Steve McCurry Retrospective — Water Hall, Birmingham

There is a wonderful retrospective of photographer Steve McCurry’s exquisite colour work from India, Afghanistan, Peru, Tibet and elsewhere at Birmingham’s Water Hall gallery (behind the main art gallery). If you don’t think you know McCurry’s work, I urge you to go — because you’ll find out that you do. He is one of National Geographic’s most widely published and exhibited photographers and I can almost guarantee that you will have seen something by him.

The exhibition started today and runs until the 6th October. In the run up to its city of culture bid, Birmingham could have done nothing better or more fitting in my view than this free exhibition. It is reasonably large, but not too large; the quality of the prints is simply stunning — some of them, like  this one, which is the cover of McCurry’s latest book, THE UNGUARDED MOMENT, are enlarged to pretty much the limits of 35mm format photography, the prints measuring about 4.5 feet by 6.5 feet — and Water Hall is cool and quiet and gorgeous and you can sit and ponder these magnificent, humane photos to your heart’s content.

McCurry is a master photographer. But what he truly excels at is his reading of colour and light. His pictures are famous as much for the extraordinary beauty of the colour and light they capture as for the subjects he covers. In the 1970s, 80s and into the early 90s (at least) he was an acknowledged master of Kodachrome slide film. Kodachrome, recently discontinued, is of archival quality, hence its attraction over the years for many professional colour photographers. But more than this it has a unique look, a lush intense rendition of colour, but subtle. Most of the prints in the retrospective are not under glass, and there is an almost overwhelming urge to run one’s hand across their surface, touching the glowing colours, the soft light.

Go and see it. Sign the visitors book — Birmingham should be programming far more photography exhibitions and the Water Hall is a perfect space!

Oh, but this has nothing to do with social enterprise, I hear you saying. In fact, it does.  Steve McCurry is a member of Magnum photo agency and this retrospective is a Magnum touring exhibition. Magnum is the longest-established member-owned photography co-operative in the world. Founded in 1947, as the world emerged from the second world war, Magnum’s founders — Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David ‘Chim’ Seymour, and George Rodger — set up the co-op specifically as a means of ensuring that they owned and controlled the work they produced. Then, with picture magazines at their height and a huge hunger for visual information, it was not at all unusual for photographers to lose not only the rights to their published work but even sometimes the negatives too, all given over to the the magazine publishers. Magnum was a way of handing control back to photographers.

For those wanting to know more about Magnum, its functioning and its turbulent history, Russell Miller’s Magnum: Fifty Years at the Frontline of History is a marvellous read and brings the extraordinary venture that is Magnum Photos to life.

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