Soni Wadhwa
May 23, 2016 · 4 min read

Steve McCurry, Photography and Realism

The Infamous Cuba Photograph

The “botched up” picture from Steve McCurry’s recent exhibition, which in turn led to a few more investigations into his oeuvre, is a typical example of how the arts are segregated and consumed. We expect different things from different art forms, and apply different kinds of norms and rigour to each form. We engage into a different kind of artistic philosophy with each form. We gain a lot of specificity in the process and begin to enjoy the differences and the variety in pleasure, thought, and reflection vis-à-vis aesthetic experience. But don’t we lose a bit in terms of a holistic approach to all of these?

One of the things seen as objectionable in McCurry’s pictures is the commission of omission — missing poles, missing child, missing carts, missing passengers and the recreation of a missing hand, to name a few things recognized to be absent yet. McCurry’s critics use these missing points to make the case for unethical representation, falsity, tweaking, photoshopping and the like to showcase the subject in ways that betray stereotyping or exoticism meant for the consumption by Western audiences. All of this may be true in different degrees but this also opens up the question of an optic comparison with another visual art medium, that of painting.

Do we question The Mona Lisa’s background, her context or the lack of these? Do we object to the absence of the rest of her body in the frame? This is not to suggest that perhaps The Mona Lisa was posing with her mother and Leonardo cut her out! This is also not to treat McCurry’s pictures and The Mona Lisa at the same level. This is only to highlight how we consume these images differently and expect different framing from them.

This analogy might make another point clearer: it is assumed that the person with the brush has a greater sense of freedom and power and a heightened aesthetic sensibility to focus on certain elements, represent them in a particular way and ‘edit out’ ones not deemed necessary or adding any substance to what has been ‘edited in’. It is assumed that the person behind the camera has no such license. The frame as captured by the photographer via the camera becomes frozen. A few cosmetic changes maybe allowed to help enhance the image but these are self-evidently not universal. Otherwise, controversies like McCurry’s would not have happened.

Of course, such conditions do not always apply to all kinds of photography — abstract photography, for instance and McCurry’s critics might very well argue that the question of reality and realism applies very strongly in this case because these images are loaded with issues of representation, gaze and power. And while we reflect on these issues, it is also important to raise concerns around two more things — camera/technology as an agency in itself and realism as facticity.

If we preserve the image as it was ‘captured’ by the camera and insist on its display and consumption in terms of its origins and originality, the photographer as a decision-maker becomes redundant. This ties in very well with the disruptive impact of technology on photography but that’s only one of the larger narratives. With episodes like McCurry’s, it is also about elements of artificial intelligence (the camera, the programme) being made into artists. This is not to judge the scenario as inherently good or bad or scary but as oh-boy-we-are-already-here!

The idea of realism or mimesis is as old as, at least, Plato. This preoccupation with things as they are, as slice of life, is what defines realism, among other things. With photography, it becomes enmeshed further into — oh, this is a photograph of a girl and so the presence of the girl and all the constituents of the photograph were a fact. That is, the girl did indeed come together with the particular milieu at that particular point in time — such an event really happened. Seeing what happened at such a crude level brings us closer to the hold of imagination in the creative process — the girl and her context is real. Nothing has been imagined. It’s real; it’s objective and (unfortunately?) that’s the end of it. No role of imagination at all in (documentary) photography.

Steve McCurry is thus a fascinating case for thinking about how art works or is made to work. Both his critics and his supporters may be correct in their own ways. This relativist angle will surely gain a lot from a discussion about volitional dimensions of technology and our perception of imagination in the aesthetic of photography.

Probably a time to look at American Gothic or Whistler’s Mother again? Along with V-J Day in Times Square or Bibi Aisha.

More From Medium

Top on Medium

Top on Medium

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade