Steve McCurry’s images are renowned in global documentary photography. Recipient of numerous awards, including Magazine Photographer of the Year, two first-place prizes in the World Press Photo contest and the Leica Hall of Fame award, McCurry’s reputation is staggering. His images, as masterful as they are famous, have covered war zones and cultures the world over.
This first began when McCurry, a newspaper journalist at the time, smuggled his camera into rebel-controlled Afghanistan shortly before it was occupied by Soviet forces. His shots from this expedition were the first seen of the Afghanistan war in the US, and earned him the esteemed Robert Capa Gold Medal.
Subsequently, McCurry’s photography has taken him across the globe, documenting the human impact of war and the differences between various international cultures. His penchant for capturing ‘the unguarded moment’ – a phenomenon self-described as “the essential soul peeking out; experience etched on a person’s face” – is what makes his images so poignant and memorable.
Steve McCurry uses numerous techniques that amateur photographers would do well to learn from.
One such technique is colour casting. Unlike some photographers, such as fellow Magnum member Alex Webb, who play with a multiplicity of saturated colours, McCurry often prefers to match his colours, such as the dusty desert yellows, rich reds and deep blues seen in his images. Whilst multiple colours can be carefully balanced, colour casting gives a sure sense of cohesion and harmony.
Portraiture is an area of photography that McCurry masters, most likely due to years of experience in waiting and probing for that ‘unguarded moment’. However, many of his portraits are very direct, taken front-on and making eye-contact with his subjects. This immediately connects viewers with the subject, as if they were in front of that very person, leaving a strong and sudden impression.
Incidentally, hunting for an unguarded moment where the subject is at ease, translates the emotions felt by that person directly to the viewer. This quality has made McCurry’s photographs poignant and capable of transcending the barriers of language and culture.
Compositionally, McCurry uses various techniques, often in parallel. Leading lines are often found – such as the converging parallels or staggered obstacles shown in the images below. These mean that McCurry’s images are well structured; like reading left to right, our eyes are shown where to look, so that viewing the image feels natural.
Another similar technique is balancing. Both forms and light are carefully balanced within the image frame. If there is a dark shadow to one corner, the other side of the image is likely to be light; if a man leans to one side, there is likely to be something occupying the space to the other side. Essentially, McCurry ensures that within his frame, the components are presented harmoniously, with a kind of fluid symmetry. Again, this careful crafting makes the image aesthetically pleasing and its contents accessible.