What is the spirit of travel? This esoteric query floats over the muffled din of clinking tableware and the soft scrape of chairs as a group of us media folks settle into a cosy meeting room in Tokyo's Andaz Toranomon Hills. From across the table, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Steve McCurry grins at us in preparation for a lengthy interview. Somehow, the previous day's late-night gala festivities of Vacheron Constantin's new Overseas collection launch didn't appear to have touched him at all.
Loaded up on caffeine and well armed with notebooks, pens and the recording app on our phones, we dive right into the heart of the Overseas Tour with the famed photographer. Making no effort to dissemble, McCurry talks candidly about his work and his special collaboration with the luxury Swiss watch manufacturer.
A unique project that spans 260 years of haute horlogerie and the vastness of the world, the team-up between the Swiss maison and McCurry was an elite undertaking in illustrating the reinvented Overseas collection through the photographer's lens. Indeed, the very core of this collaboration stemmed from the traditions and fundamental values of Vacheron Constantin — the cultivation of travel as instilled by founder François Constantin.
In reimagining their iconic watch series along the codes of today's practical casual elegance for a new era of globetrotters, so does the Overseas Tour symbolise this transformed perspective by uncovering tucked away locales of world wonders. An ethos manifested by the maison and immortalised in photos by McCurry, we traipse through the first six unveiled locations out of twelve; one for each variation of five new models. Seeing through the eyes of Vacheron Constantin and McCurry, we explore Padre Tembleque in Mexico, New York's Grand Central Station, Chand Baori in India, Leshan in China, Japan's Tsurunoyu onsen and the home of the Manufacture in Geneva — all the while feeling the bite of a relentless travel bug (and mentally scribbling our travel bucket list).
The Overseas Tour embraces all these stunning scenic locations, but did you approach these places with a different methodology shooting from a commercial standpoint versus a personal outlook?
As a photographer, I like wandering through my day and landing in an interesting place. So one of the great things about this project was that apart from photography, these were all very visual places. They were just fascinating, interesting places to be in. So putting photography aside, if you apply that to just everyday life and my work, I get inspired, go to places and do things that are interesting. We visited locations in Japan, China, India and Mexico for its incredible human achievements in terms of functionality and aesthetics.
When we started this project, the first location we shot at was actually the Vacheron Constantin headquarters in Geneva. I have never been in a place that crafted luxury watches so it was kind of a miracle to witness it — to see how watches are created, to watch the people working on it, and to experience such an intriguing environment. The creative process was very interesting; it was a life experience. I always try to go to places and do things. Even if I don't get any interesting pictures at the end of the day, at least I had a good time.
Was it a challenge finding inspiration to shoot this series of twelve places? And did you find working with a luxury watch maison like Vacheron Constantin to be a massive change?
The purpose was to go to places that were man-made, such as the aqueduct in Mexico which transported water from one region to the next. It was supposed to be something simple and functional, but then somebody decided: "Let's do this and do it in a beautiful way", and it evolved over time to become better and better. Eventually these structures become incredible creations which go way beyond mere functionality. It's just like watches. They could be made in a dull, uninteresting way but somebody creative thought, "Why don't we do this in the best possible way? Let's do something special. Let's really step up and do something inspiring".
Take Mexico as an example, before I even arrived I thought, "How on earth can I go about this in interesting ways?". The challenge I encountered was the fear that you might not be able to come up with any interesting visuals. What happens is you get there and you first have a complete panic attack (laughs). You think it's impossible to do this, then you start to really think and you begin cultivating patience. Suddenly, you start seeing things and things begin to happen. In many cases, pictures start revealing themselves.
When things start happening, you get really excited and you get a sense of observation and become much more keen. Then you begin coming up with wonderful solutions. The enormous Buddha in China was a place I knew about and saw pictures of but I've never personally seen it for myself. It wasn't the easiest to shoot, but it was monumental. It was just wow.
I think when you look at human achievement, you realise that this is what we live for. This is what enriches our lives and makes it worth living. After all, we're here for such a brief amount of time and we work so hard. Art, music, and poetry — these are the things which make life pleasurable and we look to these moments of inspiration.
