Steve McCurry has been one of the most iconic figures in contemporary photography for more than three decades. That’s why Leica chose him as the first recipient of the Leica Hall of Fame Award in 2011 – and as one of the first testers of the Leica SL2 in 2019.
You have now been taking pictures for 40 years. What is it that drives you to get on a plane and document a certain topic?
I’ve always been curious about other places. I’ve always wanted to see other parts of the world for myself. I think that travel and seeing the world and experiencing the planet that we live on is maybe one of the most important things we can do. I love revisiting places and seeing how a country has evolved since the last time I was there. We’re here in this world for such a short time, and it seems that the most interesting, most worthwhile thing you can do is actually see the world.
Do you still remember what it was like when you started as a professional photographer?
I started from scratch, trying to find my way, trying to find resources, but I was completely free. I felt like I had all the time in the world. Everything was fresh and new. It’s very exciting to go out and photograph something for the first time. One of my first foreign trips was to Mexico. I enjoyed being able to walk around and photograph without any deadlines, any assignments or any pressure; the world was a blank canvas.
How often have you been to China? Is this your photographic feel-good country?
I have spent the last 40 years of my life traveling throughout Asia, and I’ve been to China many times for many different photographic projects. I recall going to China in the early 1980s; it was really off the grid – in terms of its interaction with the rest of the world. Fast forward 35 years and it’s unimaginable; the change, the transformation. It’s an economic powerhouse. It’s a visually rich country and has great traditions and art and culture. And the people are open to being photographed.
What defines your choices when you’re taking a picture?
Most of my images are grounded in people and stories. I look for that unguarded moment and try to convey some part of what it is like to be that person, or in a broader sense, to relate their life to the human experience as a whole. The choices I make when photographing are influenced by the stories I want to tell.
Are the images created in mind or on site?
Both. You have to see the picture first in your mind’s eye.
What makes a “strong” image, what makes a convincing series?
For me, a strong image is the one with rhythm, harmony and full of emotional content. A strong image is usually more about the story as opposed to the technical aspects.
Is the story more important, or the composition?
I believe the story is more important. The subject, composition and lighting are all important and will greatly impact how the viewer appreciates the story being told. However, I can recall a number of photographs that don’t have the greatest composition, yet tell an incredible story, making them strong images.
Is it harder to photograph a foreign country than your own?
Sometimes I find it often more difficult to photograph things that are familiar to me, such as my neighbourhood. I find foreign countries and new places to be more inspiring; I always want to learn from new surroundings. However, I think it’s your frame of mind. You can always examine your immediate environment and find inspiration if you put your mind to it.
You recently referred to yourself as a visual storyteller – could you explain your focus as a photographer?
For me, photography is literally about wandering, observing and telling stories. Whether it’s portraiture, human behaviour or how we live on this planet. From my early days of photography, I’ve always felt the influence of André Kertész, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work demonstrates that profound and universal storytelling is considered art. It’s always about the feel of the place and the emotion; it’s my personal point of view.
You started using the Leica SL earlier this year, and now you’ve been the first to test the new SL2. Why did you decide to move from DSLR to mirrorless, and why did you decide to choose a Leica?
Mirrorless is the future. No doubt about it. Being able to see the photos true exposure made my process of photographing even quicker.
What makes the Leica SL2 so special? Why would you recommend the camera?
I tried many cameras and decided to adopt the SL system for several reasons that were immediately evident. First of all, the image quality. It’s unbelievable; I’ve never seen anything comparable. Then the EVF screen is very bright, large, and of exceptional quality. This was the only mirrorless camera that looked right and felt right when I put my eye to the viewfinder. Second, the quality of the optics. I had no doubts about this, but personally testing the files allowed me to understand its full potential. And finally, the camera usability. After a few days of use, the feeling with the SL2 was exceptional.
What would you consider a successful day?
A successful day for me would be spending time in a place that I’m curious about, even without my camera. I love to wander and explore new places, learn about the history and culture and get inspired to tell new stories through my photographs.
Steve McCurry. Born in 1950, the photographer has been one of the most iconic figures in contemporary photography for more than three decades. He has created unforgettable images over six continents and numerous countries. His body of work spans conflicts, vanishing cultures, ancient traditions and contemporary culture alike. McCurry has been recognised with some of the most prestigious awards, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal, National Press Photographers Award and an unprecedented four World Press Photo awards, amongst many others.
A portfolio with his pictures from China will be published in the upcoming issue of LFI magazine.