Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Portable Exhibit: Review of Steve McCurry's "Portraits" for iPad

By Beth Green

The best art exhibition I’ve seen recently fits in my travel purse.

A photo collage tribute to McCurry's "Afghan Girl"
by Flickr user francisshanahan
While nothing will replace for me the experience of seeing art in the flesh—of examining a larger-than-life image in a quiet, contemplative atmosphere and the fun of puzzling out what the artist and the curator want me to “get”—I am blown away by the quality and enjoyment factor of the photographs exhibited in the “Portraits” app for iPad, a collection of images of faces and places by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry.

If you don’t recognize his name—I didn’t—you’re sure to know at least one of his photos shown in this touch-screen gallery visit: “Afghan Girl,” the 1984 portrait of a green-eyed Pashtun refugee. It was on the front cover of National Geographic magazine in June, 1985, and is likely the magazine’s best recognized image. Many people liken the photo’s intensity to that of theMona Lisa.”

Swiping through the 100 images collected in the app, it’s clear that the intensity in “Afghan Girl” is one of McCurry’s signatures. Traveling the world for National Geographic—you can search the app for photos from different countries by tapping a map and browse receipts and scrapbook-worthy tidbits of his travels in another section—McCurry has captured the profundity of people’s life experiences again and again. Elderly believers in France hoping for a miracle cure in Lourdes. A little girl pounding grain in Niger.  An eleven-year-old bare-chested gold miner in the Philippines. In his frank images, the viewer can interpret the stories of whole lives.

In the integrated 23-minute video narrated by McCurry, he says that he chooses his subjects for the depth of expression on their faces. While he’s walking on the street and browsing crowds for potential people to approach with his request for a portrait, he looks for the “intrinsic story written on their face,” he tells us in the video. I was surprised that McCurry says most of his portraits are taken in just five minutes; since he tends to find people who are busy or on their way to another place, he doesn’t want to ask for too much of their time.

Some of the people featured are ones we know are busy: activist Aung San Suu Kyi, actor Robert De Niro, and author Paul Theroux. But most of the portraits are of humble, everyday people, featured in their workday clothes, going about their business. There’s the Tibetan woman by a fighter jet in Lhasa, 2000; an engineer with clasped hands in Kashmir; a woman selling paintings from her car in Italy; Dubliners waiting for a bus.

After I get past the intensity of the eyes in these pictures, the next element that draws me in is the sense of place from the photos; the feeling of anticipation, of guessing what scenes are beyond the borders of the portrait. The woman practicing her cello in the mirror in France—is she about to give a performance, in her red jacket? Does the boy at the door in Mauritania invite McCurry to go inside, or is he too shy? Why is the Burmese woman, with her neck elongated by rings, laughing?

It’s amazing that, in the short amount of time McCurry says he is able to capture these street-side images, he’s able to harness the light in such a way that each one looks like a studio portrait. In the app’s video, he cites Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio as his inspiration. What would these painters have done with a camera, I wonder? Probably something similar to what McCurry does.

The app is available on iTunes, and, at time of writing, is free to download. For non-iPad-toting readers, many of McCurry’s excellent travel photos can be seen on his blog and on his Facebook page.


  1. What a great find. Have it downloading as I write.

  2. What can't we do with our iPhones? Yep, I'm off to download now as well. Can't imagine how the digital form can compare to the tactile one but keeping an open mind.

    1. Curious what you think of them now you've downloaded it, Supriya. I've never been able to catch an in-person exhibition of McCurry's photos before, but I'd love to now.

      Does anyone reading the comments know of any other photo or art apps? I would have loved to have had this when teaching in China.

  3. Love the idea of carrying a portrait gallery around in your pocket. And what a wonderful way to document the human diversity of our world. Thanks for sharing, Beth.

    1. The photos are really inspiring, Heidi. Definitely look at his website if you don't have access to an iPad. Are there any photo sites you can recommend that feature Persian themes or photographers?