London’s Photographers Gallery was having a busy week. As well as Deutsche Borse nominees visiting for book signings and talks, Steve McCurry was in town to launch his new book at the Ramillies Place venue. The multi award winning American photographer is perhaps most widely known for his portrait of an Afgan girl in a Pakistani refugee camp visited during a during an under cover trip in 1984 disguised as a local tribes man. The image graced the cover of National Geographic June 1985, however during the intervening 30 years since McCurry has produced a comprehensive body of work covering conflicts, marginalised societies, vanishing cultures and traditions all with strong regard to the human condition. McCurry’s latest work, From These Hands: A Journey Along the Coffee Trail, published by Phaidon, investigates communities who make their living from coffee production around the world, and is a portfolio of images made over the last 40 years. Although all colour, the images hark back to that halcyon post war period of photojournalism, Bresson, Roger, Seymour and before that Walker Evans and Lange; graphic compositions of light and line combine with McCurry’s very direct approach to portraying people. Added to this he uses his camera with compassion and respect while capturing a fleeting moment of human emotion from his subjects. “What I find truly interesting is how the people look, how they dress, what they are like. In many of these shots, it’s the composition that captivates me most of all…. The shape of the trees in the background, the angle of the nose of the sheep and the slight relationship between those two elements.The way someone’s elbows might mirror the mountain peaks behind them” explained McCurry. He certainly follows the approach taken by his Magnum ancestors such as Bresson “I just go out there, you look into a room a see something incredible” the image in From These Hands of an Ethiopian tea ceremony being just such a happenstance. More images depicting the society surrounding coffee growing show how ritual in the making is as important as ritual in the drinking is for the consumer; the shots of planting, production and transportation have rhythm and strong sense of community. Despite his thematic approach McCurry allows his eye to rove and gather new directions, the chapter Growers and Their Families not content with domestic groups also lends insight to recreation; the Indonesian boy enjoying a mud bath in irrigation ponds next watering cattle, a group a boys swimming with all the joy of the freedom of youth, a group playing football in amongst grazing cattle in Ethiopia; an intense moment of worship in Brazil, and the result of that perceptive and roving eye yielding one of the stand-out images from the book, an older Ethiopian lady reclining on her bed with brightly coloured posters of Jesus on the back wall, the result of serendipitous glance into an open door. From These Hands shows consumers the human effort, existence and despite hardship the joy behind that comforting cappuccino so desired, almost necessary, in the first world, the journey travelled often not appreciated.
When discussing his break-through project from that daring 1984 trip trough Pakistan into Afghanistan he is content with the notion that this work will always identify him in the wider world. When questioned specifically about the now iconic Afgan girl image his face lights up “That image will be the first line of my obituary” does he feel that early carrier image defines him despite the following years of work judged by many to be of equal stature, “Of course, that is how people know me, it is embedded as part of my identity, I am very happy to have that image define my carrier, better to have only one such image in a lifetime than none” London today where next? “Amsterdam tomorrow, leave at 5.45, the best time of day for light, don’t ever miss it!”