T he first photographs ever taken of Angkor, in 1866, were by an Englishman,
John Thomson. Now another English photographer, one of many to have since
been captivated by the ruins, has captured them in one of the most dramatic and
beautiful books ever published.
Passage Through Angkor, by Mark Standen,
opens with an arresting image of Angkor Wat before sunrise. The temple is
silhouetted against the deep indigo pre-dawn sky, a familiar view. But what
stuns the eye is the lower half of the picture, streaked with a horizontal line
of brilliant golden-red light, slicing through the long western corridor of bas
reliefs. The unique shot is both surprising and eerie, as if the temple were
haunted by spirits.
Standen spent weeks setting up the shot. "A group of
people carrying burning torches walked through the passage before sunrise,"
explained Standen. "I had to work out how long it would be before the light
changed and how long their walk would take. I had just three minutes to shoot
Another intense, split-second image is one of forked lightning
flashing over the central tower at night. Spread across two pages, the picture
A photograph of the temple at dawn takes on painterly
qualities. Moody and elegiac, it shows the soft lavender-grey hues of first
light reflected in the causeway, damp with puddles from the recent rain. The
ethereal foreground resembles an impressionist painting, as if achieved with a
To make a poetic statement about a great work of art is
daunting. Standen made eight journeys, over more than two years, spending longer
than six months altogether observing and photographing Angkor, clocking up 8,000
kilometres on a motorbike. During those years, I recall often seeing him around
the temples, frequently just sitting and looking. He also drew all the maps in
A former architectural student, Standen, 31, first saw black
and white photos of Angkor while at college in London. "Does this place really
exist?" he wondered. Drawn to Asia, he came to work as a designer in 1987 and
eventually settled in Thailand where he now has a family. He did not start
photography until 1990. His first pictures were published in the Bangkok Post,
two weeks before his first trip to Angkor.
"I came to Angkor to see a pop
group perform," he recalled. "As soon as I saw it, I decided I would come back
again for a month." He started by sketching it, then returned with two Leica
cameras. Fellow Englishman John Hoskin, 47, author of numerous books on art and
culture in Indochina, including Cambodia: A Portrait and The Mekong: A River and
Its People, agreed to write the text.
The book is structured around a
narrative. The theme of passage is a resonant one: passages of time, passages
within architecture, rites of passage. Hoskin invites the reader to "take a
passage through Angkor appreciating it in its entirety, not as the scattered
remains of a long dead city but as a vital design in the cultural fabric of the
To show that vitality, Standen photographed the people with
whom the monuments are inextricably linked, such as monks, children, fishermen,
conservation workers, stone carvers, dance troupes and soldiers. He captured a
funeral procession winding around the Bayon, as a Brahman priest lights the
pyre. He shot processions and a Buddhist topknot ceremony, a time-honoured rite
"Angkor is so much more than one place, than just stones,"
said Hoskin. "That's why the narrative consists of chapters on Water, Stone,
The chapter Birth of a Civilization highlights water,
the source of creation. Running along the bottom of the pages is a continuous
naga, symbol of water, its body holding the captions under each picture.
Depictions of the barays, moats and rivers include fishermen at work and monks
bathing. Standen juxtaposes them with images from the bas-reliefs depicting
similar activities. A woman in a wooden boat collects lotus buds for an
offering. On the opposite page, a Bayon bas-relief depicts an identical
"Ordinary people have always lived beyond the sandstone walls,"
writes Hoskin. "The same traditions dictate the rites of passage from birth to
death now as before; the same beliefs and superstititons hold power over the
assurance of tomorrow."
For Standen, the book is an auspicious start. For
Angkor, it is a celebration.