Steve McCurry, or What’s Wrong With Imperfection?

Steve McCurry and his photoshopped images have been the talk of the ‘net lately, ever since more and more photos surfaced which the famed photographer (or his overzealous assistants?) gave a make-over, sometimes subtle, sometimes not.

With this article I don’t want to weigh in on the moral rights and wrongs of doing these kind of photo manipulations, but instead I want to examine the (probable) reasoning he/they had for doing so: the quest for perfection. McCurry, or whoever did the alterations, was following one of the tenants of Street Photography 101: Avoid Clutter in the Background.

This tenant, which can be read in any article or manual on street photography, is common sense, of course: a cluttered background distracts from the main subject and thus reduces the impact of the image. There is nothing worse than something like a trash can, other people, or horror of horrors, a shiny car, poking out behind the person(s) on whom the focus is. Clutter does get in the way of creating a perfect photo.

But, looking at the kind of manipulations which were done to some of McCurry’s photos, as seen on the example below, there is such a thing as taking that principle too far. Street and documentary photography is supposed to reflect life as it is. Much of this type of photography is done in cities. But what are cities if not cluttered? And this goes even more so for Indian cities where McCurry shot many of his famed images.


If you look at this example, McCurry, or his staff, removed not only the objects that directly intersect with the people in the foreground, but almost all objects in the background, such as the apple cart to the right, as well the person in the red shirt, while darkening the clothes of the man in white. The manipulated picture is emptier, less cluttered, and I guess, to a purist, therefore more perfect.

Tips on street photography often emphasise moving around and framing subjects in order to avoid background noise. All well and good. At the same time, another hyped tenant is “to capture the decisive moment.” Often, photographers resolve the two seemingly opposing principles by finding an interesting location, and frame it so that light, colour, contrasts, leading lines etc. are perfect, and then wait for a person or persons to walk into the frame, thus being able to capture the right moment in a perfect setting. All good and well, but these types of “semi-staged” street photographs are only part of what street photography is about. What any kind of staged or semi-staged photo risks to miss out on is the other main principle of street photography, that it is all about documenting humanity.

Now granted, with the manipulations done to that particular image, McCurry did not really alter the human story. The focus are the guys on the rickshaw, and the rickshaw driver, and their humanity shines through. But nevertheless, something is lost as well. What has gone missing is the sense of chaos that runs throughout life in Indian cities, and to a lesser or greater degree, all cities. That some cities are rarely empty, even in a downpour. That life in a city happens on more than just one level.

The original photo does not show a perfect set-up, and in terms of photography, maybe a less than perfect image to a purist. But in my mind, here, perfection is overrated. People are not perfect, cities are not a perfect stage; they are a place where chaos rules, and unpredictability. Capturing these imperfections is what street/documentary photography is also about.

And anyway, perfection is also in the eye of the beholder. I would argue that the original image (bar the contrast and colour settings) is as strong and powerful as the altered version, that the scenes in the background do not distract but instead add context. By applying the tonal corrections to the image, the result would have been equally powerful, in my opinion.

So I guess what I am doing here is pleading for imperfections to be given a chance. Life is not perfect, life is not a stage or a studio, and judging street photography on principles of fine art or portrait photography is missing out on a chance to reflect that chaos and imperfections are also part of humanity.

But of course it’s not the likes of me whose judgement counts for professional photographers, it’s the judgement of curators and editors. To what degree McCurry or his staff applied their own judgement, or anticipated the judgement of magazine editors, is speculation. One would hope, though, that outside of fine or portrait photography, authenticity counts as much as aesthetics, even in professional publishing and photography.

Note: the original and the edited photographs by Steve McCurry depicted above were first reported by Gian Marco Maraviglia on his Facebook page

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