Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Steve McCurry: Afghanistan

Many of the pictures in this tome I remember having admired during an exhibition at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich in 2015. As always when looking at Steve McCurry's photographs I marveled at the incredibly intense colours that made the pictures look fantastic and somewhat unreal, fairy-tale like.

Afghanistan is a large format tome (hardcover, 26,7 x 37 cm, 256 pages) – Cologne-based publisher Taschen understands better than most of its competitors that photo books are much more impressive when they come in large format – and that presents stunning portraits, awe-inspiring landscapes, moving scenes as well as compositions that are testimony to the photographer's extraordinary eye.
Bamiyan, 2006 @ Steve McCurry

It goes without saying that what we see in photographs largely depends on what we bring to them. So what do I associate with Afghanistan? What immediately comes to mind is what I've recently heard on TV – that the country is known as the graveyard of empires for many of the world's powers have tried and failed to conquer Afghanistan. Apart from the power struggles, I think of grandiose landscapes and a harsh climate. What I also bring to these images is a willingness to be visually introduced to an unknown world.

What above all strikes me when spending time with Steve McCurry's Afghanistan is the sensation that this is a very old culture – you can see that especially in the eyes and the postures of the people portrayed. They radiate something that goes beyond their immediate presence, they seem to represent not only ancient history but something eternal.

Apart from places of worship, hardly any buildings appear intact. This is certainly due to the ongoing wars that, to the outsider, seem a permanent feature of this country but one also wonders whether Afghans – as the Indian intellectual U.R. Ananthamurty once remarked about Indian writers – are living  "simultaneously in the 12th and 21st centuries, and in every century in between." Steve McCurry's photographs, that often resemble paintings, reinforce this impression.
Kabul, 2003 @ Steve McCurry

In his highly informative afterword William Dalrymple points to the great diversity of racial types. "The genes of one hundred different races meet here and intermingle." And he adds: "As bewitchingly rugged as the Afghans themselves is the formidable landscape that produced them."

Eighty percent are illiterate, I learn. "Yet they are a proud people, eyes levelled straight, in contempt as much as in curiosity: These are the faces, both male and female, that peer so defiantely from Steve McCurry's magnificent Afghan portraits."

Since Steve McCurry has been coming to Afghanistan for over thirty years, he also has had ample opportunity to record the tragedy of Afghanistan's modern wars and this collection isn't short of the ubiquitous violence of the country.

William Dalrymple's text  perfectly complements Steve McCurry's "utterly original" shots. On the one hand because it refers to the photographs in this book (and this is amazingly rare in photo books), on the other hand because the writer shares his own relationship with Afghanistan – especially the story of his latest arrival at Herat airport is wonderfully telling.
Mazar-e Sharif, 1991 @ Steve McCurry

Afghanistan is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary country.

Steve McCurry
English, German, French
Taschen, Cologne 2017

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