Jan 202012

McCurry, Kubota, and Scianna

What happens when three famous

photographers stand in front of the

same scene?  Is it possible to determine

a winner?

McCurry BURMA. Kyaiktiyo. 1994. Golden rock. The Shwe Pye Daw, a holy place. Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos.

Kubota BURMA. Kyaiktiyo. The Golden Rock at Shwe Pyi Daw (the "Golden Country"), the Buddhist holy place. 1978. Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos


There are days when we walk outside and know, I mean know in our bones, that a picture is standing in front of us.  Whether these image rich environments are at home or a thousand miles away, we each have a place which resinates with us.  The challenge is taking that ball of energy and letting it come through the picture.  A good photographer can pass their excitement of a scene right through the lens and into the viewer.

Different interpretations on the theme of David by: Bernini, Michelangelo, Donatello.


Great artists, throughout history, have tackled the same subjects.  Its a rite of passage, when a younger artist challenges their mentors.  We must all go attempt to outdo our masters at some point.  But what I have found particularly interesting is when two artists, who are working in the same era, approach nearly identical scenes.  The finished photographs always read differently.  Usually one is stronger than the other, but I will let you decide which images work better.

Hiroji Kubota on the left and Steve McCurry on the right.


A good habit to practice when looking at a photograph is to AVOID at all costs saying “I like it” or “I dont like it.”  In art school we were forbidden in critiques from using those phrases.  Why?  It is not because our teachers were totalitarian dictators hell bent on instilling words of propganda from our still-forming art mouths.  They wanted to show us what happens when we were forced to search for a vocabulary to properly describe the visual language.  We needed to understand that the Visual Language is a real language, like Sanskrit, Greek or French.  It is not simply a collection of symbols which excite a preference for “Liking.”

Ferdinando Scianna on the left and Steve McCurry on the right.


As you look at these parallel images ask yourself a few questions.  In fact, you can ask yourself more than I am suggesting here, but these will be enough to start the conversation.

Scianna COLOMBIA, Leticia des las tres fronteras. (c) Ferdinando Scianna:Magnum Photos


  • What is the picture doing?
  • What verbs are captured in the image?  (Avoid talking about a photograph as if you were describing it to a blind person.  No one needs to hear “There is a figure on the left, holding a blue bag, with one foot forward and the other was on a box.” Only a blind man needs these details.  Talk about what the Picture is doing.)
  • Is the picture clear and easy to understand?
  • Are the any extra details which do not add to the picture?
  • Who is the subject? And why are they the subject and not something else in the scene?
  • Are there any details missing which make the picture confusing?

Burma. Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

As an example, I might describe McCurry’s Snake photograph as doing this:

The image establishes the role of a mother protecting her child.  This is emphasized by the mother cradling the child, above the floor, as a snake passes below their bodies.  The picture is telling us, in visual terms, how the role of a MOTHER, exists in the visual realm.  By setting the figures on opposing diagonals, there is a contrasting sense of movement as the gazing direction of the subjects looks in opposite directions. All of these design elements reinforce the concept (or content) of the image which is commentary on a mother/child relationship.  It is a success harmony of design and content with no superfluous details.  McCurry gives a sense of Place in the photograph through the small amount of information we get from the visual cues of the wooded floor, subjects ethnicity/dress, the hammock, and the snake.

I will leave the rest of the images to you all to compare and interpret.  Let me know who you think did a better job with the scenes.

Best-Adam Marelli


  8 Responses to “When Titans Collide”

  1. Hi Adam,
    Another exercise. Let me try to read the ‘Golden Rock’ compositions:

    Kubota’s version has the subject stand out. The rock , though, smaller is more brighter because of the light illuminating the subject from the front, and the contrast with the blue sky. McCurry’s version has a larger but more subdued subject. The subject is also lit from two sides – I don’t know where the light on the left side comes from. The subject looks more eerie and in a sense like devil-worship. The rock has a face-like profile, and the prayers happen at dusk/night time. In my view, Kubota’s version shows the rock like God and McCurry’s version shows the rock like the devil.

    Waiting for other readers’ comments.

    Mo Han

    • Hey Mo Han,

      You are off to a good start. In both picture the Rock is certainly the main focus. It has the highest greatest contrast of light and dark. McCurry’s picture edges out Kubota for a few reasons.
      1. McCurry eliminates all of the unneeded visual elements, like the gold leafing below the Rock by taking the picture after sunset.
      2. The highlight on McCurry’s rock is on the right side, which allows the monks to be a part of the image. Kubuta’s sitting monks play such a minor role, that they barely impact the photo.
      3. In McCurry’s shot we are given an Aspective view of a monk, so even though they are quite small in comparison to the Rock they still read as a clear outline of a human body. Kubota again has sitting monks, who do not read well visually.

      3-0 I’d say McCurry wins, Kubota would have done better if he bent his knees and came back later in the afternoon. Timing can be everything in a picture. While Kubota’s picture is not bad in any way, the difference between a good picture and a great picture lies in subtle differences.

      Thanks Mo Han…

      • Hi Adam,
        I agree that McCurry’s image is more powerful. It has a little less contrast, but the face-like profile and the lighting (natural) gives the rock a mammoth presence. My reference to the devil is not to be taken literally. It is more like a mammoth. Something too big and maybe fearsome. The prayers offered by the monks tend to echo this thought.

        Kubota’s image may have more meaning if the way the monks pray (sitting) has some different social meaning in Japan. It is not obvious. To me it appears that they pray for the rock to fall (or not to fall).

        Mo Han

  2. To me the McCurry image is much more powerful – the shape of the rock and cliff as well as the monks makes for an abstract geometric composition that is very tight and effective. Also the tone in the image is uniformly warm which adds cohesiveness.

    The Kubota image is sort of a pullback that shows us how the monks are dwarfed by the sheer size of the rock and cliff but the space on the left is sort of ‘dead’ and the rock looks like it was spray painted gold. The lighting is very cold and doesn’t create the mood that the other image does.

    • Hi Debra,

      Thank you for the feedback. I believe most people would agree with your comments here. McCurry’s work does seem to prevail in this image. Always great to see how people see the same scene differently and how one tends to make a stronger picture.

      I wonder if Kubota went back, whether he would have a different view of the scene?


  3. The McCurry version of the rock image initially appealed more to me because of the much nicer colours.

    However, in terms of composition, I feel that the Kubota version offers more emotional power. By showing some sky above part of the rock, Kubota gives the rock the potential of rolling off the cliff. The triangular shaped gold leafing is like a staircase further suggesting the potential of the rock falling off. The monks to the right appear to be praying for the rock to not fall off. They form a united shape as if they were using an invisible rope to pull back the rock. In contrast, the one monk in McCurry’s image that sits, destroys any unity / rhythm the other standing monks may have provided.

    I think my favourite image would have Kubota’s composition and McCurry’s colours.

  4. I like both.
    Just kidding.

    One thing, balance.

    The monks give the place it’s character of holy, the wonderful nature’s caprice is in a whole different dimension.

    Kubota’s composition makes the geological phenomenon the main topic of the image, McCurry’s one is destined to monks.

    Please notice that little people make the rock looks huge but fails to show the vast scenario, yeah, that what you consider superfluous (“unneeded visual elements” holy shit!) is an important part of the approach.

    Matter of taste, and that’s it, Las Vegas neon sign wins, against a zen garden, it’s fair? no, not for a single second.

    Kind Regards.

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