You are on page 1of 5

“ ook at all the tour buses!

” says Cambodia-
based photographer John McDermott
as he drives the crowded entrance
road to Angkor, a vast, 154-square-mile
complex of ancient temples in the Cambo-
dian jungle. Staring at the long, slowly mov-
ing caravan of buses, cars, tuk tuks (motorized
rickshaws), and bicycles, all loaded down
with tourists, McDermott complains, “This
place is being overrun. It’s a crime.”
McDermott should know. The former
Arkansas-based photographer first visited
Angkor in 1995, when tourists were sparse.
Since then, he’s become renowned for the series
of elegant, iconic images he photo graphed of
what were then relatively uncrowded and
largely unspoiled Angkor temples. “I wanted
to preserve the history of Angkor, but I also
wanted my pictures to make the point that
you have to take care of an attraction as
unique and fragile as this,” he explains.
His series of Angkor photographs, many
of which were taken with infrared film, have
won him worldwide acclaim. The New York
Times dubbed McDermott “the Ansel Adams
of Angkor,” describing his photographs as
“dreamlike … as though they were taken in
an ancient forgotten world.” His images of
the vast complex are on permanent display
in the National Museum in Phnom Penh,
Cambodia, and are featured in other museums
and private collections. He’s had numerous
one-man shows of his Asian photography
around the world and runs three of his own
galleries in Cambodia.
While McDermott has received interna-
tional recognition for his Angkor fine-art pho-
tographs, he’s also a much sought-after com-
All images ©John McDermott
Old made new
John McDermott’s love afair with Angkor gives him a fresh perspective
mercial and editorial shooter. His work has
appeared in Time, Newsweek, The New York
Times, the International Herald Tribune, and
elsewhere. Today the 59-year-old, soft-spoken
photographer lives with his wife, Narisara
Murray, and their two small children in Siem
Reap, a resort town in northwestern Cambo-
dia and the gateway to the Angkor region.
Over a delicious lunch of rice, freshly-
caught fish, steamed vegetables, and spicy
soup in his airy traditional Khmer home and
studio, McDermott explains how he made
the transition from photographer for Little
Rock-based Arkansas Times to living and
working in one of Asia’s most exotic locales.
In 1993, a chance assignment for a Bangkok,
Thailand-based magazine led to a job offer
as a staff photographer that was “too inter-
esting to turn down,” he says. McDermott
moved to Thailand and for several years visited
much of Southeast Asia, shooting editorial
features for Manager Magazine. A self-
described “eclipse head,” he first visited and
began photographing Angkor in 1995 for a
total solar eclipse. He admits he was “bowled
over by the beauty and grandeur of the place.”
After the magazine job ended in 1998,
McDermott returned to the United States but
came back in 2000 when the luxury Siem
Reap hotel, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor,
offered him a small show of his Angkor pho-
tographs. The pictures quickly sold out. It
was McDermott’s aha moment. “I suddenly
realized that although tourism was still in its
infancy here, the spark had been lit. The
world would soon discover Angkor, and I
wanted to help preserve it on film.”
Funding himself and earning some income
from gallery shows, McDermott began to
spend more and more time in Cambodia
and got to work systematically photograph-
ing the vast Angkor complex. “It felt a bit
like a race against time,” he remembers. “I
wanted to put together a comprehensive
portrait of Angkor before tourism forever
changed it. I also wanted my pictures to look
timeless; I didn’t want any tourists or any-
one wearing a T-Shirt or a baseball cap in
them.” Luckily, McDermott’s timing was
perfect. Cambodia had only recently emerged
from years of war and the horrors of Pol Pot,
so he frequently had much of the sprawling
Angkor complex virtually to himself.
Experimenting with black-and-white
infrared film during the 1995 solar eclipse
had convinced McDermott to use the film
for his Angkor photographs. “I loved the way
infrared film, because it has a much broader
range of sensitivity to light than standard
films and records light waves that fall below
the spectrum of the human eye, produces
images that are at once familiar and dream-
like,” he explains. “I like the way the film
gives images a dreamy impressionistic qual-
ity.” (The film was discontinued by Kodak in
2007, but McDermott confesses he has sev-
eral hundred rolls in refrigerated storage.)