"You find yourself facing this incredible shape, this architecture, this singular design that is also an authentic work of art, a concrete example of human genius. I see it as a perfect match between beauty and precision. Admiring the Manufacture Vacheron Constantin is like setting off on an extraordinary voyage."
Did any aspects of the Overseas collection inspire your photography direction?
Well, I think that the people working at Vacheron Constantin are at the highest level, and I really wanted to create and work as hard as they do. Vacheron sets a really high bar in terms of excellence and craft. This was a serious endeavour and all of us in the team, we aimed to do something special and to do our best possible work. I mean, that's the world of Vacheron Constantin. This is the best of the best and we have to bring our A-game to this project.
Seeing as you've been to most of these six countries before, what's different now when you revisit these locations? Do you see them through brand new eyes?
Absolutely! Take Grand Central Terminal for example, I've been there hundreds of times because I live in New York and I go through it to reach my studio. I've actually photographed it before, but I knew that it's closed at night to the public so I've never looked at it or shot it in that particular way. I never ever dreamed that I would have the opportunity to be there when it's completely quiet, which was amazing.
To be in this cathedral-like place and everything is so quiet and still, I'll always remember and look at it in this different way every time I go there again in the future. And those other places I have been to, I think you get a sense of the location when you really dig deep into a subject. That's when you feel like you start to understand it in a more profound way.
What do you want people to feel when they see your images of these six locations?
Well, the hope is that when we get excited that excitement will be infectious. And if I'm excited, then hopefully you'll feel the same way. These places we went to, I hope I photographed them in a way that showed their excellent nature, such as the enormous Buddha in Leshan. Some things you still have to come up with your own particular point of view and show the audience what you take away.
"I have tried to convey through pictures the amazing sum of knowledge possessed by the Chinese at the time this Buddha was sculpted. It was an honour for me to undertake this task, especially as we were fortunate to meet some wonderful people during the photo shoot. What impressed me about this Buddha was its face that shows a neutral and benevolent smile. He observes the world and gazes affectionately at us as if he wished to protect us for all eternity."
What were three things you've learned about watchmaking during your collaboration with Vacheron Constantin?
Again, I look at it in a completely different way. When you look inside of a timepiece — all of the movements and everything — it's seemingly impossible that they can actually work. Then you see these people in the workshops and they look like everyone else but in fact they're geniuses. They have this talent, this skill which I respect and I find it amazing that they can craft something so brilliant.
And these watches actually have to work, and work in the best possible way. So to get all these various parts syncing together from the inside to the back and the front, it's all beautiful and incredible. The time and the effort that goes into crafting these parts is as much a miracle as the fact that the watches are doing all those functions. It's just an amazing thing, and it was equally amazing to go in and see dozens of people in that zone making these incredible pieces. It was a delight and a profound experience.
What does time mean to you in relation to your career as a photojournalist? Do you think time is a luxury in this day and age?
Well, I think as you get older, you realise how precious time is and you also realise it's finite. We should make the time we have on this earth count. Time is something valuable. We have to be careful how we spend our time because you don't want to waste it.
The great thing about this project with Vacheron Constantin is that it's so close to what I would do on my own, and it was a privilege going to places that were inspiring and beautiful. Some of them are places that I've never been before but had always wanted to go to. Or even just going to Grand Central station and feeling the spirit in a completely different way. Without this project, I'd probably never visit a watch manufacture, and I think that at my age I want to make these last few years count. I want to do things which are interesting. I want to create more pictures and art. I want to do it because I want to have an enriching life at this point.
Is there one thing you've found you haven't had time to do?
The last war I covered was 25 years ago and that's probably older than some of the people in this room (laughs). But even when I was doing that, I was doing a peripheral point of it. To have a full experience in life, I want to do as many different things as I can. It would be a pity to strike the same metal over and over again, and not have the possibility to try new things, to travel to new places and new cultures.
And at this point of my life, I have the wherewithal to go pretty much where I want and do what I want to do. I don't need to have somebody sending me to this place or that place, or say "Do this' or 'do that". I've done so many travel stories over the years, I can tell you now I'm so happy I can move on and not do all that anymore.
Explore Part I of the Vacheron Constantin Overseas collection here and stay tuned for the launch of Part II later in the year.