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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Living life through the camera lens

Living life through the camera lens

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090129_07.jpg

Photographer John McDermott ruminates on life so far and what lies ahead in 2009, which will see a new book of his best-known work and a much greater achievement – his first child

Photo by: Narisara Murray

John McDermott in action at Angkor Wat.

Siem Reap
FRIDAY night, FCC, Siem Reap: Temple town was getting funky ahead of Chinese New Year, and its most famous expatriate, photographer John McDermott,  was reclining in a chair at a trendy cafe-cum-restaurant, savouring a glass of chilled wine, celebrating his 54th birthday.

As he ruminated over what has been, what is and what's to come, he outlined his schedule for the year to the Post. It's going to be a busy year, but then every year is a busy year for this internationally known photographer who originally hails from Little Rock, in the US state of Arkansas.

There are many projects on the books for 2009, but the biggest is the baby - his first. Wife Narisara Murray is pregnant.

"We're going to have a baby in June, that's our new project for the year," said McDermott. "That'll be my eureka moment for the year, and it's my first child ever. I have never felt responsible enough to do that before, but things change when you start getting a little older."

McDermott's other project is his other oft-postponed baby, the book - the quintessential collection of all his early, now iconic, temple work, the book that back in 2007 The New York Times reported was imminent.

"That book's been imminent for a long time and there are lots of reasons behind that which I won't go into," said McDermott, "But it's about there now. I'm going to Bangkok in two weeks to intensely work on it and to try and get things wrapped up so that we can set a date to print, hopefully before July," he said.

"But our market is here. It's word of mouth and online. I really don't need to worry about getting a big publisher to distribute it in the US right now.

"Many of the photos that I'll put in that book are historically relevant. They are archival now because the scenes don't look the same anymore as they did at the beginning of the decade. You can't make the pictures the same way for various reasons."

I HAVEN'T DONE A LOT OF ... PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE LAST TWO OR THREE YEARS. I'M A LITTLE RUSTY.

After McDermott's impassioned documenting of the temples earlier this decade, he ended up with thousands of quality images that he wanted to publish in a book, but back then he couldn't get any takers.
"I had all that work, and I had to do something with it. My first thought was to publish a book, but I couldn't get anybody interested. Instead, I did some exhibitions in the Grand Hotel and various places, the photos sold, and I thought maybe there's something in the idea of selling my photos to people that way."

There certainly was something in that idea - the start of what is now a booming business. Indeed, much of McDermott's almost-mercurial success has come because of his entrepreneurial flair in marketing his work and his ability to create a commercially successful gallery enterprise.

This, he said, was a surprise even to him and was borne out of the necessity to make a living from his photography.

But now that his staff can take care of business, he wants to get back to the basics of the business of what he does best: photography.

"For the last three or four years, it's been about building the business here. It started out small and sort of took off. I had to learn real fast. We had one gallery, and then we opened the next gallery and then we opened the third gallery," he said. "That all took a lot of effort, time and energy, and when we started to think about doing another one, well, I said let's just take the time off."

But time off for McDermott is just time on for a new phase.

"What building the business did is that it took me away from photography. I haven't done a lot of personal photography in the last two or three years. I'm a little rusty, but I still get the same kick out of it.

"In the last six months, I've been getting back out there. I bought a couple of new cameras that I'm really interested in working with - a panoramic camera and couple of different larger formats, and I want to expand my portfolio and my photographic skills," he said.

"So I'm putting together a new body of work to put out there. Also, I'll probably do a new exhibition of my new work here, sometime in the next couple of months too, which will be fun."

All in all, it seems another vintage year is in the making for the man The New York Times said "may be the Ansel Adams of Angkor".

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