It’s easy to imagine that the world of fine watchmaking is a bubble that begins and ends in Switzerland. And while it’s true that much of the heart and soul of watchmaking lies in the Swiss hills and valleys, from its earliest days travel has been an essential part of horology, and indeed accurate timekeeping has revolutionised how we move across the world.
Though based in Geneva, Vacheron Constantin has long realised that they are in fact a global brand, and even in the eighteenth century they had a presence on four continents. From the very beginning they have been open to the world. This philosophical underpinning is epitomised in the third generation of their Overseas collection, which now has everything from time-only pieces to chronographs and world timers. It’s also why I’ve spent the last few days in Tokyo attending an exhibition of the Overseas Tour which features a series of images by famed photographer Steve McCurry. If you don’t recognise the name, there’s no doubt you’ll know his pictures, in particular his iconic and haunting 1984 portrait Afghan Girl.
McCurry collaborated with Vacheron Constantin on the Overseas Tour, a photographic journey taken at 12 sites across the globe; places that exhibit human ingenuity and beauty. After viewing the exhibition I sat down with McCurry to discuss photography, travel and human creativity.
Stop 1/12, Geneva – Manufacture Vacheron Constantin
The first stop was, appropriately enough, Geneva. His visit to Vacheron Constantin’s HQ was his first time in a watch manufacture, and he said it quickly set expectations for the rest of the tour – “Vacheron Constantin are the best of the best, and my team and I quickly realised that we had to bring our A-game for this one.” I also asked McCurry for his expert take on something we deal with on a daily basis – the difficulty of taking a good photo of a watch. It’s got its challenges, sure, but l don’t have to be literal. I was more concerned with creating an impression.”
McCurry’s Photography Tip #1 – “[Photographing a watch has got] its challenges, sure, but l don’t have to be literal. I was more concerned with creating an impression.”
Stop 2/12, India –Chand Baori Stepwell
Chand Baori in India was next. Functionally it’s a well, a common-enough utilitarian construction. But McCurry was struck by the fact that the people who designed it chose to do so in a thoughtful, artistic way – and it’s here where he was reminded of Vacheron Constantin’s watchmaking, “They take something that could be simple and functional, and they make it beautiful.”
Stop 3/12, China – Leshan Giant Buddha
Of all the locations McCurry spoke about, he seemed most excited about the Leshan Giant Buddha. He’d heard of it and seen pictures, but never been there in real life. The sheer scale of the 71-metre high Buddha also proved to be a challenge; “It wasn’t the easiest shoot…but it was monumental.”
Stop 4/12, New York City – Grand Central Station
McCurry calls New York City home, and is no stranger to Grand Central Station, but in all his years he’d never seen it quite like this. The station is closed between 2am and 4am each night, and it was during this time that he saw it with fresh eyes. Which led to a discussion about what makes for a good photo. “With experience I’ve come to see what a scene will look like as a two-dimensional picture, you need to look at the corners of your picture. Don’t just focus on the subject.”
McCurry’s Photography Tip #2 – “You need to look at the corners of your picture. Don’t just focus on the subject.”
Stop 5/12, Mexico – Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque
Mexico was the site that kept McCurry up at night. After all, a sprawling, 50km long aqueduct, even a 16th century Mexican one, isn’t exactly the simplest of photographic subjects. “You worry that you’re not going to be able to come up with any interesting visual solutions. So what happens is you get there and have a complete panic attack, thinking that it’s impossible. Then you start to think and dig, and it takes a little patience but suddenly you start seeing things and pictures start revealing themselves.”
McCurry’s Photography Tip #3 – If you’re overwhelmed by the size or scale of a scene or subject start to “think and dig, and it takes a little patience but suddenly you start seeing things and pictures start revealing themselves.”
Stop 6/12, Japan – Tsurundyo Onsen
Given that the exhibition was held in Japan, it seemed only right that McCurry’s favourite shoot was the hot springs and bathhouse that is that Tsurundyo Onsen, which was gripped by winter when he visited. “I grew up in snow, but this was another level – this was magical snow.” And after he’s travelled the globe for the Overseas Tour, talk turned naturally enough, to travel. And given that McCurry has been visiting remote and dangerous parts of the world for more than 30 years, we thought we’d ask if he had any travel tips to share. “You need the right attitude, and a healthy perspective – if we had come to Japan fifty years ago we would have come by boat, it would have taken days or weeks, and it would have been, you know, dangerous. Now we can get here in 12 hours, and we’re upset if a bag goes missing. You need to accept that things are going to go wrong, that’s guaranteed. But you need to move on.”
McCurry’s Travel Tip – “You need to accept that things are going to go wrong, that’s guaranteed.”
Wise words indeed. To get a glimpse at how some of these images were created, have a look at this behind the scenes video.
The next stops in Steve McCurry’s grand tour include locations in Morocco, Scotland, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Russia and France. We can’t wait to see the results.
With thanks to Vacheron Constantin and Steve McCurry.