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Steve McCurry, “Rabari tribal elder, Rajasthan” (2010) (printed: New York; 2015), Archival Pigment Print, display size: 40 x 60 inches (all images © Steve McCurry, courtesy The Rubin Museum)

American Magnum photographer Steve McCurry, best known for his 1984 photograph of an Afghan refugee with piercing green eyes (Sharbat Gula), is one of the most celebrated photojournalists of our time. His career started in 1978, after the work of Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson inspired him to take his first visit to India. This trip, on which McCurry used up 250 rolls of Kodachrome, would be the first of his more than 80 visits to the country.

Steve McCurry: India, on view at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in partnership with the International Center of Photography, presents a selection of images from 30 years of the photojournalist’s travels across the South Asian subcontinent. They capture scenes from this land of 1.2 billion in brilliant, supersaturated colors: monsoon-flooded Bengali villages; Rajasthani desert dust storms; green-painted men crowd surfing at a Holi festival; Hindu pilgrims visiting shrines on the River Ganges; steam engines chugging past the Taj Mahal.

Steve McCurry, “Tailor carries his sewing machine through monsoon waters, Porbandar, Gujarat” (1983) (Printed: New York; 2015) Archival Pigment Print, display size: 17.5 x 26.25 inches

In terms of their composition, color, and specificity of subject — an old man carrying his rusted sewing machine through floodwaters, a young girl running past a hand-painted Bollywood movie poster — these are beautiful photographs.

The thing is, as a group, the photographs on view seem run through a particularly dreamy filter. McCurry usually isn’t one to shy away from conflict — he spent years covering the Iran-Iraq War, Lebanon Civil War, the Cambodian Civil War, the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, the Gulf War, and the Afghan Civil War, and is known for his images of AIDS victims in Vietnam. But here, the curation presents a Western visitor’s romanticized vision of India as a magical land of color, light, holiness, enlightenment, collectivism, and carefree near-nakedness. While they reflect some vibrant aspects of the subcontinent, they don’t tell the whole story. The selected images edit out both the more banal, less “exotic” aspects of Indian life (there are no photos of, say, Indian office workers or McDonald’s servers here) as well as its less picturesque aspects (even images of monsoon destruction resemble stills from adventure films). 

Steve McCurry, “Sikh devotee prays at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjab” (1996) (Printed: New York; 2015), Archival Pigment Print, display size: 40 x 60 inches (© Steve McCurry)

Presented without much context, the images on view gloss over the country’s fraught history of colonialism. If your only knowledge of India came from these photographs, you’d never guess an Englishman had ever set foot on its shores. They ignore the massive impact of globalization on the contemporary Indian economy, as well as many of its most pressing social issues. Instead, the show seems to cater to a fantasy-driven idea of India that appeals to Western spiritual touriststhe India of George Harrison and Ram Dass, the India of Eat, Pray, Love, the land of a thousand yoga retreats. While no single photography exhibit should be tasked with comprehensively summing up a place as vast and ancient as India, this one misses some pretty big things. 

Steve McCurry, “Steam engine passes in front of the Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh” (1983) (Printed: New York; 2015), Archival Pigment Print, display size: 27 x 40.5 inches

That’s not to say these photographs of awe-inspiring landscapes and holy men with saffron-colored beards won’t make you want to visit India. They probably will. Still, it’s worth questioning whether they reinforce Western stereotypes of the East instead of challenging them, and whether they only show you what you want to see. 

Steve McCurry, “Hindu devotee carries statue of Lord Ganesh into the waters of the Arabian Sea during the immersion ritual off Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai, Maharashtra”

Steve McCurry, “Man practices acupressure while walking on gravel, Jaipur, Rajasthan” (2009) (Printed: New York; 2015), digital c-print, display size: 17.5 x 26.25 inches

Steve McCurry, “Women in stepwell, Rajasthan” (2002), (Printed: New York; 2015), Archival Pigment Print, display size: 17.5 x 26.25 inches

Steve McCurry, “Boy in mid-flight, Jodhpur, Rajasthan” (2007), (Printed: New York; 2015), Archival Pigment Print, display size: 40 x 60 inches

Steve McCurry, “Young Rinpoche (meaning ‘Precious One’), Bylakuppe, Karnataka” (2001), (Printed: New York; 2015), Archival Pigment Print, display size: 26 x 17.33 inches

Steve McCurry, “Woman and child on the Howrah Mail train en-route to Kolkata, West Bengal” (1982)

Steve McCurry, “Dust storm, Rajasthan” (1983), (Printed: New York; 2015), Archival Pigment Print, display size: 40 x 26.66 inches

Steve McCurry, “Young girl runs past movie poster, Mumbai, Maharashtra” (1993), (Printed: New York; 2015), Archival Pigment Print, display size: 26 x 17.33 inches

Steve McCurry, “Portrait of engineer Maqbool Andrabi, Srinagar, Kashmir” (1999 ), (Printed: New York; 2015), Archival Pigment Print, display size: 26 x 17.33 inches

Steve McCurry, “Father and daughter on Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir” (1996), (Printed: New York; 2015), digital c-print, display size: 40 x 60 inches

Steve McCurry: India continues at the Rubin Museum of Art (150 W 17th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 4. 

Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

3 replies on “Photojournalist Steve McCurry’s Romanticized Visions of India”

  1. Wait, so is this any worse than the “poverty porn” photos of India we see so often? I don’t doubt that this is a romanticized view of the country and I’m not saying this photographer’s perspective is by any means the whole picture. But I don’t think it’s meant to be. I’m sure we need photographers who document the legacy of imperialism, but is that the only lens with which to view the country? I dunno–like McCurry, I’m an outsider. Are Westerners allowed to photograph the Global South in a beautiful way, or only a contrite one? Or is there another option?

  2. I find this review to be unfair. While the argument that the show only serves to reinforce western romances of India is (sort of) valid, it leaves me wondering why this is the only permissible way to photograph the country.

    This argument is lazy and predictable; criticizing someone for an intention that the author thinks they *should* have had. The photographer doesn’t seem to claim that he is making a ground-breaking social statement.
    With all due respect for the writer (it is indeed well-written and argued effectively), saying the artist should have focused on something else, or focused his work in a way to avoid western romanticism, is tired and a bit annoying. There are plenty of photographs in the world documenting the struggles, pitfalls, and hope that a country like India goes through in times of change and growth. We have seen the photographs of the seamstresses, the factories, the beggars, the wildly successful, the emerging feminists and social movements, etc. The writer is correct, all of these serve an important function and purpose.
    But I disagree with the argument that finding beauty isn’t legitimate as well. It’s equally racist and problematic to segment off an entire country as so derelict and ridden with social issues, that the only “real” way to document it is in socially-conscious photos. No, that also speaks to the same Western hubris that the article is trying to pick apart.

    Further, these photographs are actual documents of the country, they are not fabricated illustrations deliberately made to embody a Western fantasy. These situations happened, existed. The photographer found them lovely and made something from them. And frankly, I find them so beautiful and inspiring that I’m glad he did.

  3. The article is every bit as “Western” as Curry’s viewpoint. That’s what he is, and what the writer is. To expect Curry to encompass the totality of India is absurd. His photos emphasize beauty, beauty is real, and we need more of it.

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