To help celebrate National Geographic’s 125th birthday The Art Science Museum in Singapore put on, for the first time in South East Asia, a celebration of 50 iconic photographs from the National Geographic archives. An exciting prospect to view this exhibition and of particular interest to me was the chance to see an original print of Steve McCurry’s iconic ‘Afghan Girl’. Naturally there are other great photographs but this image has something quite special about it and has been in my consciousness for many years. It has become world famous since McCurry took it in 1984 and much more so after it appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in June of 1985.
The light in the eyes of the girl (her name is Sharbat Gula) is illuminating. Her stare is intense and is the epitome of staring into one’s soul. Her mouth is a straight, defiant line and her face is dirty. Her rust red hajib frames her olive skinned face and is complimented by the green of her eyes and background. This is not a girl with an easy life and yet the eyes gaze in to the lens with an unreadable engagement that draws the viewer towards her and her story.
It was dark inside the exhibition. I mean really dark. Each photograph was lit by an individual lamp which had a rectangular vignette to frame it. Except, as I walked on through the exhibition I found that what looked like a purple vignette on the first few photographs was in fact just very badly set up lighting. As I progressed I found, to my dismay, that many of the lighting units had dropped significantly leaving the top portion of some images in the dark whilst leaving several inches of white light under the pronounced shadow at the bottom of the print. To say that this was distracting is an understatement, as now the conversation with my wife (who had also noticed this) turned from, “how did the photographer take this?” to, “how could they light it so badly?”.
As I turned the corner in to the next room I came face-to-face with a massive ten foot tall print with two indomitable green eyes staring down at me. Here it was, the piece de resistance. Except that was it, the eyes, all I could see were the two green eyes. The curator had taken it upon themselves to light the eyes and the eyes alone. Not for me to see the interplay of light and colour between the rest of the sublime portrait that McCurry is famous for. No, just the eyes. Why had the curator taken it upon themselves to further edit the photograph by lighting it in this way? I understand the whole curatorial process is an exercise in delicate (or in this case not-so-delicate) editing, but this was ridiculous.
So I moved on with mild annoyance and some irritation to the next exhibit. I realised by now that the curator had thought that this was quite a good wheeze and now was lighting for fun; directing my eyes at specific parts of the photograph at a whim. It was all very odd. Here I was at a world beating photographic exhibition containing images by arguably some of the finest photographers in the world and I am left at the mercy of an implausible, self-serving lighting set-up! Next on the agenda was another McCurry creation, the only (so far as I could tell) medium format photograph in the exhibition. Another epic photograph, from Kuwait this time, made during Desert Storm. The grit, grain and depressing detail of the clouds of burning oil combined with the near silhouette of the camels renders this a fantastic account of the burning of the oil fields by Saddam Hussein’s forces in retreat. It really speaks to me as I was nineteen years old at the time and realistically only just coming to grips with world events. Even then this was rolling news on outlets like the BBC and images like this are burnt on on my memory.
However, the photograph in the exhibition was lit more like this (and this is not an exaggeration).
Baring in mind this image had been given pride of place in its own room with sound effects and mirrored walls, the curator obviously wanted it to have gravitas. Well, it does. Enormous gravitas. In it’s own right. Just light it well and it has gravitas all its own. No whistles, no bells, just let me look and make my own mind up please.
I honestly see no point in lighting an exhibition like this except to try and gain some sort of notoriety as a curator. Well, you have gained some with me.
But not the good kind.