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In the Flow of Time: Photographs from Asia 1980-2011 by Steve McCurry on view at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg
Golden rock. The Shwe Pye Daw, a holy place. Kyaiktiyo, Burma. 1994.© Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos.

WOLFSBURG.- The Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg presents a comprehensive survey of the explosively colorful oeuvre of the American photographer Steve McCurry in a museum setting in Germany. Continuing its series of pioneering photographers that has included the works of Man Ray (1994), Brassaï (2004), Edward Steichen (2008) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (2011/12), the Kunstmuseum now devotes a solo exhibition to a living photographer.

Steve McCurry attained worldwide fame when he managed to cross the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan at the time of the 1979 Soviet invasion. He took the first photographs from this war-torn region, which were published in the New York Times, Time Magazine and Geo. The now iconic image of the Afghan girl Sharbat Gula taken in a refugee camp appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. McCurry has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1986, the famed agency founded among others by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa in 1947.

McCurry’s close ties to Asia have unbroken since his first trips to India and Afghanistan towards the end of 1970s. For him, the fundamental difference between Asian and Western culture rests in the publicness of life and the merger of profane and religious life there. The exhibition complies with this focus and shows his world-famous images from the past three decades taken in countries such as Afghanistan, India, Kashmir, Burma, Tibet, Cambodia, Kuwait, China, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Who does not know this graceful and yet simultaneously distraught face of an Afghan girl that went around the world in 1985. The prestigious magazine National Geographic placed it on its cover, giving a face at one stroke to the misery but also the beauty of this war-torn and terror-ridden country in the Hindu Kush. The daring photographer who took this picture in a school tent at a refugee camp is Steve McCurry, now one of the world’s most sought-after photographers. The face belongs to the then 12-year-old girl Sharbat Gula. This picture, along with circa 115 works by the American photographer, is now on show at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg.

For Steve McCurry, the journey is the destination. His life resembles an on-going voyage that has lasted more than thirty years. But McCurry’s often prize-winning photographs are much more than an autobiography in pictures. They are undisguised documents of international current events, conflicts, people, their surroundings—all of which are in a permanent state of flux, particularly in Asia. The exhibition takes up this focus through photographs from countries such as Afghanistan, India, Kashmir, Burma, Tibet, Cambodia, Kuwait, China, Bangladesh and Nepal. This presentation in the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg is the first comprehensive survey of the American photographer’s explosively colorful pictures in a museum setting in Germany. Continuing its series of pioneering photographers that has included the works of Man Ray (1994), Brassaï (2004), Edward Steichen (2008) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (2011/12), the Kunstmuseum now devotes a solo exhibition to a living photographer.

Steve McCurry was born in 1950 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U:S. He studied film and history at Pennsylvania State University and began occupying himself with photography at the age of 19. He was particularly interested in books of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. After completing his studies, McCurry finally decided against film in favor of photography. In the late 1970s, he quit his job at a local Pennsylvania newspaper and headed for India and Afghanistan as a freelance photographer.

Dressed as a mujahideen rebel, he managed to cross the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan in 1979 at the time of the Soviet invasion, sewed his rolls of film into his clothing after a few weeks, smuggling them in this way back across the border and then sending them to his sister in the United States. These photographs, the first from this crisis region to be seen around the world, were published in 1980 in The New York Times, Time Magazine and Geo. A highlight of the exhibition is the above-mentioned portrait of the Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula. Together with National Geographic, McCurry set off in 2002 in search of the young woman, who was now in her late 20s, and to photograph her with the old picture in her hands; a prematurely aged woman whose face reveals traces of the horrors and tribulations she experienced.

In 1986, Steve McCurry was given the honor of becoming a member of Magnum Photos, the famed agency founded as a cooperative in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour. As such, McCurry consciously entered an environment of photographers who present the world the way it is and work on the highest professional and ethical level. He stands in the tradition of the Magnum photographers, especially Cartier-Bresson and Capa as well as of André Kertész, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange: “If they are called documentary photographers,” McCurry has stated “I would be proud to be called a documentary photographer.”

McCurry’s particularly affinity for Asia has remained unbroken since his first trips to India and Afghanistan. It is the cultural foreignness—the uninterrupted continuity in dealing with traditions—that occasioned him to return to Asia again and again. For him, the fundamental difference to Western culture rests in the fact that life largely plays itself out on the street in Asia and that religious spaces are integrated into this publicness. The profane merges very naturally with the religious here. “As I reflect back on it,” McCurry has stated “I see it was the vibrant color of Asia that taught me to see and write in light.” After his early black-and-white photographs, which he has described as more “forgiving,” photographing in color represents a new challenge for McCurry. It is a different way of telling a story.

McCurry finds images for the regions he travels through that timelessly encapsulate the enduring spirit and the rich contrasts of the respective country. His photographs are narrative and also relate about what they do not depict. With a fine sense for people, he consistently assigns them the central role, never letting congeal into a mere formal element. McCurry is not solely concerned with structure and color, but rather with a confluence of elements in the image. Waiting for the right moment in the sense of Cartier-Bresson is the cornerstone of his work.

As is also the case in Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre, many of McCurry’s pictures appear arranged upon first glance. But nothing is arranged—the photographer never intervenes “into the flow of time”. He solely captures what the moment offers him. The horrifyingly beautiful stagings of reality he has come across is particularly evident in McCurry’s war photographs.

In the age of globalization and the ongoing opening of the South and South East Asian economic area, he has documented and immortalized traditions and scenarios that now no longer exist in this form. They are photographic caesurae “in the flow of time.” McCurry’s photographs are steeped in history in more ways than one.

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In the Flow of Time: Photographs from Asia 1980-2011 by Steve McCurry on view at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg

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