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Review Of The Unguarded Moment, By Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry is an American photographer whose distinguished career with National Geographic has yielded some of the most well known photographs of the past several decades.

Ever since he discovered the visual drama of the Indian subcontinent as a recent graduate, he has been drawn back to South East Asia time and again. McCurry has published several exceptional collections of photographs taken in this part of the world, including South SouthEast and In The Shadow Of Mountains. The Unguarded Moment is something of a retrospective, featuring a selection of his most beautiful images from the last 30 years.

I have actually owned my copy of this book for over 2 years. It first appeared back in 2009, to a delighted reception from reviewers (and, doubtless, bookshop owners, whose display tables were suddenly graced with an incredibly beautiful object!).

It might seem odd that I've waited such a long time to write this review. But the truth is, I would not have been capable of writing it after 2 weeks of owning the book. Maybe it's me, perhaps I'm a bit slow. But there is so much subtle meaning and depth in McCurry's images here, that a more immediate response would have seemed artificial.

You see, this is not an ordinary coffee table book. This is a book to have for life, to go back to again and again, finding new details and nuances each time.

Let me start with the physical characteristics of The Unguarded Moment. It has a large, thick and robust hardback cover - think Times Atlas Of The World. The exact dimensions are 39cm x 29cm. Phaidon, the publishers, must have simply decided not to spare any expense.

The paper is thick, with a smooth satin finish. The reproduction quality is outstanding, and each image fills an entire page.

The short, engaging introduction (above) is the only 'extended' passage of text in the whole book.

Everything about the production of the book seems governed by a desire to re-create the feeling of an exhibition. There is no unnecessary text. The images are large, filling one whole page each, and all of them are punctuated by an adjacent blank white page (like empty wall space).

"Fishermen Checking Their Nets, Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir".

There is no table of contents, because there are no chapters. The images surround you and wash over you, as at an exhibition. It's up to you the viewer to make what you will of the chosen sequence in which the works are displayed.

Every so often a bright coloured page takes the place of a photo, with a small paragraph of text providing background information to the image that follows, much like the notes at an exhibition. These brief interjections from the photographer are kept simple, informative and factual, assisting our interpretation of the images rather than seeking to compete with their eloquence.

A coloured page with brief background information.

Example of the simple text that is provided.

I can still remember the first time I saw my copy of The Unguarded Moment. I already owned several of McCurry's books and knew that I was a fan. But you can never be sure about something until you see it, so when my parcel from Amazon arrived I was impatient to get a look at the real thing.

As I tore away at the brown packaging, the rear cover image began to emerge. A deep, rich red appeared, against a hazy ocre background, then the vivid texture of a tree trunk. The red became the magnificent drapery worn by a group of Indian women, clustered together behind a tree, which gave shelter of sorts from a terrific sandstorm that cast the whole scene in a translucent ocre.

Back cover: "Dust Storm, Rajasthan, India".

There was no text on the image, excepting a small Phaidon logo in the bottom corner. I was completely transfixed by this photograph and couldn't take my eyes off it for several minutes. When I did evetually turn the book over to look at the front cover, there was yet another staggering shot, uninterrupted by any large text.

A young Indian boy skips down a quiet alleyway, surrounded on either side by vibrant blue walls, on which beautiful purple hand prints have been made in one area. He wears a silk shirt, with intricate gold trimmings, and McCurry has captured his stride in mid-air, so that no part of his body is in contact with the ground.

I found, and still find, this image to be totally compelling. It took me such a long time to realize what perhaps ought to be obvious: the walls and the floor are filthy. The young boy, though looking like a silk-clad little Indian Prince on first impression, skipping innocently on his way, is actually barefoot and wearing rolled-up, ill-fitting shorts.

Front cover: "Boy In Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India".

This is not a kind of exoticism on the part of McCurry. His isn't romanticizing the life and environment of a desperately poor Indian boy, to give a few Western exhibition goers some pretty colours to look at. Rather, he is finding the dignity and beauty in a charming little moment, that hardly anyone would usually notice.

