A Far-away Focus Steve Mccurry Captures Fleeting Moments Of Beauty Frame By Frame As He Wanders Throughout South Asia. The World Traveler, Who Hails From Newtown Square, Has Returned To Share His Extraordinary Photographs.

Posted: September 12, 2000

NEW YORK — Steve McCurry squeezed his eyes shut, struggling to capture in words the images he so deftly conjured with a click of his camera.

"I think it's a combination," he began, trying to explain the pull of South and Southeast Asia. No. He must shift focus. "Unlike any other part of the world, you have this, well, continuity of culture, history and religion that appears .. . ." He stopped again; the frame of his picture still wasn't quite right.

This slight, unassuming man opened his deep-set eyes, the color surprisingly close to the color of his Afghan girl's. McCurry, 50, is perhaps best known for the stunning portrait of a young refugee with the emerald eyes and unforgettable gaze that originally graced the cover of National Geographic. It is one of 67 photographs in his new coffee-table book, South Southeast (Phaidon Press, $59.95). Tonight at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, the world-wanderer with roots in Delaware County will present a slide show and lecture. The program, sponsored by Joseph Fox Bookshop, will include a book-signing.

He made a final stab at explaining the elusive something that had drawn him back to Asia dozens upon dozens of times. "Yesterday, I was trying to figure out how I was going to answer these questions. . . . Well, you see people living and doing things in the same way that they've probably done them for thousands of years," he said, a world away in this country, in this city that changes by the second. "The architecture, the lifestyle is this sort of blend of modern and ancient."

His words aren't anywhere close to the power conveyed by his award-winning visual images. How could we expect that much? A McCurry photograph, really a light-and-shadow story that revels in glorious color, memorializes a fleeting moment of life, reveals something so deep down about an individual that not even a thousand words could explain as much.

His repertoire overflows with more than two decades of photographs from all over the world. But his favorite work, his heart's love, emanates from the rhythms of South and Southeast Asia, from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Cambodia, Myanmar, Afghanistan and, especially, India.

"This is a personal journey," he says, shrugging off those who might think this new book a bit romantic, with its portrayal of India's villages, Thailand's monks, Sri Lanka's fishermen.

South Southeast showcases the Afghan girl, of course, but it also shows us India's teeming railroad stations, travelers, hawkers, homeless, all jostling for a claim; Bombay's unrelenting monsoon; an Afghanistan hospital of lost, insane souls, victims of a decade-old war.

And he shows us the faces: the beggar woman carrying a child, saucer eyes peering inside his taxicab; the red boy, his face smeared eerily with blood-colored powder that celebrates the birthday of Lord Ganesh, a jovial elephant-headed diety; the chess players in Jodhpur with red turbans sparkling like rubies against sapphire-blue arches.

"They represent some of my favorite places, places that have meaning for me, stories," he said.

The captions are sparse - most offer only the location and year - but a handful tell the story behind the picture with satisfying words.

"Back in 1978, when I first left for India - really left with that young man's door-slamming sense of forever - I'd already been all over the world," he writes. "But this time was different. This time I had slung over my shoulder the camera that I was determined would somehow pay for a serious case of wanderlust - a wanderlust as the ancient traders had it, hauling the teas, dyes and spices that still stain the roads and permeate the air of the most colorful part of the world."

McCurry, the youngest of three children, grew up in Newtown Square, Delaware County, the only son of an electrical engineering father and a homemaker mother.

He wasn't one of those photographers who picked up a camera at 12. He struggled in school, barely graduating from Marple Newtown High. He was one of those teenagers without focus or purpose. He had no idea what his life's work might be. But he knew one thing: He wanted to travel the world.

After high school, he spent a year wandering Europe on a dishwasher's wage, "just for fun."

As he spoke, McCurry shifted awkwardly on an inner ledge inside the 14th-floor office of his publisher as a photographer snapped his picture. He worried how he would look, this balding man with a mustache as modest as his demeanor.

When he returned to the States, he enrolled in a small college in the South - "one of those, if you could pay, you got in," he said, laughing. McCurry soon made the grades and transferred to Pennsylvania State University, where he studied cinematography and history, traveled to Africa and South America, and took his first photography classes.

He still remembers the names of the professors. "It had such an enormous impact," he said. "I was so impressionable. Those two classes were probably as important to me as any part of my education. It struck right to the core of my soul. This is what I wanted to do."

He worked two years for a now-defunct suburban newspaper, shooting a mundane schedule of ribbon cuttings, Chamber of Commerce events, and such.

"I decided what I really wanted to do was see the world and travel," he said. "I quit, cold."

He immersed himself in India for two years and in the end, found himself on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, slipping back and forth to make forbidden pictures of revolution.

"Suddenly, my pictures started appearing on Page One of the New York Times . . . So suddenly, I went from being a nobody to being this person who has all these pictures of Afghanistan."

He has smuggled rolls out by sewing them into his coat. He has escaped bandits shooting at him, and bombs falling from the sky, and one half-crazed man with a stone.

He has waited for hours in some remote village until the light makes the colors glow.

Always, he has come back with his pictures, defining South and Southeast Asia for the rest of us. Always, he has gone back for more.

"Above all, I feed on the colors of Asia: deep henna, hammered gold, curry and saffron, rich black lacquer and painted-over rot," he writes in his book.

"As I reflect back on it, I see it was the vibrant color of Asia that taught me to see and write in light. Go down that alley. Follow that child. Find the brightness of life in the dusty, never-painted drab of Calcutta. Wait for the light at its deepest and most intense like a farmer's rain. It is amazing how, in the camera's third eye, Asia's dust spins golden clarities and abundance, such undersea depths."

If You Go

Photographer Steve McCurry will present a slide show and lecture at 7 p.m. today at Friends Select School's Blauvelt Theater, 17th Street and the Parkway. He will also sign copies of his new book South Southeast. Admission is free to the public. For more information, call 215-563-4184.

Lini S. Kadaba's e-mail address is kadabl@phillynews.com.

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