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Old made new

John McDermott’s love affair with Angkor gives him a fresh perspective


All images ©John McDermott

‘‘L 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 photographed 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-

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

felt a bit like a race against time,” he remembers. “I wanted to put together a

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!”

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LEARNING ON THE JOB Over a cold bottle of locally brewed Angkor beer, the photographer


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-

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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 McDermott. 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

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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.

of this place.” n See more of John McDermott’s work at asi- Robert Kiener is
of this place.” n See more of John McDermott’s work at asi- Robert Kiener is
of this place.” n See more of John McDermott’s work at asi- Robert Kiener is