Otherworldly landscapes and ancient religious sites make up John McDermott’s new exhibition, Spirit and Stone, opening tonight at La Résidence d’Angkor.
The collection includes some never-before-seen photographs from McDermott’s travels around Thailand, Bali, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos over the last 12 years.
McDermott, who has lived in Siem Reap for ten years, is famed for his striking shots of Angkor Wat but took the opportunity with this exhibition to show the world a different subject.
“Most people around here only know me for my Angkor work and they haven’t had a chance to see my other things,” he says. “So I thought it would be nice to put together a collection showing some different pictures. This gives me a chance to show what work I’ve actually been doing for the last few years – Vietnam, Bali. I have a lot of pictures from Burma. I’ve been shooting there since 1996.”
As the title suggests, the collection includes sacred sites built out of stone, from temples in Bali to Buddhas in Sukothai, Thailand.
“The only thing that people built these huge monuments for is the religious aspect of it, so there’s where the spirit part comes from,” he says. “The stone is obvious – they’re all built of stone.”
There is a stunning, moody photo of the Golden Dome in Bagan, taken at such an angle that the clouds in the sky appear to be rushing past the pointed spires reaching up to it.
“That’s not taken down in the plain, it’s across the river and on top of a hill and a lot of people don’t get over there,” says McDermott. “There was hardly anybody up there and it’s just beautiful. And that day of course – you don’t get that happening like that very often. It was sunset and there were these incredible clouds. I kept thinking the sun was going to go away and I had to shoot more and shoot more, but I was lucky.”
Another favourite image of McDermott’s is a panoramic shot also taken in Bagan.
“This one I shot in Bagan proper itself,” he says. “It’s on the flood plain, it’s like a desert. The temples just come up out of nowhere. I shot this one big beautiful temple late at sunset – the sun was going down behind it and you just get this ethereal light. There were no people around so I had the temple in silhouette pretty much.
“When I printed it, I worked on the negative really hard. I took it from sunset and made it into a moonrise. I brought the sky down into almost night-time dark, and the sun looks more like the moon now. I just like the texture of the picture a lot.”
McDermott says that he has always been inspired by otherworldliness, seeking out unusual locations. As a general rule he tries to avoid the presence of tourists or any indicators of the present day, preferring to keep the image timeless.
“Most of these things are otherworldly landscapes. That’s what I’m trying to put together, that’s the overall theme really,” he says. “Finding these places that look like they could almost be on another planet. It all started out like looking for things you’d find on album covers from the ’60s. In the west you don’t see shapes like that.
“All these places – Angkor – who’d have thought to build something like that? But if you stop and look at it without daily life going on, it does look like it could be a scene from another planet. Another time, another place, an alien civilization even. I always sought out places that had that kind of feeling to it, and Burma is certainly like that, Bagan especially. Angkor, Sukothai in Thailand the ancient capital, it’s all laid out as a monument now, it’s like a national park. It’s all unusual shapes and spires and giant Buddhas and different things like that.
“All through my work that’s been a constant theme, finding otherworldly landscapes and cultures. Shapes, designs and architecture that we’re not used to seeing in the modern day, and in the west.”
In the future McDermott hopes to produce a book on Myanmar to go alongside his Elegy: Reflections on Angkor, adding that ultimately he’d like to, “produce a nice book of stylised travel photography.”
Spirit and Stone features at La Résidence d’Angkor till March 31, 2014.