- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

The weathered face of the “Monk of Ando” beckons visitors at Meridian International Center’s “Pilgrimage: Photographs by Steve McCurry.” As if carving into the Tibetan monk’s deeply lined face with his camera, Mr. McCurry movingly catches the holy man’s difficult life’s journey. During a brief stop in the District, the documentary photographer explains that religion is the core of existence for the Tibetan monk and the many other photographic subjects on view here. “Where do we go for meaning?” he asks in the main exhibit label. An array of almost mystical responses is documented in this absorbing and unusual exhibit. During the past 26 years, Mr. McCurry traveled to India, Nepal, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Burma, Thailand and Tibet to shoot pictures of these people in their different spiritual pursuits. Meridian International chose 50 works from this series. The photographer writes that many “undertake a pilgrimage to the interior of their souls,” like, for example, the two Buddhist monks who meditate in Angkor Wat’s Bayon temple or another who meditates in a Burmese street. Mr. McCurry says he often waits days for just the right subject, as when he photographed a young Afghan girl, one of his most celebrated subjects, in a Pakistani refugee camp. Her portrait became the National Geographic’s — and his — most famous cover when the magazine reproduced it in June of 1985. Although the picture is an icon for today’s photographers, he didn’t include it here because of the show’s subject. “It was the eyes that spoke to me,” he says. The same happened when he found the exhibit’s 9-year-old novice in Tibet and a boy at a Ganesh festival. He says he decided to focus on the Tibetan boy’s hands and eyes, and the hands of the monk behind him. The boy looks down contently. “He feels safety and happiness in the large monk’s care,” Mr. McCurry says. “He’s at peace in the world.” The shy youngster expresses his inner spirituality in the way he crosses his hands. Although most of the older holy man’s body isn’t shown, the hands suggest deep religious feelings. By moving close in, the photographer gave the picture an emotional intensity. By contrast, Mr. McCurry renders the Ganesh festival through the eyes of a somewhat older boy who looks directly and boldly toward the photographer. He’s covered with the customary bright red powder used for the Indian Hindu festival of Holi. The photographer tilted the boy’s head against a vertical bar to add drama. Exhibit organizer Nancy Matthews divided the show by countries, beginning with a small room devoted to India. The room’s size intensifies its eight images, as when Rajasthani men throw the same red powder on their turbans. A photo of Rajasthani women caught in a dust storm shows Mr. McCurry’s mastery of structuring form with atmospheres of color and light. He captured the road workers while traveling on the Indian-Pakistani border. “They were enveloped by the howling wind and sand, and life seemed to hang in precarious balance,” he says. The following section, on Tibet, could be the show’s best. The images, such as the one of a monk studying a Buddhist text at a monastery, demonstrate the photographer’s love of red in both Tibetan design and lettering. The text is separated into red and black divisions. Another photograph shows prayer flags in Lhasa displayed outside so winds will carry the prayers. The Nepal room shows Mr. McCurry’s beautifully and sensuously photographed women cleansing themselves in the Bagmati River. Finally, in the Cambodian section, he presents quite ordinary photos of tree roots ripping apart temples at Angkor Wat, a young girl doused with water in a water ceremony at Angkor, and a single red-robed holy man guarding an Angkor temple. The most original work here — and Mr. McCurry has produced a book on Angkor — is the huge mouth of a statue stuffed with money. Exhibit visitors may wonder at the powerful hold devotional magic has exerted for so long over the photographer, a man who hails from a small Pennsylvania town, but Mr. McCurry has found that picturing these spiritual quests has made them his also. “Everyone wants some kind of spiritual experience,” he says, “and these are mine.” WHAT: “Pilgrimage: Photographs by Steve McCurry” WHERE: Meridian International Center, White-Meyer Galleries, 1624 Crescent Place NW WHEN: 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, and special tours may be arranged. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. TICKETS: Free PHONE: 202/667-6800

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