Taj Mahal and train in Agra, 1983. Credit Steve McCurry
I had a disagreement with a friend last week about whether Teju Cole writes well about photography. I think he does. My friend thinks he’s a very talented writer and critic but much prefers Cole’s books above his criticism. We agreed to disagree and left it at that.
I don’t know what the final verdict on Cole will be, but I sure did enjoy his skewering of Steve McCurry and Coldplay—bland, bland men—in a single article. For me, it only strengthens the argument that he’s a good writer on photography.
In McCurry’s portraits, the subject looks directly at the camera, wide-eyed and usually marked by some peculiarity, like pale irises, face paint or a snake around the neck. And when he shoots a wider scene, the result feels like a certain ideal of photography: the rule of thirds, a neat counterpoise of foreground and background and an obvious point of primary interest, placed just so. Here’s an old-timer with a dyed beard. Here’s a doe-eyed child in a head scarf. The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were. They are astonishingly boring.
[McCurry’s] photographs in “India,” all taken in the last 40 years, are popular in part because they evoke an earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like, what the accouterments of their lives should be: umbrellas, looms, sewing machines; not laptops, wireless printers, escalators.
The song [Hymn for the Weekend] is typical Coldplay, written for vague uplift but resistant to sense (“You said, ‘Drink from me, drink from me’/When I was so thirsty/Poured on a symphony/Now I just can’t get enough”). […] The video is a kind of exotification bingo, and almost like a live-action version of Steve McCurry’s vision: peacocks, holy men, painted children, incense. Almost nothing in the video allows true contemporaneity to Indians. They seem to have been placed there as a colorful backdrop to the fantasies of Western visitors.
It’s not so much the point that McCurry is old-hat, but that the point is made with so much panache. If I’d written such luscious take downs, I’d cart myself into retirement, all happy-like. Good stuff.
Cole, however, has other ideas. He’s not opposed to outsiders taking photos of India. He points out that Mary Ellen Mark made telling portraits of prostitutes in Mumbai which presented, with a new sensibility and focus, an ignored community.
Kemps Corner, Mumbai, 1989. Credit Succession Raghubir Singh
Ultimately, the article is a celebration of Raghubir Singh, who is the best example of an Indian photographing India. The article is Cole’s call for us to (permanently?) redirect (all?) our energies from the photographs of McCurry and those of every fetishizing (white) (usually male) photographer who has mimicked McCurry, toward the photography of practitioners such as Singh and other cracking Indian photographers. Cole names them: Ketaki Sheth, Sooni Taraporevala, Raghu Rai and Richard and Pablo Bartholomew.
I mean, really, in a world replete with images made by folks in every corner of the globe, is there any defense for the space taken up by McCurry?