Picturing Asia: The Photography of Brian Brake and Steve McCurry

Picturing Asia: The Photography of Brian Brake and Steve McCurry

Recently a photography exhibition titled Picturing Asia: Double Take – The Photography of Brian Brake and Steve McCurry opened at the Asia Society in Hong Kong.

Te Papa is one of the partners with the Asia Society in developing this exhibition, as the Brake images are all drawn from Te Papa’s collection.

Brian Brake in Singapore
Brian Brake in Singapore(?), c.1960. Photographer unknown. 35mm gelatin silver negative. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-man Lau, 2001. Te Papa, E.006145-3A

Why Brian Brake and Steve McCurry together?

Both have covered Asia extensively as illustrative photographers, working for books and magazines.

New Zealander Brian Brake was photographing in the region from 1956 up until his death in 1988, and lived in Hong Kong from 1962 to 1976.

American Steve McCurry says that Brake was ‘One of the first photographers I was familiar with. Seeing his story in Life magazine on the monsoon when I was 11 years old was a great experience. It inspired me twenty years later to reinvent his original essay and do it in my own way.’

Brian Brake. The Jagannath festival, Ranchi, South Bihar. From the series: ‘Monsoon’, 1960. 35mm colour transparency. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa, CT.035254; .

Brake was skyrocketed to fame with his 1960 Monsoon essay, and particularly the image known as Monsoon girl.

McCurry gained his reputation for his coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early ‘80s and, like Brake, became forever identified with an image of one young woman. This is ‘Afghan girl’, taken in a refugee camp of a girl with haunting green eyes staring sideways at the camera. It become one of the best known images of the last few decades after it was reproduced on a National Geographic cover in 1984.¹

The Selection

Ian Wedde curated the exhibition and chose both well-known images by each photographer as well as the less often seen. I was particularly impressed by his ability to spot the photograph below by Brake that passed me by entirely when I was selecting work for the book Brian Brake: Lens on the World in 2009.

I love the harmony of the subdued colour palette and the layering of the semi-abstract shapes of the clothes that seems to flatten depth.

Brian Brake. Untitled (Singapore), 1963. 35mm colour transparency. Gift of Wai-man Lau, 2010. Te Papa, CT.062268.

The Exhibition

The exhibition runs to 7 January 2017 at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center and then will be seen in New Zealand at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi as part of the Auckland International Arts Festival, 8–26 March 2017.

Here’s some installation shots in Hong Kong showing Brake and McCurry images side-by-side.

Left: Brian Brake. Gathering dyed cloth on the banks of the Sabarmati River, Ahmedabad, India, 1958. Right: Steve McCurry. Dust storm, Rajasthan, India, 1983.
Left: Brian Brake. May Day celebrations, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1957. Right: Steve McCurry. Blue mosque, Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, 1991

There’s a Book Too

book-coverIan Wedde has edited a substantial book associated with the exhibition, with essays by himself, Anthony Bannon, Jonathan Flaws (who first proposed the exhibition concept), Evans Chan, Ashley Nga-sai Wu and Kristy Soo, and yours-truly.

In his essay, Wedde explores the challenges for photographers dealing with the many issues contained within the book’s title: picturing (that is, representing) Asia.

He notes that both Brake and McCurry worked for mass-circulation illustrated magazines that initially functioned to offer audiences the opportunity to travel the world from the safety of their armchairs. But, with travel so much easier since the 1980s, the rise of travel publications has created a demand for attractive images that sell distant places to make readers want to actually go there.

Wedde suggests that the two photographers have attempted to strike a balance between gratifying audience desire for sensation and exotic experience while acting as ‘ethnographic historians’; creating images that are ‘immediate in terms of impact and slow in terms of content’.

Page spread with photographs by Brian Brake (left) and Steve McCurry (right).

I was funded by the Asia Society to ‘press-pass’ the book in Hong Kong and in a following blog I’ll run some photographs of it being printed.

Athol McCredie
Curator Photography

  1. Sharbat Gula, known to millions as ‘Afghan girl’, recently made the news after she was deported from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

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