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Teju Cole thinks that Steve McCurry is too boring.

I won’t even address the other controversy about photoshopping images, whether it’s to change the color or add or remove elements, or whether the photos are staged. A different post. [1]

No, I want to address the stupidity of going back thirty years, and saying that the work is boring today.

It’s boring because it changed the world. Everyone copied it, incorporated it, stole it, paid homage to it. It’s no different than listening to early Charlie Parker and thinking, “There’s nothing special about that. Everyone does it. Some people do it even better.”


He invented it. It didn’t sound like that before. You have to have some historical awareness. It was like this. Then it was like that. There was a pre-, and a post-. It’s not fair to come in 30 years later and say, well, that’s boring. No. Everyone didn’t do it then. Now they do. If you don’t know any better, it makes old work look boring. But it looks boring, or sounds boring, because everyone else had to step up their game.

Of course there were others. There were predecessors, and influences, and a whole progression. Nothing comes from nowhere. But the reason you’re bored by McCurry is because you can’t unsee it. You can’t unhear Parker. And Bach. And Sherman. And Adams. And Hendrix. The Beatles. Yeah, they might be boring. Now. But go back and look how they changed everything. They’re incorporated. You can’t make pictures, or music, without incorporating what you’re heard and seen.

So it isn’t fair to go back today to 1985 Steve McCurry and say, “that’s boring.” There’s a reason why it’s everywhere. Today isn’t the same without Afghan Girl.


[1] tl;dr – Guilty, but who cares? Someone is going to make decisions. Silicon doesn’t have the same response as the human eye, which doesn’t have the same response as an LED screen, which doesn’t have the same response as an ink-jet, sorry, gicleé printer.

If it isn’t you making decisions about what you saw, and how you want others to see it, it’s the guy at Nikon who set the defaults for JPEGs. And if it isn’t him (sadly I can guess that I do not have a gender issue here), it’s the guy at Sony who designed the chip. And if not him, the guy at Intel decades ago who created the doping process being used that determined the sensitivity of silicon to visible light. Or Bayer, for the array pattern. Or Nikon for letting Sigma buy Foveon and letting it languish. Decisions have been made. If you accept the defaults, you simply aren’t the person making them anymore. If so, then be pure. Never crop. Take the bland RAW white balance. Don’t move to get the trash out of the frame. Make a video, else you are distorting by choosing a single non-representative moment out of the timeline.

But also be aware that your heroes didn’t accept these limitations of their equipment and resources. Read some history.

I guess this wasn’t a different post after all.