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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Unguarded Moment

Steve McCurry’s personal approach has created a career of stunning photographs of people from around the world

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Farmer in front of the Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1998
“I think my brain is sort of thinking of these different elements simultaneously,” he says, “but the one that’s at the forefront, the one that’s most important to me is the story or the human element or some emotional component that may make some comment on the human condition. We’re all human; we’re all in this experience together. We kind of want to share our experience and compare it to other people. When you’re photographing something that’s purely about design, what’s that about?”

Deliberately eschewing precious style in favor of creating personal connections, simplicity of approach becomes as much a tool as any camera technique might be. For McCurry, obvious technique clouds a successful image rather than enhancing it.

“I’m trying to get beyond some clever artifice,” he explains, “a particular way of printing or black-and-white or the tilt of the camera or something where you think, ‘Well, that’s kind of cool,’ but there’s no substance, it’s totally style. I try and work in a way that’s more about the soul of something. It’s not flashy and gaudy or overproduced. It’s just something simple, something minimal.

“I think it’s important not to draw attention to one’s technique and let the picture speak for itself,” McCurry continues. “Let the viewer get absorbed in the emotion or the story that you’re trying to tell. As soon as you start thinking about the particular lens, particular filter or some clever lighting technique, it takes the attention away from the picture. I’ve never been really interested in the technical side of, well, of anything for that matter, but particularly photography. I know enough about the camera, I know enough about the craft to do my work, but it’s not something I really dwell on. I use a simple camera and a couple of lenses. To light things and all that nonsense, that becomes more like work. Whereas when you’re just working with the light, working with what you have, then it becomes a lot more fun. And I think you get a better sense of life.

Slightly extended exposure of a railway station captures the scene’s ambient lighting.
“Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész would only use one or two lenses and work mostly in available light,” he says. “I think the simplicity creates this timeless quality. There’s a freshness, an offhanded quality to it.

McCurry works primarily with ambient light and he says more than 90 percent of his pictures are made with prime lenses—the 35mm and 50mm especially, although he shoots with zoom lenses now. Technical minimalism is something he doesn’t often see from other photographers, particularly those in his workshops. Students forget the basics of simple equipment, simple technique and simple humanity that are the foundation of McCurry’s entire body of work.

“With students, now and then,” he says, “it’s more about the photography when it should be more about experiencing life and observing. They have all this equipment and they’re trying to take everything they can possibly carry so there’s not anything that can get past their lens. It’s almost a burden. I was out with some people, and they kind of raced up to this person and started clicking and they didn’t say hello. They didn’t say hello, they didn’t say goodbye, there wasn’t any kind of communication or niceties.”

It’s the basic human interaction, the spirit of a pleasant afternoon spent exploring, that really enables McCurry to make the connections he seeks to photograph. These skills, not camera skills, per se, allow him to distill his unguarded moments. He insists a practically leisurely approach is paramount.


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