The Pyramids at Dawn
This is not only my most collected fine art photograph, it also taught me an invaluable lesson about photography which I still carry with me and teach to others to this day. More on that in a bit.
Arriving in Cairo at age 39 was something I had dreamed of doing for 33 years, since I was six and first read a book on ancient Egypt. When I was a teenager, I made a passing attempt at learning to read hieroglyphics – that seemed cool, but not cool enough to get me to stick with it for very long. I wouldn’t say I was more Egypt-obsessed than other kids, but clearly, the mystery and majesty of the ancient civilization fascinated me from an early age.
Helen and I arrived in Cairo in what turned out to be the mid-point of our year-long journey around the world. We had been in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel. Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, India and Paris still remained ahead of us.
A lot of backpackers warned us about Egypt. It’s a tough place to travel, they told us. Egyptians are not nice to westerners, we read. They will harass you at every turn we heard more than once. We entered Egypt overland from Israel, driving on a bus into the Sinai Peninsula. It was a large coach bus and we were the only two people, aside from the driver, on the bus. We were prepared for the worst.
Let me just say for the record, we loved Egypt. The people were great – and there was a near universal sense of humor which, once we tapped into it, made our stay there amazing. So much so, that we extended our four-week visa so we could stay two extra weeks.
Cairo fell in the middle of our visit to Egypt. And that was perfect. I could barely take another day’s anticipation waiting to see the Pyramids at Giza.
Helen and I spent a full day exploring the Pyramids. We rejected the many offers for a guide and took ourselves around one monument after another. Even with my limited film resources, I nonetheless captured a wide range of images. At one point in the afternoon, I realized I wanted a shot from a mile out in the desert – and that shot, of the three pyramids grouped together, was a morning shot.
That is why Helen and I got up at the crack of dawn for the second day in a row and headed back to the Pyramids. We had decided to head to Alexandria on an 11AM mini van that doubled as a taxi. That meant getting to the Pyramids before 8AM, walking out into the desert, grabbing the shot and heading back to the min van stand area all with single minded purpose.
Everything went to plan. We arrived before the Giza plateau opened, had some tea and bread which two teenage boys sold us from trays atop their heads, then at 8AM sharp, we walked with purpose out into the desert. A Bedouin man atop a camel followed us into the desert and tried to sell us camel rides. I used a line that I had honed to perfection in Egypt, channeling my best Obi Wan Kenobi, I said with a wave of my hand, “We’re not the tourists you’re looking for.”
Like the others I had used the line on before him, this particular Bedouin looked us over, turned his camel and headed back to the Pyramids, one assumes in search of more willing tourists. All without so much as another word. I grabbed a terrific shot of the Bedouin atop his camel, riding off toward the Pyramids. I also got the shot we had come for… the three Pyramids all next to one another.
Picture in hand, Helen and I walked quickly back to the Pyramids. No time to waste, we had already spent an entire day there and we had a van to catch. We walked between two Pyramids and then close the middle of the three structures. Fully past the middle Pyramid and about to leave the Giza Plateau forever, I reconnected with the six-year-old still inside of me. My inner six-year-old didn’t want to leave. At a minimum, the child in me wanted to say goodbye. That’s when I stopped and turned around to wave farewell to the Pyramids, to seal the experience and soak it in for one final time – to satisfy the needs of my six-year-old self.
That’s when I saw this scene.
I dropped my backpack, fished out my camera and, for the moment at least, there was suddenly no van to catch. Time stood still and all the other shots I had taken in the previous 25 hours melted away into nothingness. In that instant, I knew I had something special. It is one of the very rare moments – in the days of film, at least – when I captured a shot and even before I got it back from the lab, I knew I had something remarkable. For the next six months as Helen and continued our travels, I kept seeing this image in my mind’s eye and when I finally got the contact sheets back in San Francisco, it was the first image I looked for.
Since I first printed this image in the darkroom, countless people have told me that I managed to photograph the Pyramids in a way they they have never been photographed before. I find that hard to believe – but clearly many people, including museum curators and fine art photography collectors believe this to be true.
Here, for whatever it’s worth, is the magic lesson I learned in capturing this image: Sometimes, the best picture is behind you. It’s a simple thought, but walk down a street in one direction and then turn around and walk the other way and you’ll realize the stretch of real estate that you just traversed, eyes wide open, looks entirely different when retracing your steps in the opposite direction.
I’m glad I was able to travel to Egypt. I’m grateful that I never fully lost touch with the 6-year-old inside of me. I’m very glad I listened to that 6-year-old and turned to wave goodbye to the Pyramids. I captured a timeless image – and learned a valuable lesson all at once. That’s a great day in my book.