As more and more tourists were discov-
ering Angkor, McDermott kept shooting and
in 2004 was offered the chance to open his
own gallery in Siem Reap that would exclu-
sively feature his work. “Narisara and I decided
to move here full time,” he explains. “Look-
ing back, we had no idea how much time it
would take to manage and run a gallery!”
April 2014 • Professional Photographer • 91
Over a cold bottle of locally brewed Angkor
beer, the photographer admits that he and
his wife “knew next to nothing” about run-
ning a gallery. “I know a lot of photographers
think having their own gallery is a dream
come true, but we both worked almost non-
stop for several years just to learn about
marketing, selling, exhibiting, and staffing
the gallery. As a result, for my first three years
in Siem Reap, I didn’t touch my cameras.”
McDermott opened a second gallery in
2007 and later added a third in the swanky
Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. He sells a
range of relatively inexpensive machine prints
as well as large-format custom prints of his
Angkor photographs. The custom editioned
prints that he makes himself begin at $475
for a 12x18-inch open-edition print and
range up to $10,000 for a 40x60-inch print
from an edition of 20. Most of his sales
occur during the busy tourist season from
November through March.
McDermott built a complete wet dark-
room where he makes silver gelatin prints in the
loft of his home, and he uses a wide-format
Epson Stylus Pro 9880 for larger archival
digital prints. “I like both methods,” he explains.
“It’s fun to ‘get lost’ in the wet darkroom sip-
ping on a glass of wine as I enlarge and print.
But it’s expensive to have the chemicals and
paper shipped to Cambodia from the USA.”
He explains that almost all his customers
prefer the custom prints to be mailed. “Tourists
don’t want to carry a large print home,” he
says. Thanks to his hard-earned experience
and an able staff, he can now devote the
bulk of his time to photography. His self-
published, 256-page book of more than 100
of his Angkor photographs, “Elegy: Reflec-
tions on Angkor,” sold out its first printing
of 3,000, and he plans to reissue it soon.
In addition to his fine-art photography, he
shoots weddings; does commercial work for
local hotels, travel companies, and others;
makes portraits; and enjoys the occasional
editorial assignment. “Like many photogra-
phers, I have to keep hustling,” admits
He also conducts popular one-day and
multi-day photography workshops in Angkor
and as far afield as Myanmar (formerly
Burma). A favorite destination is Bagan in
central Myanmar, a deeply spiritual place
home to more than 2,200 Buddhist temples
and pagodas. “It’s a lot like Angkor was before
the tourists started flooding in here,” says
McDermott. “I want to capture as much of it
as I can before it changes too drastically.”
Visiting photographers often hire
McDermott for both his keen photographic
expertise as well as his knowledge of Angkor.
“As more and more planeloads of tourists fly
into Siem Reap, it’s getting harder and
harder to photograph the ancient temples
without being jostled or having a visitor
walk through your shot,” he explains. More
than two million visitors flood into Siem
Reap and Angkor each year. Some temples,
such as the popular Angkor Wat and
92 •
xx • April 2014 • Professional Photographer • xx
Angkor Thom, are jam-packed with tourists
from sunrise to sunset.
But McDermott knows how to get off the
beaten path. He likes photographing the
less-visited Angkor temples that are an hour
or more away from the main complex. “There’s
less of a crush at these, so you can experience
the soul of this amazing place,” he explains.
He also knows how to find new angles at
the more popular temples. Recently he and
some visitors drove into Angkor, just 5 or 6
miles from his home, and he eventually
parked his battered Honda CR-V near the
less-visited eastern gate of the majestic 12th-
century temple, Preah Khan. “Most of the
tour buses and hired guides drop people off
at the other gates,” McDermott says.
Then, instead of walking though the center
of the temple, as virtually all other visitors
do, he veered off onto a jungle path that
skirts the temple’s outer wall. Within minutes,
he and his visitors had gone back in time;
the sounds of tourists and hawkers had been
replaced by the occasional cry of a monkey
in this ancient jungle. After stepping over a
section of the outer wall that had fallen
down, the group spotted the temple ruins
shimmering in the late afternoon light. It
was at once magical, miraculous, and quiet.
As McDermott raised his Nikon to take
yet another photograph of the ancient ruins
that have become his life’s work, he said, “I
never get tired of this place.” n
See more of John McDermott’s work at asi-
Robert Kiener is a writer based in Vermont.