It can be disconcerting to wake up, pull back the curtain to greet the day and find yourself in whispering distance of a fjord. A green, somehow shaggy fjord, at once majestic and friendly—not to mention mountain-tall and so close it appears to be projected on a movie screen.
I had always thought of cruise ships as offering alluring views of scenic paradises from a decorous, tantalizing distance, loftily remote in the middle of the ocean. But here we were, me and the Norwegian fjord, suddenly on intimate terms.
That’s typical of a ship owned by Silversea, the Italian ultra-luxury cruise line—the category makes sense when you count the steps in your suite from your stateroom bed to the floor-to-ceiling windows)—whose expedition vessels are narrower than most ocean-faring behemoths and able to traverse slender waterways to get to places other boats can’t.
For the few days I was recently aboard the Silver Spirit, a 13-decker freshly returned to service after literally being sawed in half and extended by almost 50 feet down the middle, the experience was transporting in the grandest sense, providing not only startling vantage points but utterly new ways to look at the world.
Which is also why Steve McCurry, the celebrated photographer, took on a role last year as Silversea’s global creative partner, a gig that has already brought the 68-year-old to places he’d never visited in Papua New Guinea, Easter Island, Japan, and the Virunga Mountains of East Africa. “This keeps the wheels turning,” he says, which is all the more notable when you consider how widely traveled McCurry is.
Spending a few days with him in action, as I recently did on Silversea’s two-week voyage to Norway’s Nordkapp, or the North Cape, is an immersion in seeing things differently. One of Europe’s most northerly regions, Nordkapp is a place of arresting contrasts, from colorful fishing villages and the aurora borealis to inhospitable landscapes and nearly perpetual darkness for a third of the year.
“To me,” McCurry said, “the joy of photography is walking the street and saying, ‘What’s going on here? What’s happening?’ The smells. The architecture. Dogs playing. People walking around. The appreciation of being alive, putting one foot in front of the other.” Before the Silver Spirit glided out of Copenhagen on its way to Nordkapp’s fjords, Silversea arranged a private boat tour of the Danish capital’s canals from foot level, viewing the low bridges and waterside sidewalks as a curious squirrel would—the kind of unusual perspective McCurry always searches for.
It’s people suspended in time and space who interest McCurry the most. And what he calls “a look,” which is what drew him straight to a girl in a refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1984. He knew immediately, he says, that he had to capture the girl’s enormous green eyes. Using a technique he had deployed from his first days out of college on a local Pennsylvania paper, he talked with the girl and got her to trust him. The shot became one of the most recognized images National Geographic ever published.
When he is shooting, McCurry travels around framing views with his hands, and at one point outside Copenhagen, he saw from afar an unlikely landmark: a midcentury gas station designed by the modernist god Arne Jacobsen in 1936, a vision in bare, haunting white geometry that could be out of Last Year at Marienbad. The car had to stop so he could gaze at it from across the highway. McCurry then had to cross traffic and cross it again, looking for the right way to frame it.
Later, aboard the Silver Spirit, McCurry, a gregarious sort, made himself a comfortable and familiar presence, stopping to answer questions from the passengers who had been dazzled by a mesmerizing slideshow of his color-drenched photographs and a how-I-got-that-picture talk. (No cell-phone snob, McCurry has an Instagram following of 2.4 million.)
In Flåm (population 366), a Norwegian village that receives nearly half a million tourists a year, he asked to be taken along a road seldom trodden by outsiders, because its view is less “picturesque”—but, he suspected, more telling. The gray, brown, and green of the looming yet friendly fjords would, he knew, look most dramatic from a high point unvisited by tourist buses, glinting white against a suddenly rising set of moss-covered, finger-shaped mountains.
His favorite activity, he said, is still just walking outside his door. And witnessing the telling moment that suddenly reveals itself. McCurry, a compact, infinitely sympathetic fellow with wonderfully communicative eyes, does have a fear in his walkabouts: that lovers on a park bench will try to beat him up. “I’m very easily beaten up,” he said. Not likely. Especially not if he lets them see what he’s captured.