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Faces of Asia: A Study of Photographer Steve McCurry

 

 One elemental rule that governs every living being’s life here on this planet regardless of culture, race, beliefs, species or wealth is time. We are all bound to use whatever amount has been allotted to us while we are living. Time cannot be domesticated or controlled, the only option we have is to capture it and reflect upon what that particular moment means to us. This is the business of men like Steve McCurry. Steve McCurry has been at the “ground zero” of photojournalism for nearly thirty years. His timeless works have captured the distant lives and faces of those whom we would never normally see in our lifetimes. His subjects are foreign to our Western eyes and their customs are distant and intriguing but if you set aside these differences in appearance and custom then we can clearly see, perhaps most clearly of all, ourselves. Why do these photographs continually spellbind us so? How is it possible that simple reproduced picture can have an impact the travels far beyond the aesthetic and into the very psyche of the viewer itself? Do these personal scenes ask something from us? And if so what do they want to convey?

           “A picture says a thousand words” is a popular cliché that is used almost to the point of meaninglessness, but what if a single picture really can tell a person’s life story? What if it could speak to us? What would it tell us? In this world of “life in the fast lane” and instant gratification we go through our days without the slightest stray thought about all of the other places, cultures, struggles and triumphs that happen in the world. In its place we “multitask” and “teleconference” to comply with “deadlines” and “enterprising opportunities”.  World renown and respected photojournalist Steve McCurry captures these images with an eye for beauty and substance that has few equal. He has routinely developed some of the most haunting and introspective views into the lives of people from all over the world in various states of living; power, despair, love, death, and hope. His “eye” chronicles the lives of those whom we would never have seen or given thought to and demands we face them and in that moment share something that is so intimate and delicate, we share ourselves.  How can a mere portrait made from paper and various chemicals cause such an internal stir within us?

MOTIVATION:

          McCurry’s motivation is from the perspective of both a dedicated artist and a historian. As a historical chronicler he must assert himself into the very crux of where history is taking place. He possesses a true passion to reveal the unspoken side of historical event s and give both a face and ultimately a voice to the “unseen” participants that often get swept up into histories path. This human oriented spirit lends itself to his true expressive powers as a photographic artist. As a photographer, McCurry so wholly becomes one with his subject that he is then in a unique perspective to be surrounded by people who are unaware or detached from what he is doing and carry on their lives as normal. From this vantage he is then free to capture the images that can easily define a region or at the very least bring attention a situation far better than any figurehead or mass communication could vocalize.

Audience:

          I believe these images of simple and oft time’s impoverished people are meant for the ones who are merely unaware of their existence. For me, I felt that his work reaches its maximum potential with those of us who have more benefits and luxuries in life than the persons pictured. I think his work is meant for core nations in the western world primarily. These personal and engaging portraits would likely have little effect if they were shown to someone who is, for instance, the neighbor of one of the subjects. His work does far more to those who upon viewing them can take a long and calculated look into the alternative versions of human life that are not so easily seen from the vantage of an office desk or from a computer screen and then be stripped of their comfort and have to be face to face with someone in such a personal way. This proves to have a cathartic effect on the viewer in that throughout their plight or struggle or poverty they still have the same basic needs and desires as anyone else. In this way McCurry lets us all know that there is a big world out there and we are only after all a small portion of it.

Journalism or art?:

         Marshall McLuhan once said that the “medium is the message” and in that context I do not believe there is a decisive difference between both journalism and art because they neither can exist without a usage of the other. Art is a form of journalism in that it reports a thought or sentiment that is captured in the mind of the creator andrendered onto the chosen medium. Art more than anything else can exponentially magnify the emotional meaning and intent of any piece because of arts nature to “speak” to a portion of our mind that is not overtly accessed by the hearing or reading of words. It can play on our fears, fill us with joy and love or leave us moved and saddened. These intrinsic qualities are what make it so valuable to this end.  Solely reporting without the usage of some kind of iconography or thematic visual aid could not deliver the same message with all the intent that the writer, or editor would have devised. This is not to say that writing by itself cannot create a similar situation in one’s mind through the use of creative and strategic word choice. but as a visual creatures something very personal happens when we are shown a glimpse into art.

Framing and Conclusion:

  They framing of the artists work is the crucial component that makes it as extraordinary and powerful as it is even fifteen or twenty years later. McCurry’s technique gives the viewer enough surrounding information to provide the basics of a back story for the subject but not enough to really know definitively. This is accomplished by the proximity of the subject in the portrait. He puts us (the viewer) closer and more intimate than we would likely be with almost anyone except our family and loved ones. He somehow pireces our comfort zone and leaves us no choice but to partake in the exchange. We cannot be protected by our status, or prestige and we must meet and engage this person on equal terms. The realization that this is a real human being that did not rehearse this picture or do anything other than be at this place at such a specific point in time somehow burnishes a feeling of concern or worry that they are safe and not in need almost the same way you would care for a family member. His pictures take away the defensive walls that humans build and let us see each other in the “unguarded moment” as Mr. McCurry says where very real feelings of compassion and kinship spawn for each other on a species level. After viewing this exhibit my idea about his work has changed tremendously and I am deeply satisfied that I have had the chance to view this exhibit and formulate these conclusions.

