The work of world famous photographer Steve McCurry is the colorful, powerful, and — with the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks — timely subject of “Unguarded, Untold, Iconic: Afghanistan through the Lens of Steve McCurry” on view through October 23 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
A highlight of the exhibition is McCurry’s “Afghan Girl,” an image that captivated the world in 1985. But that famous work is just one of many images captured by McCurry during his 35-year career as he supplied photographs for National Geographic, other prominent publications, and books on Afghanistan, India, and Tibet.
Born in Newton Square, just outside of Philadelphia, the 1974 Penn State graduate pursued work as a freelance photographer for a suburban community newspaper. Then in 1979 he made his first trip to Afghanistan. The journey, he says, was inspired in part by James A. Michener, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author for whom the Michener Art Museum is named. The inspiration was Michener’s 1963 novel “Caravans,” a saga set in post-World War II Afghanistan and foreshadowing the conflicts with the Soviet Union and the United States.
“(McCurry’s) career was launched when, disguised in native garb, he crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled Afghanistan just before the Russian invasion,” says his National Geographic biographical statement. “When he emerged, he had rolls of film sewn into his clothes and images that would be published around the world as among the first to show the conflict there. His coverage won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad, an award dedicated to photographers exhibiting exceptional courage and enterprise.”
McCurry then devoted his career to covering areas of international and civil conflicts in Beirut, Cambodia, the Philippines, Persian Gulf, former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. His focus on the human consequences of war shows not only what war impresses on the landscape but on the human face. It was in India that McCurry learned to watch and wait on life. “If you wait,” he says, “people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.”
“This striking exhibition invites our visitors of all ages to envision and understand daily life in a country where circumstances are dramatically, harshly different than here in Bucks County, Pennsylvania,” says Lisa Tremper Hanover, director and CEO of the Michener. “This globally themed exhibition of work by a renowned Philadelphia-born photographer will most certainly invite personal contemplation as well as public dialogue.”
McCurry’s famous “Afghan Girl” was taken in 1984 when he was on assignment on the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Afghan girl had escaped to a refugee camp in Pakistan. Only 13 years old at the time of the photo, her identity was unknown, though her face was recognized throughout the world. The photo appeared on the cover of National Geographic in June, 1985. The picture earned McCurry numerous awards, and National Geographic named it the publication’s most recognized photo.
In 2002, 18 years after he first captured her face on film, McCurry returned to Afghanistan to find and photograph the unknown girl again — with her picture appearing again on the cover National Geographic in April, 2002. This time she was identified by her name, Sharbat Gula.
McCurry’s journey became the subject of the National Geographic film “Search for the Afghan Girl.” It will be shown at the County Theater in Doylestown on Wednesday, September 7.
“Much as outsiders try to reform it, Afghanistan never really changes,” McCurry says. “It has absorbed blows for millennia, but always continues on as before, defiantly outside of time as we know it. Without even trying, Afghanistan changes everyone who spends time there. Afghanistan is pastoral and chaotic, peaceful and violent, destroyed and resilient, wonderfully welcoming yet deeply inhospitable.”
He then talks about what drew him to the country. “My Afghan fixation is the story of journeys. It began in 1979, the year the Russians invaded. Twenty-nine at the time, I had traveled the world, but whatever I had done by that point was no preparation for Afghanistan, especially during a time of war.”
“The work of Steve McCurry has resonated around the world for decades, sharpening our understanding of quotidian life and perilous situations of people in places that most Westerners never have the opportunity to visit,” says Kelsey Halliday Johnson, the Michener Art Museum’s curatorial fellow in photography and new media. She, along with assistant curator Louise Feder, curated “Unguarded, Untold, Iconic,” an exhibition that, she says, “presents a chance to explore both new and familiar photographs from McCurry’s career-long connection with the complicated, diverse, and intriguing country of Afghanistan, which he was first drawn to after reading James Michener’s novel ‘Caravans’” — passages of which are included in the exhibition to provide of bridging words and images.
Johnson says the exhibition’s importance is “the depth of (McCurry’s) career and the fact that he has these intense roots in conflict — and the fact that art history is bound to Afghanistan’s. I assume we will have a lot of veterans come. Steve gets fan mail from veterans all the time saying how his photography reconnects them with the work that they were doing.”
On speaking about McCurry’s work, Johnson remembers the many copies of the National Geographic in her parents’ basement. One morning she decided to go through all of them. Though not knowing that the image “Afghan Girl” was famous, she remembered the experience of seeing it. “The intimacy of Steve’s work, the gaze of the ‘Afghan Girl,’ connected us across borders, across war, across so many cultural differences.”
The exhibition is three exhibitions in one. The first part deals with the more than 35 years of McCurry’s photography career for National Geographic as well as his work for other publications and his archives.
The second part is a multi-media presentation of work culled from his newspaper and editorial assignments in a slide show presentation. There is also an interactive element to this part. The museum is encouraging visitors to post their own street images on Instagram with the #mccurrystreetchallenge. Three winners will be chosen each month during the exhibition.
The third part of the exhibition is work from ImagineAsia, a nonprofit group McCurry founded in 2004. Its mission is to work with local community leaders and regional non-governmental agencies to help provide educational resources and opportunities to children in Afghanistan. Part of that organization is the Young Women’s Photography initiative, which gives a platform for women across the world who are navigating complicated landscapes of social issues. Images show a perspective of their daily lives. Also included is a selection of war rugs designed by Afghan women through Azru Studio Hope.
The take away for the viewers of this exhibit is, as Johnson says, “to better understand (McCurry’s) full breadth of his work (and) to understand Afghanistan better because it’s a name that’s always in our news, and we only see this one little sliver — it is a richer and more fabulous place.”
“Unguarded, Untold, Iconic: Afghanistan through the Lens of Steve McCurry,” James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, PA, Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. through October 23, $8 to $18. For schedule of lectures, films, and curator talks call 215-340-9800 or visit www.MichenerArtMuseum.org.