What It Takes To Make A Great Photo

Or Why You And Me Will Never Be Steve McCurry

Yesterday I did something that my wife thought was completely crazy: I drove 200km to Bologna and back, just to meet Steve McCurry, listen to him talk and get one of his books signed. Luckily, we had a break in a long series of foggy days and the journey was without problems.

As someone told me, these chances may only happens once in a lifetime, so better catch them while you can.

Well, anyways, I got my book signed, bought a couple more books and got those signed as well, then attended his talk. This basically consisted in a slide-show of his most iconic photographs, together with some new ones that he shot during a recent trip to Italy, interspersed with commentary and a bit of a background about each picture’s story and circumstances.

Incidentally, the most recent photos denote a certain change in his style, but that’s maybe only because Italy and its people are so different from India or Afghanistan. That’s not I want to talk about, however. This post is about some reflections that were inspired by the examination of the photograph I included below.

Dal Lake, Kashmir, by Steve McCurry

In my opinion, this is just a perfect shot. The boat coming in from the lower left corner, the shape of the man, with his arm raised at the apex of his movement, perfectly framed within the V formed by the reflection of the sky in the water, the contrast between the warm colors of the flowers and the cool, blue-green tones of the trees and the water. The viewer is pulled towards the center of the frame and stuck watching the human figure and thinking about the story of this man, his work carrying flowers across a lake to a market somewhere, day in, day out.

If there ever was a decisive moment captured in a photograph, this is it. If the photo had been taken a fraction of a second earlier or later, a few inches to the left or the right, from a higher or lower viewpoint, all that delicate balance would have been destroyed.

You might think that this was just sheer luck and, to a certain extent, an element of luck was certainly involved. However, the story behind this photograph, as Steve McCurry recounted it, is that he spent eleven days on the shores of Dal Lake, in Kashmir, living with the people there, photographing them, and finally getting the shot. A great amount of pre-visualization was certainly involved, and there is nothing casual about this image.

Now consider that the guy was using film! So he had no chance to see whether he had captured that fleeting moment until after he had developed the film. With digital, he could easily have glanced at his LCD, but maybe he would have gotten complacent and lazy, thinking that he could always get one more shot and hit the lucky one. Knowing Steve McCurry a bit, I think this would have not been the case, but who knows?

In the end, I would love to have this image printed, framed, and hung on a wall in my home. Not just because it’s a beautiful photograph, but also because it would always remind me that there are certain heights in art that I will never be able to attain… not the least because my wife would never agree to spend eleven days on the shores of an Indian lake, watching the boats go by.

Comments 2

  1. Blaming the wife is always a good strategy :).
    Seriously though very interesting analysis and point of view. I will, however, take a slightly different slant. While and I may never reach such heights, McCurry and co give us the inspiration to push ourselves further, take just that little extra step to make our images, and may be, just may be, one day, land one of these…

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