McCurry began studying film history cinematography and filmmaking at Penn State in 1968, but ended up getting a degree in theater arts and graduating cum laude in 1974. He became very interested in photography when he started taking pictures for the Penn State newspaper called The Daily Collegian.
His photojournalism career began with his coverage of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. McCurry disguised himself in native dress and hid his film by sewing it into his clothes. His images were among the first of the conflict and were widely published. His coverage won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad.
McCurry continued to cover international conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq war, Beirut, Cambodia, the Philippines, the Gulf War, and Afghanistan. McCurry's work has been featured worldwide in magazines and he is a frequent contributor to National Geographic. He has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1986.
McCurry's most recognized photo is that of "Afghan Girl", a previously unidentified Afghan refugee. The image itself was named as "the most recognized photograph" in the history of the National Geographic magazine and her face became famous as the cover photograph on the June 1985 issue. The photo has also been widely used on Amnesty International brochures, posters, and calendars. The identity of the "Afghan Girl" remained unknown for over 15 years until McCurry and a National Geographic team located the woman, Sharbat Gula, in 2002.
Steve McCurry is portrayed in a TV documentary titled "The Face of the Human Condition" (2003) by French award-winning filmmaker Denis Delestrac.
Although McCurry shoots both in digital and film, his admitted preference is for transparency film. Eastman Kodak let McCurry to shoot the last ever produced roll of Kodachrome transparency film, which was processed in July 2010 by Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kansas and will be housed at the George Eastman House.
Based in New York, McCurry offers weekend photography workshops, as well as extended 2-week digital photography workshops in Asia (currently scheduled in Nepal, India, and Burma).