). The exhibition spans the breadth of McCurry’s work over the last three decades.