By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Swenson
By David Villano
By Kyle Swenson
By John Thomason
By Michele Eve
Again and again, McCurry snags such moments: a trio of camels crossing barren earth against a backdrop of flames and black smoke engulfing the oilfields of Kuwait, torched by Iraqis on their way out of the country; a tranquil landscape on the Tibetan plateau with verdant mountains towering above a town and a boy walking through barley fields; huge trees with roots that snake through the temple ruins in Cambodia's Angkor region.
It's easy to think that one of the most photographed man-made structures on the planet -- the Taj Mahal in Agra, India -- would by now be all but drained of its visceral power. But McCurry reinvigorates it in a 1983 shot by approaching it as a sort of mirage, putting it off center, out of focus, and in the background. Juxtaposed against the 17th-century structure, in the right front, is a locomotive belching steam and smoke with two men perched on its cowcatcher. In another shot, from 1999, the photographer reduces the Taj Mahal to a shimmering reflection in the Yamuna River, where a wader bends to scoop water in his hand.
Not all of McCurry's photos are so fraught with meaning, although he rarely strays far from imagery charged with cultural and historical context. Two 1984 shots of ritual bathers in the waters of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal -- one featuring nearly a dozen women in colorful robes, the other focusing on a single woman, seen from behind -- are the closest he comes to celebrating pure sensuality, although the accompanying text informs us that the women are fasting and bathing in preparation to pledge themselves "to the goddess Parvati, consort of the god Shiva and mother to the elephant-headed god Ganesh." Even the initial whimsy of a 1992 shot of five burka-covered women shopping in a street market festooned with sneakers is offset by our knowledge of the oppression those flowing garments represent.
On one of the panels of text posted at points throughout the exhibition, McCurry provides a sort of aesthetic statement: "I think good documentary photography, on its highest level, gets into a realm where you've tapped into some archetype of human connection. You've struck a chord in people that has tremendous meaning beyond the event itself." And on another panel: "I want to see everything -- the whole planet, the good and the bad -- and document it so that hopefully there can be some understanding. That's what I am, what I do."
Creative people often come across as tedious and self-important when they start sounding off like this. In McCurry's case, it's easy to indulge him as long as he keeps making images as ravishing and richly evocative as the ones we see in "Photographs of Asia."