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Infrared photos capture the dreamlike beauty of Angkor

A new book collects the otherworldly images of American John McDermott

Photo by: John Mcdermott
Five Headed Horse.

I've wanted to do a book since 2000, but no one had any idea who I was.

John McDermott, an American photographer described by The New York Times as the “Ansel Adams of Angkor”, launched his first photographic book, Elegy: Reflections of Angkor, last week at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

The photographer is best known for his iconic images of Angkor, but the McDermott Gallery in Siem Reap features photos depicting scenes from all across Indochina, primarily using infrared photo technology.

McDermott’s first trip to Angkor Wat was during a solar eclipse in 1995, at a time when the temples were well off the beaten tourist trail.

“I’d read all about it and seen the photos, but nothing could make me ready for the sheer magnificence of how majestic it is,” said McDermott, adding that he still feels inspired by the temples. “You stop and say, ‘How did they get those stones up there? How is it all possible?’”

“The temples looked otherworldly. They could be from a different planet, like a Star Trek set.”

McDermott decided to use infrared photography to properly capture the mystique of the temples. Between 2000 and 2001, he shot hundreds of rolls of film in infrared style, which ultimately became the staple of Elegy.

“Infrared film has sort of a magic about it. It has a texture and look that makes everything look mysterious, eerie and surreal,” he said. The infrared shots “were the only pictures I took that whole time that had any sense of style, mood or personality, so I decided to perpetuate that concept and shoot some more”.

With shots of deserted Angkorian temples that today form the nucleus of Cambodia’s tourist trail, the book is described by McDermott as historical documentation of the Angkor of the past. “I hope it’s accepted not just as a whimsical artistic portrait but something of academic importance as well,” he said.

The book has been a work in progress for the past decade.

“I’ve wanted to do a book since 2000, but no one had any idea who I was, and no publisher wanted to take on the project,” he said.

Even after finding a sponsor in 2007, the project was plagued with mishaps and annoyances, including the sudden departure of the book designer.

“We’d work on it for awhile, then we’d push it to the backburner, then we’d work on it some more, and put it on the backburner again.” Finally, Elegy made it to the printer in May 2009.

McDermott describes the Siem Reap he visited in 1995 as “a mere whisper of what it is now”, recalling that rooms at the Grand Hotel cost only $10 a night. “You could stay there if you could find someone to check you in,” he said with a laugh.

“It wasn’t a place that was marketing tourism yet,” explained McDermott. “There was still Khmer Rouge around that part of the country, and there was still banditry. On the international radar, Cambodia wasn’t highly recommended.”

But the absence of tourism allowed McDermott to take photos of the temples without backpackers and tour groups in the foreground.

As the security situation around the temples improved and the Khmer Rouge vanished, McDermott decided it was time to undertake a serious effort to document the temples. “I made a concerted effort to do a comprehensive portrait of Angkor in my particular style,” he said. “The fuse was lit for tourism, and I knew that big tourism would change the temples.”

McDermott said he plans to continue his distinctive style of photography in different locales around the world, particularly in Africa and Myanmar.

“I would love to continue shooting in Burma,” he said. “It’s possibly the most interesting country in the region. There’s a general fun wackiness of the Burmese.”

Next month McDermott is off to Kenya for a photo safari in the savannah. “It’s the wildebeest migration, so we’re going to camp out for a couple weeks and follow the migration. It’ll be great fun,” he said.

Elegy: Reflections of Angkor retails for US$75. It can be purchased at bookstores in Cambodia and at Asia Books in Thailand, or ordered online from Amazon or through McDermott’s personal Web site, www.asiaphotos.net.

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