McCurry delights in the small, day-to-day rhythms of human life, so many of which are performed in public view in the Subcontinent. The little boy in this cover photo is literally and metaphorically isolated from his surroundings, caught in mid-air, full of life, for one unguarded moment. The photographer has, in his words, "drawn a circle of stillness" around him.

It's classic McCurry, as is the back cover image of women in a sandstorm. The mundane collides with the extraordinary, the beautiful with the grim and the sacred with the profane.

The first photograph inside the book is another great example of the photographer's style. A Yemeni market-seller sits in what appears to be the opening of a window. His simple, dirty clothes reflect a hard life of meagre trade, the artefacts of which, a bag of spices and bronze scales, surround him. But this physical world has dissolved in his mind, which is lost in contemplation of the holy book that is clasped intently with two hands.

"Man Reading, Sana'a, Yemen".

That McCurry notices these kinds of moments is impressive. But his ability to compose them so beautifully and record them with technical perfection is what's so staggering. In addition, it would be impossible to talk about this collection without mentioning the role of colour.

I cannot think of another living photographer with such an incredible eye for natural colour. One or two landscape photographers perhaps. But McCurry's colours are complex. They are not unambiguously beautiful, like the colours of sunrise. They are the colours of tortured eyes, the sheath of a murderous knife or the last patch of clean fabric on a peasant's filthy clothes. His colours are the colours of everything: at the same time beautiful and foul, uplifting and sad, momentous and small.

The Unguarded Moment depicts the world of South East Asia for all that it is. There are scenes of rural farmers, city markets, religious gatherings, railway stations, domestic environments, classrooms, portraits, families, old, young, clean, dirty, happy and sad. Above all, the photographs are of ordinary people, placed squarely in the landscapes that they inhabit.

"Destroyed Control Room, Kuwait City, Kuwait". A little moment of calm and order, bent over a book, in the midst of total chaos.

The diversity of the place is documented with a diverse range of photographs. But for many, it's McCurry's portraits that truly stand out. Personally, I enjoy the entire range of shots. That's what makes the book what it is. But it must be said that the portraits are brimming with emotional force. They make you care about the subjects.

Take, "Boy from Nuristan, Afghanistan, 1992", which appears towards the end of the book. This is one of the most affecting images in the whole collection, for me. There is no context, no environment to inform our reading of the young man's face, just a straight up portrait.

"Boy from Nuristan, Afghanistan".

He is very young, but from his hat and dirty face has clearly been engaged in some kind of hard outdoor work. His mouth, which is wet and pink like a young child's, looks like it is trying to smile, but his eyes cannot follow. It's hard to tell from the slight redness and puffiness around the eyes whether he has been crying, or is just very tired.

He looks apologetic, like someone who has been told their place too many times. It's so moving because there is a trace of wanting to engage with the photographer and smile openly, but he just can't quite do it. He's still youthful, just; it's a face on the cusp of lost innocence. His sad eyes are a beautiful green, which has a kind of assonance with the vegetation in the out-of-focus background. As ever, McCurry tells a tragic story beautifully.

Before becoming a photographer Steve McCurry had trained as a cinematographer, and this influence is evident throughout his work. Many of the images in The Unguarded Moment have a filmic quality about them. They are so wonderfully composed, timed, lit and observed, that one almost imagines a whole team of directors and crew behind the scenes. But it's just one guy, with his camera.

"Men On An Outcrop Of Rock, Band-e Amir, Afghanistan".

The Unguarded Moment is 30 years of work by one of the finest living photographers, condensed into a single, beautifully produced volume. Of all the photography coffee table books I own, this is the one that I cannot stop going back to. I've had it for two years and still get that excited feeling when I open up it's enormous pages.

If you have an interest in art, particularly high quality photography, or even human civilization in South East Asia, I recommend this book to you unreservedly: The Unguarded Moment, by Steve McCurry.

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