Many successful collections of photographs from foreign lands give the viewer a sense of being in a new place, of experiencing faraway places and distant cultures through photography. The Unguarded Moment turns the viewer not just into a traveler but into a particularly fortunate traveler – one with the instincts of Steve McCurry, a photographer who seems able to place himself in the right place at the right time. Daily life seems to unfold – extraordinary and unguarded – before McCurry’s keen eyes.
McCurry has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1986 and is a frequent contributor to National Geographic. He may be best known for “Afghan Girl,” his iconic, stunning portrait of a green-eyed Afghan refugee in Pakistan in 1984. Over the course of his long career McCurry has covered significant global news stories: wars, civil conflicts, and natural disasters. The images in “The Unguarded Moment,” however, do not stand out for their news value. They seek, instead, to celebrate the human experience of everyday life.
A couple wades through waist-high monsoon waters in India, carrying a pair of shoes, a handbag, and an umbrella. Five young monks play video games outside a monastery in India. A geisha in full makeup climbs the subway stairs in Tokyo. Each fills a large, landscape page. There is no hierarchy. Each page shows one scene. Flip to the next and you’re on a different continent or in another decade.
Occasionally a paragraph will appear, in which McCurry shares an anecdote or adds some historical context. But most of the photos appear with only the briefest of captions. If reportage were poetry, this would be a lovely collection of haikus – each simple image, carefully chosen, glosses beautifully over the surface of a scene, inviting the viewer to imagine the details.
Sarah Beth Glicksteen is a photo intern at the Monitor.