Steve McCurry’s Photos Capture the Universality, Intimacy of Reading

In Europe by Edward Nawotka

• Steve McCurry, one of the most famous photojournalists in the world, is always on the hunt for the “unguarded moment” — a slice of time that is both personal and honest. He has often found this in moments when people are reading.

• “There’s an intimacy people have with a book and its author that is similar, what couples have,” says McCurry. “[Reading] is a common link in our shared humanity, a thing we all do that is regardless of where we are economically or socially.”

By Edward Nawotka

Photojournalist Steve McCurry is best known for shooting one of the most famous photographs ever taken -– 1985’s “Afghan Girl,” an image of a young girl with sea green eyes staring defiantly into the camera. But war and those affected by it are not his only subjects. “Like most photographers, I’m fascinated by people in everyday situations,” he says via phone from Cape Town. “The work I do is mostly wandering and observing human nature and human activity, working and playing and leisure time. As you’re walking around the streets of China, India, New York, whererver -– it is fun to photograph people simply doing things.”

One of his ongoing projects is compiling a collection of photos of people reading; on Monday, he put a selection of these photos on display for the first time on his own blog. Entitled “Fusion: The Synergy of Energy and Words” (Part I and Part II) drew a strong reaction from book lovers. “More than 4,000 people visited the site in the first few hours and I started getting calls from librarians and booksellers asking about the photos,” says Bonnie McCurry V’Soske, Steve’s sister, who manages her brother’s business.

The idea to shoot photos of people reading was itself prompted by his relationship with legendary Hungarian photographer André Kertész, who was also fascinated with images of people reading. (You can view a gallery here). “Henri Cartier-Bresson was a friend of mine and he once said, ‘Whatever we have done, Kertész did first and it’s apt to start here,” says McCurry. “I met Kertész in 1984 when I moved into the same building where he lived on Fifth Ave. in New York and I knew he’d done a body of work on people reading. It was an inspiration to me. Reading is kind of the universal endeavor, one without regard to nationality, race, age or culture.”

McCurry’s photos cross these cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. His personal favorite of his collection is a photo of a young Thai man reading a book while nestled up to the back of an elephant, shot earlier this year (and reproduced at the right). Among the two dozen images posted online is  photo of a group of Chinese men perusing newspapers through a shop window, another of  an Afghan shopkeeper reading in his modest stall, and one Italian monks in contemplation with their Bibles.

As a photographer, McCurry is always on the hunt for the “unguarded moment,” that slice of time that reveals something personal and honest. “I have another gallery of people sleeping and of couples interacting. There’s an intimacy people have with a book and its author that is similar,” he says, adding. “We’re all different and we’re all the same. It amuses me that whether you’re fabulously rich and sophisticated or you happen to be someone on the street in the third world or a classroom in some remote area, reading is all the same act. It’s a common link in our shared humanity, a thing we all do that is regardless of where we are economically or socially.”

McCurry has published several volumes of his own work, including The Unguarded Moment and In the Shadow of Mountains. His next work, Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs is forthcoming in November from Phaidon. “From the point of view of a photographer, the books are the most important aspect of what I do,” says McCurry. “Books are the most important part of getting my work seen and more important than magazines.”

As for the digital revolution in books, he believes there will always be a place in people’s homes for certain art books, for the object you can have on your shelf. “I can see the role of having books online, but it’s a little discouraging the fact that they don’t exist unless turn on the computer in much the same way a digital photograph doesn’t exist until you print it on paper. That said, viewing pictures on a wonderful backlit screen is quite beautiful. You’re already seeing galleries run photography shows by showing the images on television screens instead of printing them.”

Beyond his own books, McCurry has also been involved with the publishing community through his foundation, ImagineAsia, a nonprofit that works  to help students in Afghan communities to provide fundamental educational and health care resources.

The foundation recently purchased 500 books for the Markaz Girls’ High School library school in Bamiyan, has solicited donations of hundreds of new textbooks which have been sent to universities in Herat and Bamiyan, as well as the medical university in Kabul. “It’s all about good karma, a positive thing that we can do,” he notes.

Beyond the practicality of using books for education, perhaps the most important role books play for people -– in McCurry’s experience –- is as an escape from the rigors and trials of daily life.

“Reading offers a time for contemplation. Even in Afghanistan, where life is not easy, you notice people in unlikley circumstances reading,” he says. “I have a picture of a man in a manhole -– he was using it as a bomb shelter between air raids — who was reading the book. Reading is something any literate person is drawn to do and it becomes a part of your life. It’s just one of the things that connects us all together, that reminds us that we’re all the same.”

An exhibition of André Kertész’s photographs, “On Reading” will be presented at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA from October 23, 2010 through February 11, 2011.

Steve McCurry’s next book, The Iconic Photographs, will be published in the US by Phaidon in November.

Donations to ImagineAsia can be made by contacting the foundation here.

DISCUSS: What does reading mean to you?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.