Thursday, July 29, 2010

Steve McCurry retrospective - Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

With the best will in the world, it's hard not to see the BMAG as other than the dowager duchess of the Birmingham art scene. It's your go-to place for the classics, some pre-Raphaelite action and, of course, the best tea room ever.

But the tea room flags up the main problem I've had with it: as an art gallery, it's a great architectural showcase but not, I humbly submit, a great collection of art. The Walsall Art Gallery, despite it's inconvenient location, beats it hands down for its permanent collection and usually for its touring exhibitions too.

But Milady BMAG has come up trumps with the new Waterhall exhibition, which I urge you to go see. It's snaffled a touring retrospective by photo-journalist Steve McMurry, featuring his work in South Asia, South East Asia and the former Soviet states.

McMurry basically does two types of photo - the portrait of the everyday person in a far-flung part of the world, and the landscape of same. What elevates him above travel photography cliche and the charge of voyeurism is that he is very good indeed. How shall I count the ways?

First and foremost, he knows how to pick 'em. His luminous picture of the 'Afghan Girl' from Time magazine in the 80's currently adorns the side of the BMAG. This and others in the exhibition are a great demonstration of his ability to identify people who are photogenic and - more importantly - win their trust, so as to allow him to shoot until he gets it just right.

His habit of shooting his pictures with the subject in focus and a blurred backdrop (my companion gave me the technical explanation for this but I've forgotten it now - sorry Shutterbug) draws you in and almost compels emotional engagement, while still placing the subject in a context - like a ship-breaking yard in India, or a Tibetan temple, or a village in the Hindu Kush. He doesn't candy-coat life in the developing world, nuh-huh.

Like the best photo-journalism, some of his pictures work as a wordless critique all the more powerful for the fact that interpretation is left wholly to the viewer to piece together. I was almost tearful at the top-down view of a city left bombed out by the Soviets in Afghanistan, with the lights of cookfires revealing where people were stubbornly refusing to leave their homes.

So, go check it out - it's free, it's great photography and it's inspiring to anyone with an interest in social justice!

Oh, one strike against it - it's sponsored by (harumph!) Continental Airlines (Birmingham to New York non-stop, apparently). Write to the BMAG and Magnum Photo Cooperative to tell them that you love the exhibition but wish they weren't taking the climate-polluting airline shilling to make it happen. Surely both can do better than this.

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