There it is on a wall at the far end of the first floor of the Boca Raton Museum of Art -- "the picture."
It has been described as one of the most memorable photographs ever made. In it, a faintly androgynous Afghan girl of perhaps 11 or 12, clad in tattered red and green, fixes the photographer with an unnerving stare. The intensity of her gaze is such that it's possible to read all kinds of emotions into it: fear, defiance, bewilderment, wariness, surprise, contempt, maybe even a little sorrow.
"The picture," titled simply Afghan Girl, is the centerpiece of "Steve McCurry: Photographs of Asia," and the chance to see it in person is one of the best reasons to visit the Boca Museum this summer. It's one of those photos that won't let you go. The girl's eyes, gold in the center radiating into shades of yellow, green, and blue, are beautiful and terrifying. They speak of a life that most of us can scarcely conceive, even after the shattering global events of the past few years.
McCurry snapped the now-famous shot in a refugee camp near the border city of Peshawar, Pakistan, while working for National Geographic in 1984, at the height of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He had been to Pakistan a few years earlier on his first assignment for the magazine, and during his next visit, he spotted the Afghan girl in a tent classroom. "Her eyes were the first thing that struck me," he recalled later. "She seemed to be shy, a little bit troubled. I shot a few frames of her." Even so, he didn't bother to get her name.
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The image took on a life of its own, however, when it went on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic. Much later, in 2002, McCurry returned to the region and set out to find his anonymous subject. Amazingly, after a few false leads, he eventually found her, learned her name (Sharbat Gula), and photographed her again.
In the shot that went on to grace the cover of the magazine's April 2002 issue, she's completely concealed in a purple burka and holds a copy of the portrait of her younger self. For another shot, McCurry more or less re-created the original pose, and it's jarring to see the two photos displayed a few feet apart. Gula is now about 30 years old, a wife and mother of three girls, and her face, while still attractive, has weathered after nearly two decades of life in a war zone. The eyes now project sorrow as well as profound weariness and resignation.
Had McCurry never taken another photo, his place in the history of the medium would be secure. But as the 50 or so other images in "Photographs of Asia" confirm, he's not a one- (or even two-) shot wonder. McCurry has spent more than half his life traveling the world and documenting what he sees, and he has a very fine eye indeed.
The show includes several more portraits in which the subjects stare directly into the lens with a look that seems to insist, "You can never truly know me." A shadowy shot of a shepherdess wearing ivory and metal bracelets, photographed in Jodhpur, India, in 1997, is reminiscent of Afghan Girl. Pictures of Buddhist monks in Tibet range from a solemn little boy posed before an older monk to a serene young man holding prayer beads to an elderly man with a face as craggy as the Himalayas.
Like so many first-rate photojournalists, McCurry has an uncanny ability to capture extraordinary images on the fly, a knack for picking up on fleeting moments that resonate emotionally, even spiritually, as well as aesthetically. An astonishing 1994 shot from Mandalay, Myanmar, shows the façade of a Buddhist temple literally carved into the face of a massive wall of rock marked with gaping vertical fissures, one of which runs right into the temple's entry arch. Three tiny red-robed figures, probably monks, approach the arch from the stony, foliage-covered steps below, dwarfed by the imposing landscape.
It's a gorgeous image on its own, no question. But it's even more remarkable for the volume of information it captures. In a single shot, McCurry conveys, perhaps unwittingly, an encapsulated history of a place where the spiritual life is inextricably embedded into the natural world, even as that world bears the scars of internal and external turmoil. Also implicit are observations on the place and scale of human endeavor in the grander scheme of things.
The awe inspired by such a picture plunges headlong into brutal reality in a similar shot of a mountain face, this one taken in Bamian, Afghanistan, in 1992. The top half of the photograph is dominated by the background, in which a gigantic statue of the Buddha looms in its cavernous niche, carved into the stone, it has been estimated, sometime between the third and fifth centuries. In the foreground, life proceeds as usual among people and animals in an open bazaar.
The huge sculpture, you may realize with a shudder, is one of the chunks of cultural history annihilated in an instant in March 2001, when the Taliban blasted such unacceptable "idols" into oblivion. To look at the photo now, in the lingering aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, is to imagine an empty space in place of the Buddha, in much the same way many of us mentally erase the World Trade Center from post-9/11 images of Manhattan.
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."
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