Some art lovers call him Ansel Adams of Angkor. John McDermott is an US-photographer and lives in Siem Reap, Cambodia. There is a moment at Angkor, the vast complex of ancient temples in the Cambodian jungle, that every visitor hopes for. Maybe it is the moment at sunrise when the ruins have that kind of magic light or when you meet a centuries old tree, growing straight from a stone and slowly devouring a temple. These are moments, John McDermott captures with his camera.
I meet him at his gallery at the Raffles. He owns three in Siem Reap. John moved to Asia in 1993 as a photographer for a Bangkok based magazine, covering business and lifestyle. End of the 1990s, when the economy collapsed, he lost his job. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, he went back to the US, spent some time in Indiana. The longing for Asia remained. In 2000 he came back to Indochina, to the ruins of Angkor. “Angkor I visited the first time in 1995 for the total solar eclipse. Then it was completely different”, says the 57 year old artist. Indeed during the total solar eclipse he created one of his best fotos. As his special technique he uses infrared film.“My first exhibiton was in 2000 at the Raffles Hotel. All pictures were sold. “Lots of tourists come, the temples are changing, they will never be the same. I took as many pictures as possible. I decided to take portraits of the temples and spent there 6 months for photographing them in my particular style. It means, I wanted my pictures to be timeless, no tourists, no baseball caps, no motorbikes. I want to capture the moments of one year ago, of 10 years ago, of 100 years ago. I never gave orders to take pictures. I only took pictures of people in traditional clothes, no T-Shirts, no jeans.”
He knows that the temples changed physically, because of the ongoing restoration. “The experience of being in the temples is different than before. Sometimes it is so depressing to see them now. Big tour groups are there every day. For example, I cannot make the temple of Ta Prohm looking better than before, so I have to search for other places. The one I am spending the most time in it is Preah Khan, which is not overrun by tourists yet. “ He explaines the atmosphere there like 100 years ago. He admit that he goes now to more isolated places to find the real beauty of the temples. “Without tour busses!” John works with analog and digital photography. “I have a traditional and a digital dark room, a computer with a printer.
He is living in Siem Reap for over 10 years. He continues travelling around Asia. He takes pictures in Bali, Kathmandu, Burma, of course. “I have a big collection of pictures from Burma, especially of Pagan as a magical place. There is just so much to do there. Otherwise – there is Laos around the corner, and China. So little has been explored there by photographers.”
John opened his latest gallery at the Raffles in September 2012, just some months ago. “It is the nicest place in Siem Reap for my art and, by the way, I had my first exhibition here in the year 2000.“ Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor was built in 1929. “The hotel has history.” John’s clients are worldwide, art collectors buy his pictures. “Except Asians. They don’t understand the value of black and white photography. They think more of snap-shots in front of the temples.”
McDermott’s pictures are not just beautiful but iconic … dreamlike photos, which look as though they were taken in an ancient, forgotten world.”
The New York Times
His work has been exhibited internationally, and is held in museum and private collections worldwide, including works on permanent display in The National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. His photographs have been published in The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Newsweek, Time, Travel + Leisure and Archaeology Magazine.
“Becoming a photographer just happened to me. I was always around cameras, I was comfortable with them. I studied psychology, I just wanted to finish my degree. When I left university about 35 years ago a friend of mine worked as a photographer. He awaked my interest in taking pictures. It was a great way to meet girls, to see the world. It was just a great thing.” John got a job in Little Rock at a magazine. “I was learning by doing. I loved taking pictures and I could make my living out of it. I haven’t stopped.” Before going to Asia, John worked 4 years in the feature film industry in Hollywood a a camera and lighting technician.
“I am a pictorialist at heart, the photographic equivalent of an impressionist painter.”
By John McDermott
Infrared film has a much broader range of sensitivity to light than standard films, and records light waves that fall below the visible spectrum for the human eye. The resulting images seem at once familiar and dreamlike – skies deepen in tone, while vegetation glows softly. Unlike other films, infrared film does not have an anti-halation layer, which keeps light from spreading beyond the point where it strikes the film. As a result, areas of intense light seem to glow.
The human eye can see light only in the wavelength range of 400 nanometers (nm) (deep violet) to 700 nm (deep red). Light wavelength shorter than 400 nm are referred to as ultraviolet, and those longer than 700 nm are infrared. A filter is placed on the camera to allow only the infrared wavelengths to pass through. When the film records a scene using this light, the image is rendered in different grey tones from those of standard films.
Skies appear dark because there is little infrared radiation reflected in the atmosphere. Vegetation appears unusually light because chlorophyll and other pigments in greenery are transparent to infrared radiation. Therefore, infrared light waves pass through the outer layers of leaves and scatter inside the inner layers. Air fills the space between the cells in the inner layers, and light bounces around within these airy spaces. This is what causes the leaf to appear lighter, just as soft, newly fallen snow appears lighter than hard, compacted snow. It appears as if the leaf is glowing from the inside.
These effects mixed with the inherent grainy quality of the film itself lend a dreamy, impressionistic quality to the images, which sometimes appear almost like etchings or charcoal drawings from another era.