Steve McCurry, renowned American photojournalist most famous for “Afghan Girl”, a startling portrait named the most recognized photograph in the history of National Geographic, deserves his reputation as one of the leading photographers of our times. It feels a shame to see his output reserved in the public consciousness to this one photograph; McCurry’s body of work is one to truly take the breath away, and a sizeable retrospective thereof is currently on show at Macro Testaccio. Largely a freelance photographer, McCurry fearlessly and assiduously documents international conflicts the world over, and his work seeks to lay emphasis on the consequences of conflict, most arrestingly so when he focuses on these consequences for the human condition. His photographs often make for uncomfortable and challenging viewing, and the experience at MACRO Testaccio is very much in this vein.
Upon entry, one is at first bewildered by the science-fiction futurism of the exhibition space. The photographs are neatly arranged into a series of large capsule-like structures, giving a full 360 degree immersion into a carefully chosen selection of images that invites quiet contemplation and introspection, before one is whisked on to the next dome, exchanging one high resolution immersive space for another. It is perhaps heavy-handed the way you are pushed through McCurry’s photographic world, but it adds a real driving force to the exhibition, which can only be commended.
Into the exhibition proper, the opening few photo-domes offer a stark reminder of the horrors of warfare. Particularly unsettling are the photographs of child soldiers who stare directly down the camera lens, gun in hand, chillingly bereft of expression. Shocked to attention, we begin our journey through over twenty years of photojournalism. An interesting feature of this exhibition, however, lies in its ability to mix the grim reality found in places of warfare with a lightness of touch and joviality in other, less troubled parts of the world McCurry has visited. Interspersing these devastating portraits of human suffering are moments of spontaneous human joy: a snatched kiss here, a maternal embrace there. These portraits give way to photographs of landscape, then to photographs of statue and of sculpture, yet crucially always returning to the human subject. For McCurry, it becomes clear the human is paramount, wherever in the world his lens may point.
At times though each photo-dome may seem strikingly different in content, in each can be traced a common, often subtle, linking thread: a particular color hue, a choice emotion or expression, a recurring object. This serves at once to unite the diverse photographs collected together in each dome, and also to distinguish them from domes previous. This neat curatorial decision lends real interest and a sense of progression through the exhibition. A final overhead panel photograph depicting a huge crowd of people greets the viewer upon exit, in what is an uplifting reminder that as different as we may seem, as different as our lives the world over can be, the common thread uniting us rests in our humanity.
Not only are these high quality prints of the utmost technical quality, with vibrant hue, tonality and a thoughtful composition that subtly emphasizes the subject, they form a sensitive yet profound articulation of the human condition, achieved with such seeming authenticity that the interference of the camera is not discernible, allowing engagement with each and every photograph on a meaningful level. Emerging blinking into the Roman sun once more, this immersive experience of this sometimes dark, sometimes uplifting, always challenging exhibition of bold photography leaves quite the impression.