Vanilla is what it is.
Shooting with Steve McCurry is almost like shooting alone. One hardly feels his presence. Almost ninja-like in some cases. Which is probably the hallmark of most accomplished professional photographers.
What is striking about Steve is how he doesn’t look like a photographer when he’s on the field. He looks like a tourist in very plain Walmart-like clothing. If you’re reading this Steve, please don’t take offense. You wear Walmart like it was Armani 😉
Ok, case in point. I get off from my friend’s Jeep to pick up Steve from the hotel lobby. After having dinner with him from last night where he was wearing normal business casual clothing, I see him in a slightly less informal attire. I was thinking he’d be wearing something like a dri-fit shirt with rolled up sleeves on similar dri-fit like pants with a pair of hiking shoes. Not so. He was dressed like he was last night but with a twist. He had a cap on. And an eco-type bag for his camera (a Nikon D800 if I remember correctly).
And it made perfect sense. He looked very unassuming, almost surreal to this hobbyists’ eyes simply because I’m used to seeing people here photographing wear a particular type of clothing. Folks, you know what I’m talking about. This guy on the contrary looked like he was going to go to Greenbelt to have coffee. There was nothing on him that would make you think that he was the guy who photographed that Afghan girl. And no, we were not going shopping… we were going to Chinatown on CNY and the Manila North Cemetery.
So how does he photograph?
Like a predator. He stalks, hunts, and can be very unrelenting. He has no qualms about going near your face to assess your photographic potential. I’m not sure that this approach would work in the US or Europe where folks can get militant over their privacy. Being caucasian can have its advantages in this particular setting when your skin color can be looked at as a novelty and therefore potentially possess a disarming quality. Of course, smiling also helps. He engages in small conversation but not always. Sometimes, he just photographs right away.
What kind of light does he like?
He is very particular about light. He doesn’t like contrast and will be vocal about it. He likes soft lighting where exposure is even across a scene. But don’t confuse that with flat lighting. That iconic photograph of his, for example, has a certain luminance to it that highlights his subject’s eyes.
I asked him about street photography here in the Philippines.
He said it was challenging primarily because of the architecture. He was unable to elaborate on this one but I think we all know what he means. There is no architecture here to speak of. Pockets of it, yes, but as an overriding signature, hardly. Our country doesn’t lend itself to easy street photography.You need to accept certain elements and work it into a photograh. Power lines. Micromatic umbrellas. You get the picture. So there you have it. If you think it’s difficult to street photograph here, well, you’re in good company. Some of you might disagree but while there might be some worthy attempts at portraying Manila, it is by no means epic. A photograph here and there, probably. But as a solid body of work, I doubt it. Gritty, yeah. But so is Bangkok, eh? I don’t mean to put our streets down. All I’m saying is that the best is yet to come worthy of a cover from Taschen where Manila street photography is concerned.
I asked him about Magnum and what’s that like.
He said that it was really just a club of which he’s a member. Projects were through individual efforts for the most part and nothing to do with the agency. Times have changed indeed as we see folks from that esteemed group do workshops for a living. Like Eli Reed for example doing Dumaguete for a fee. Nothing wrong with that but one does wonder if the likes of Bresson did something similar.
He noticed that we all used Leicas. He said he has one with his name on it but doesn’t use it.
Which brings us to his camera of choice. I didn’t ask him about it but did notice that he preferred working his camera in a specific way due to some physical limitation. His camera rests on a pistol grip where a tripod plate would be threaded and holds it accordingly. His other hand does everything else. So I can understand how shooting with a rangefinder can be very challenging.
On this beloved country of ours…
What I didn’t know about Steve was that he spent something like 6 months here during the People Power days and had intimate access to the events of that time. As we drove down Roxas Blvd., he was asking us if the US embassy was still on this side, etc. Which made me think that this gentleman still remembers his way around if push came to shove. He also possessed a dry political humor about him. He casually remarked on the irony of American aid where they get a lot of flak for their generosity. Certainly a damned if you do damned if you dont situation but they go and do it anyway.
A few minutes drive down the boulevard and he asks us to stop by an empty lot. We see nothing of interest but he probably has so we step out of the Jeep and into a cordoned area. We asked permission from the security guard and he let us inside the empty lot which was probably a mystery to him as it was to us. So what does he photograph? Well he was interested in the wall of this burned down building. I’m not sure where he was going with those walls but hey, one man’s blank wall is another man’s blank canvass.
Over dinner the other night, he casually mentioned how interesting it would be if he photographed the cemeteries of the world and came out with a book. See, this is how it is with photographers like him. The world is their playground and borders are but lines in maps. To them, the world is probably one seamless place, where visa is a credit card and not a bureaucratic imprediment. But I digress. A friend of ours asked if a book on cemeteries would sell… And I knew it was coming with Steve answering, “Sure, if it has my name on it”. Hahaha!!! We all laughed at that one but then one also senses the casual confidence in his voice akin to a celebrity used to velvet ropes falling as they walk into bars. It’s very sobering to be able to listen to somebody say things like that. Definitely a made man in the world of photography and he knows it.
The amateurish inquiry into post processing eventually crops up. As I understood it, he doesn’t do post. He has part-time staff that takes care of these things. But then this is probably how most of them work. Magnum had its own printer after all. His website is run by his sister. Which now makes sense. The warmth of the text on his site somehow does not translate to Steve, the hunter. You get a sense that it’s a business at the end of the day and a well-run one at that. I don’t have anything against that setup, by the way. In fact, it is very admirable to have the skills or the “luck” to possess that kind of a dynamic and make a decent living off photography… a very difficult proposition these days.
If you’ve read this far, you may have noticed how there was really no time to get to know one another. And I felt that he wasn’t really interested in us or socializing for that matter. My connection with him during the entire duration was as choppy as this attempt of mine at a reportage. One gets this impression that one was just some means to some end. Most times when I would engage in conversation, I noticed that half of him was there talking to me and the other half somewhere else. He would stop midsentence and would rarely go back to resume talking. If you think we took this personally, we didn’t. We knew our place. We were there to assist. We were the local guide. There was a job to be done and sharing a bottle of beer with this iconic presence would just be a bonus. The aim was not to establish a life-long friendship. The aim was for him to get his shots… whatever those maybe. Steve was quite cryptic about why he was there… officially with UNICEF, unofficially with us for a few days, photographing Tondo, Chinatown and the North Cemetery for reasons unknown. So if you’re wondering when those photographs will come out… well, as I said, the man wasn’t quite clear about things… and I did ask directly!
Anyway, I got an email a month later from Steve McCurry Studios:
It was a pleasure to meet with you, I am glad we got to spend some
time photographing together.
Thank you for your generous hospitality during my visit to Manila, I
just wrote to Arnel too.
If you are ever in New York do let me know, it would be great to meet again.
I wonder if he wrote it personally or if it was computer-generated but it didn’t matter. I am guessing his sister penned it. It’s all good either way.
As I said, vanilla. But I didn’t tell you guys that it’s one of my favorite flavors.