SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA.-
Visitors to the ancient temples of Angkor experience a confluence of history, majestic architecture and isolation. A collection of artistic photographs by American pictorialist John McDermott presents a visual experience that closely matches the awe-inspiring reality.
Elegy: Reflections on Angkor (McDermott Gallery, hardcover, $75) is the first comprehensive collection of McDermott's photography as well as a visual tour-de-force. Elegy is available exclusively through Amazon and www.asiaphotos.net
The tour-de-force impression of McDermott's photography emerges from the subject matter and the photographic technique. McDermott, who has been described as "the Ansel Adams of Angkor" by the New York Times, first visited Angkor Wat on October 24, 1995 when he experienced the majesty of the temples during a solar eclipse. This unique visual experience influenced his body of work and he returned in 2000 to spend the next few years photographing several temple sites and recreate the chiaroscuro effects through his decision to use infrared film and certain dark room development techniques.
When assembled and viewed as a body of work in Elegy, McDermott's photographs of the ancient temples are a respectful, reverential homage to the dignity of the Khmer culture and people. Beyond simply documenting the ruins, McDermott's artistry involves the use of a specialized black-and-white film that is sensitive to infrared light. His artistic interpretation of his negatives in the darkroom uses the infrared film's properties to create both subtle and dramatic shadow and light effects.
"It is the intangible spirit of a place that is most elusive when one is trying to create a visual portrait," explains McDermott. "I wanted to reproduce photograhically the surreal light from the 1995 eclipse. I am a pictorialist at heart, the photographic equivalent of an impressionist painter." McDermott aptly entitles his book Elegy to reflect the "praise, love, loss and remembrance of people or things past."
The temples of Angkor were built in the early 12th century as part of the capital city and largely abandoned in the 13th century. The French explore Henri Mouhot rediscovered the ancient site in the 19th century declaring that these temples were "The work of giants". The temples survived twentieth century war and internal strife. Since 2000 they continue to welcome an increasing number of international tourists.
Angkor Wat is by far the largest temple in the archeological zone and the best-preserved. Considered the jewel in the crown, it has also remained a significant religious center since its foundationfirst Hindu dedicated to the god Vishnu, then Buddhist. It is a dominant symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and the primary reminder of the magnificance of the Khmer culture.
McDermott, age 54, first photographed Angkor in 1995 when he came to Cambodia to witness a total eclipse of the sun. His experience, watching the surreal light of an eclipse wash over the ruins, led directly to his long-term photography project that preserves a vision of the temples before the arrival of large-scale tourism. I began the project in the mid-nineties but it was around 2000 when I realized that tourism was on its way and that the experience of the temples was going to change, McDermott remembers. Angkor has been through many incarnations. I wanted to document the temples in an artistic way before tourists came and they changed yet again."
McDermott's focus is the architectural splendor of the ancient temples and he includes people to illustrate the reverential nature of the sites. What emerges is an appreciation for the fact that these temples are not simply historical ruins but continue to interact vibrantly with the present.