Colors of Life

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In a world of instant gratification, photography is rarely associated with waiting. We go to the one-hour photo counter because we don't want to wait a day for our pictures to be developed. We take a Polaroid because we can't wait an hour for the prints. Or we pass around the screen on our digital camera because we can't wait three minutes for the Polaroid to become clear. Steve McCurry is willing to wait-for a young girl to raise her head from her shivering hands on a lake in Kashmir or for the sun's setting rays to illuminate a gold-plated boulder in Burma. Taken with a patient eye, McCurry's pictures burn with quiet intensity; they took time to get and they take time to look at.

A photojournalist for Magnum, McCurry, 50, saw his career take off in 1979 when, after he smuggled himself into Afghanistan to document the rebels controlling the country, the Soviet occupation cut the nation off from the outside world and made his prints a hot commodity. McCurry's work for National Geographic has taken him through Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Russia and Latin America and earned him high photojournalistic honors. But Asia keeps drawing him back. McCurry says he is inspired by the region's rapid transformation: "It's as if the West is a meandering river and Asia is rushing down the mountain in a torrent." His new book, South Southeast (Phaidon Press), an arresting diary of more than 20 years of photojournalism in Asia, is filled with pictures taken in the quiet eddies of that torrent. In the selection that follows, McCurry provides glimpses of a fragile world, accompanied by his own descriptions: "I always try to treat people with some kind of dignity, looking at them as real people."