Cleaning the Taj Mahal—2001

The Story Behind the Photograph...

Helen and I were at the tail end of a year of travels… we had been through the Middle East, parts of North and East Africa and then, finally, three months in India. As we traveled from one country to the next, somewhere in the recesses of my brain was the fact that I would get to photograph the Taj Mahal.

Once in India, it was another six weeks before I would see the Taj… and that six weeks included many remarkably long train journeys, the longest of which spanned 30 hours, all providing plenty of time to contemplate many things including what it would be like to arrive in Agra and finally see it.

We arrived in Agra on a Monday afternoon and it was all Helen and I could do to restrain ourselves from entering the Taj Mahal compound until the next morning. We wanted to arrive before sunrise and experience the Taj for the first time as the sun peaked over the horizon and began to light the mausoleum’s gentle white marble. That night I dreamt of the reflecting pool and the many images I had seen of the Taj Mahal reflecting peacefully in the water. Tuesday morning Helen and I were up before dawn, showered and out the door of our hotel well before sunrise. We were the first in line to pay our $30 entrance fee to the Taj and we walked briskly, with excitement through the main gates.

And there, in the darkness, stood the Taj Mahal in all its glory. And then I looked down and noticed that something was terribly wrong. There was no water in the reflecting pools. I was devastated. To have traveled this far around the world only to be denied the classic image. As if to add insult to injury, as the sun came up, workers emerged and began scrubbing the pool walls clean.

“Well, here’s an intriguing shot,” I thought… something you don’t see every day. And quickly warming to lack of water, I shot frame after frame of the workers on a single roll of film. In the middle of this, a flock of rather large birds took flight. I had no idea those birds were there until they flew into my frame. And as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. If I have 36 frames of people cleaning the pool, only this one frame includes the birds. And for me, the birds are what make the picture so special.

Three days later, the pools were refilled and yes, I got this picture as well… but it is the one with the birds which was entirely unexpected and which stands out for me.


The Smithsonian—Permanent collection

Oakland Museum of California—Solo exhibit
University of North Carolina—Solo exhibit
The Commonwealth Club (San Francisco)—Solo exhibit
San Francisco Cameraworks—Group Auction


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