“He’s one of the most prominent photographers of our times, I think we can say that. But he’s very private. So we don’t know him, we don’t know Steve McCurry. Maybe we know his name, maybe we know the ‘Afghan Girl,’ but not much more,” Denis Delestrac told Variety, ahead of the DOC NYC world premiere of “McCurry: The Pursuit of Color.” In his new documentary, the award-winning French filmmaker uncovers new aspects of the photographer’s biography by intertwining archive footage, photographs, observational sequences and some interview excerpts featuring McCurry himself as well as his relatives, friends and colleagues.
“McCurry: The Pursuit of Color” was produced by Polar Star Films, Intrepido Films, Steam Roller Media A.I.E., in association with SWR/ARTE. The project was backed by ICEC, ICAA and the MEDIA slate funding. U.K.-based sales agent Dogwoof is currently selling the title at the American Film Market.
Although Delestrac had the chance to shoot a short documentary with the legendary photographer in 2001 and the two knew each other since then, gaining McCurry’s trust has been a lengthy process: “He’s got his temper, and when you don’t know him, you don’t really understand that. But when you get closer to him, and you see what he has seen — the darkest and brightest sides of the human condition — you realize that his skin is as thick as a shield. And that’s the way he protects himself. He is a very sensitive person, like many other artists are, and he doesn’t like to be criticized or being in the spotlight. We didn’t have this kind of trust since day one. In the beginning, it was like a ‘vote of confidence.’ But as we were shooting, we learned how to ‘dance’ together.”
Delestrac was particularly fascinated by McCurry’s ability to see something invisible to others, and by his frenetic working approach, which made him feel “very slow” and almost “blind.” At first glance, the photographer seems taking too many pictures and focusing on random people, such as “a couple sitting on a bench” or “someone reading a newspaper.” “But then you realize he actually wants to create what he calls the ‘summary album of our species,’ [to be completed] before the world loses its color, namely its diversity and authenticity,” Delestrac explained. Following McCurry across the seven continents for five years was essential to “let him lower the guard” and explore some intimate aspects of his life, such as his physical disability, his troubled childhood, the environment he grew up in and his escape from a country he didn’t really fit in: “My theory is that he was looking for a community. He was looking for a family, or a place to call ‘home.’ And the first community he found was where the Afghans were, amid that geopolitical storm. After he witnessed how Afghans were treated and killed during the Soviet invasion, he had to keep running away for most of his life. When he got a job, he realized he could make a living out of his photographic work.”
Interestingly, the documentary does not avoid tackling the controversy around the so-called “Photoshop scandal.” “I think it’s a very important debate. What is art? What is journalism? I think Steve, whenever he’s been working for a magazine or a newspaper, he’s always been very honest with the images he’s delivered. He never wanted to be a journalist and he worked hard to get rid of that label. But I think this ‘Photoshop scandal’ has been a great opportunity to have his say. It forced him to answer some questions. Who are you? If you think you’re an artist, just say it once and for all, and make it clear. In the movie, this scene is very important, because it triggers what I would like to call his ‘declaration of independence,’” Delestrac concluded.