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Interpreting the main “schools” of Buddhist Art. Gandhara, Mathura, and Amaravati

  The rising belief in Buddhism That spread greatly through India during the first and second centuries had spurred a renewed artistic fervor to illustrate the enlightened one and relay his message. During this prolific time emerged three main “schools” in India that had developed their own particular styles and distinctions. These were the Gandhara, Mathura, and Amaravati schools. Each region had fashioned their own technique in how they would portray the Buddha in their craft. Although, even with these differences there remained a set of distinctive parameters or lakshana that could easily define the piece as a Buddha notwitstanding what country you were in. In all there were thirty-two distinguishing features that needed to be expressed to give the piece validity. These ranged from specifying the color of the individual, to arm length, hand gestures and even identifying marks on the body such as wheels or chakras which are depicted on the palms of the hands.        

  Since those early explorations into Buddhist artwork the religion had gained much attention in neighboring countries and lands far away from its original inception. These places; such as Sri Lanka, China and Korea all needed to adopt their own “iteration” of their god as did the early Buddhists of India so long ago. In response to these countries need for icons, there is an amazingly similar approach to the tenets that the original schools practiced that has seemed to transcend time and culture while preserving much of the sentiment that was ingrained by the founding artisans from India’s past.        

Sri Lanka        

Parinirvana of the Buddha, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

 

 In the “Parinirvana of the Buddha” (9-35) a giant rock-cut statue of the Buddha is hewn from the side of a rock face. The Buddha is lying on his side and displays many Indian “markers” or traditional motives. The Piece has a soft and dreamy appearance that has no real hard or sharp lines of definition in the body or clothing lending a hallmark of the Mathura school of technique. The Buddha’s body is soft and gentle in appearance and only offers basic defining characteristics of the Buddha identity set. These features are consistent with an earlier piece done by Mathura trained artisans (9-14). This piece is further characterized by the light and almost non- existent presence of the clothing worn on the statue. It is only gently displayed through subtle lines that give a sense of the body shape beneath the robe itself. Also important to note is the facial features which take on an almost abstract appearance and delve away from perceptual realism. The hair’s abstract circle pattern and angled large oval eyes are less based in realism but more seated in conveying the intention of the piece to the viewer, again another indicator of the Mathura style. The overall intent and meaning to this piece is to impart the intensity and centrality of the theme in Buddhism while using the scale and abstract elements to convey the artist sentiment.       

China     

seated buddha cave 20, Yungang Grotto, china

 

 In “Seated Buddha, cave 20” (10-13) which is situated along a portion of the old “Silk Road” trade route in China. There is a large rock cut relief statue of the Buddha that initially resided inside a natural cave, but weathering has eroded the exterior fully exposing the work inside. This location along an inter-cultural “highway” most likely birthed this interpretation of Buddha by way of a subtle mixing of styles; Primarily the Gandhara and Mathura approaches. The clothing is a hybrid of either style because it does not have a harsh, set patterning like some Hellenistic pieces but it does still retain some rich, repetitive detail in the folding and mannerisms of worn clothing with an added amount of abstract embellishment. The facial structure more closely resembles the Gandhara style (9-13) in its sharper definition and more “Greek” move toward facial features. The nose and eye treatment closely resembles early Mediterranean art in its execution of more sharply defining facial contours in a conceptual manner. This is further compounded by the archaic smile of the Buddha that has been seen on many Greek artworks in the past.  The overall softer body tones and shaping can obviously be attributed to the Mathura style as well as the overall presentation is not as precise or discerning in proportion as some other Gandhara works.        

Korea      

Bodhisattvva Seated in Meditation. National Museum of Korea, Seoul. photo by Han Seok-Hong

 

  In the “Bodhisattva Seated in Meditation” (10-27) we have a good example of a Korean art work patterning itself in the style of the Amaravati School. Here a slight and slender portrayal of a Bodhisattva is seated in deep (as well as joyful?) meditation. This is very similar to the third school of Buddhist Indian artwork in the depiction of these more thinly bodied and delicately appointed figures.  The treatment of the garments associated settings has a conceptual feel while simultaneously exuding a light and vibrant energy through the forms. This art feels free and expressive but not bound to scrutinous detail which it does not need to relay its concept. Overall, the piece’s lacking of “trained detail” as in past examples finds itself as a fresh approach which has an uplifting and gentle feel.