Hey, have you ever attended a seminar given by Steve McCurry and forgot to bring something to write with? Or write on? Me too! Fortunately it was such a memorable time that I think I could recount it word for word (which I’ll spare you from doing).
You may not recognize his name, but probably know his pictures. McCurry started his career shooting for National Geographic, and this is probably his most well-known image. (I’d display his images in this post, but you can’t use them without permission).
The session he led at the PhotoPlus conference was called The Photo Story: From Conception to Completion. It started off as you would expect, with him describing how you should think about your story with a cinematic, overview approach. Conceptualizing the long shot, then medium shots of people doing things, such as craftsmen at work; then moving on to close-ups and portraits of individuals. As he was talking he’d show one of his images to illustrate the point he was making.
Then he encouraged us to be less formal with him, and ask questions as he was speaking. Any question we wanted. And that’s when the flood gates opened. For the next 2.5 hours we peppered him with questions: How did he start working for NatGeo? He took his portfolio to them and they gave him two assignments – one in India, one in Pakistan. Had he ever been arrested? Yes, several times. Had he ever had his equipment stolen? Yes. Does he use film anymore? No, only digital. What does he shoot with? Hasselblad and a Nikon. Does he use a tripod? No, he’s able to crank the ISO high enough where he doesn’t need one. Does he hire a translator in countries where he doesn’t speak the language? Yes. What’s it like for women photographers to work in countries where they are less than second class citizens (that was my question!). Women would probably have greater access to shoot than male photographers, because men are forbidden to around women.
And then he said something that bowled me over: he shoots in auto mode. I thought maybe I’d misunderstood him, but, he repeated it several times. STEVE MCCURRY SHOOTS IN AUTO MODE? He said that cameras were so advanced these days that there was no reason for him to second guess the aperture or shutter speed, and that it always freaked people out when he made that statement.
One of the things about him that really impressed me was that despite being as well-known as he is, he was still very much focused on the social documentary aspect of photography. He strongly encouraged everyone to go to Tibet, and see what was happening there. And emphasized that the photos we’re taking are marking a place in history, whether we realize it or not.
He also encouraged us to take the picture when you see it, because there may not be another opportunity to get it. Case in point was this photo. He said he was looking for a different way to capture an image of the Taj Mahal, and had spent several days in the area trying this shot and that one. It occurred to him that an interesting shot would be of the train going past the building. He went back several years later to try to shoot a similar shot, and the railroad had been ripped up and replaced with a housing development.
His talk went over by an hour, and none of us were anxious to leave. If you ever have the chance to listen to him talk, I’d strongly recommend going.