It was at a stoplight in what was then called Bombay, two decades ago. Photographer Steve McCurry was in the back seat of a rented car. Raining. Traffic. Thirteen million people. Misery.
A mother with a toddler boy on her hip appeared at his window, a rose-colored sari wrapped around her chest, lightly draped over her head. The child — black hair, checked shirt — peered into the rain-dappled window, the eyes brown, wide, intense. The woman held up her left hand, thumb slightly across the lines in her palm, a mute gesture that sought the kindness of strangers.
McCurry, a legend of his generation, on assignment for National Geographic, raised his Leica and fired twice. The traffic light changed, and the driver pulled away.
“The whole thing lasted maybe three seconds, and I’m not even sure they could see me,” says the New-York-based McCurry. “It’s one of these serendipitous, unplanned accidents of life. . . . Sometimes these are the greatest pictures, and you need to be prepared and ready.”
The stunning image — Those eyes! That sari! Those lines in the palm of her hand! — is played out across two full pages in“National Geographic: Around the World in 125 Years,” a limited-edition release from the D.C.-based exploration society, formed in 1888 and now marking its century-and-a-quarter anniversary, and Taschen, the international publishing house.
This is not your average coffee-table compendium, and not just because the list price is $499 (though less expensive at some outlets). The book is a three-volume, 43-pound colossus of magisterial photography of the natural world over the past …