On authenticity in (travel) photography: the McCurry vs Singh “case”

As you must know by now, The Visual Traveler is as much about travel as it is about travel photography. I may have said here in the past that making photos is one of the main reasons why I love to visit new places.

I don’t think I have that, to some extent understandable, urge to capture everything I see on my travels. It’s just that I love discovering new places and people as much as I love photography.  And the combination of both of these passions in a single experience makes me enjoy my travels all the more.

This is why I felt quite strongly about a piece that appeared on the New York Times recently. Its author is Teju Cole, whose work I’m not familiar with, but who has earned an apparently well-deserved reputation as a writer and photography critic.

You may want to check out the article first to see what you make of it and then come back (don’t forget to come back!). If you don’t feel like heading there right now, what you need to know is that the article basically tears down the work of one of the world’s best known photographers, Steve McCurry.

While I love Steve McCurry’s work, he’s far from being my favorite photographer. If pushed, I don’t think I’d even consider him to be among my top ten photographers.

So it’s not like I felt somehow personally attacked by Cole’s ferocious criticism of one of my idols. However, McCurry is one of the photographers who have contributed the most to my passion for both travel and photography. Few people have shown like he has the beauty and diversity of the world we live in. His photos just make you want to go there.

“Boring, clichéd and prejudiced” you say?

In short, here’s what I think about the NYT piece. If you’re going to say McCurry’s photography is “astonishingly boring”, and suggest that it’s not good but “weaker” because it follows “compositional cliché” and “caters to some previous prejudice”, you’re going to have to make a far better case than this article does.

In his line of reasoning, Cole opposes McCurry’s supposedly inferior photography to that by the now late Indian photographer Raghubir Singh. Now, I must admit I’d not heard of Singh before, which is amazing because he’s a great photographer and his style is right up my alley.

If one compares the two images by each photographer used by Cole to substantiate his opinions, you could almost agree with him. And when I stumbled upon Singh’s “Monsoon Women” and compared it with McCurry’s far better known “Dust Storm”, I was almost ready to dump McCurry’s work into the dustbin of photography … Not really, but look at this:

R. Singh. Monsoon women.

R. Singh. Monsoon women.

Women in dust storm

S. McCurry. Dust storm. Rajasthan.

You can see what Cole maybe means. Singh would aim to capture the grit and soul of real life, while McCurry would only serve an embellished and clichéd version of it.

But then I kept looking at Singh’s work, and found many photographs like this one, which someone like McCurry could have signed easily:

Wedding party near bridge

R. Singh. Howrah Bridge, Kolkata.

And this is where we see Cole is being nothing but deliberately provocative, or simply carrying out a disguised ad hominem attack on McCurry. Because looking at this, and many other photos by Singh and McCurry, it is pretty obvious they are working along the same continuum.

Street scene

R. Singh. Mirror shop, Howrah.

It is true that Singh’s work on India may be closer to the mainstream, photojournalistic (or is it documentary?) tradition of “street photography”, of which I consider David Alan Harvey and Alex Webb to be outstanding modern icons, and two of my favorite photographers too. Take for instance this image by Webb:

Street scene, Haiti

A. Webb. Street scene, Haiti.

You can see the exquisite use of color, the masterful interplay between visual planes (foreground-middle ground-background) and the attempt to capture a scene that feels, and most likely was, unposed and “authentic” (whatever this means).

This is probably in contrast with the core of McCurry’s work on India, which looks more staged and somewhat artificial. I think it’s neither, but simply saying that would be one thing. Another, very different one, is to go as far as to suggest McCurry’s images don’t portray at least part of the reality of India. That seems to be one of Cole’s main charges against McCurry.

And yet, anyone who’s been to India even only once, as I have, will know this is nonsense. Even nowadays (probably much more so in the last century, when McCurry did a large part of this work) you will bump into scenes and people like those captured by McCurry wherever you go in India.

Despite that indisputable fact, Cole argues that McCurry’s photographs reveal a fake worldview based on fantasy, not reality. To that I say it’s not as much a worldview as a photographer’s personal take. It’s not meant to be all-embracing nor definitive, even if one may easily fall into the trap of thinking it is.

Of course India is much more than that. Is McCurry’s personal vision less true or valid? I don’t think so.

What’s authentic in (travel) photography anyway?

If you’re not familiar with it, take a look at photojournalist Peter Turnley’s work about Paris. This is his personal, not photojournalistic work. I’d say it’s documentary photography with a healthy dose of fine art.

P. Turnley. La brasserie de l'Ile St.Louis, Paris.

P. Turnley. La brasserie de l’Ile St.Louis, Paris.

Does it look to you nostalgic, sweetened and overly reliant (to Cole’s taste, I presume) on composition rules? Maybe.

Does that mean Turnley’s work doesn’t represent, at least partially, the realities of modern life in Paris? No way, of course it does. The Paris he portrays very much exists. I know that because I’ve lived there for a few years.

And Turnley definitely knows, because he’s lived there for decades, that Paris is much more than that. He’s just giving us his personal view, the way he sees and chooses to show us Paris as a city of love, romance and quaint, nostalgic charm.

Although there are obvious differences with Turnley’s work (beyond the obvious choice of black and white vs color), I think the same could be argued about McCurry’s view of India.

That’s why I think Cole’s criticism is deeply misguided. He’s entitled to his opinion, it goes without saying. But did he really need to debase to that extent the work of one of the most influential photographers of the last few decades? I don’t think so.

What do you guys think?

Have you ever felt the photos you’d seen before visiting a country misrepresented it? Do you ever consciously make an effort to avoid capturing images that may seem clichéd or not authentic?

P.S. Here are some links for those who may be unfamiliar with the work of some of the photographers discussed here: Raghubir SinghSteve McCurryDavid Alan HarveyAlex WebbPeter Turnley.

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