Woman at Kailasanatha Temple

Imagine walking up to a hill and deciding to remove all the vegetation and then carve a multi-storied temple out the underlying rock. That what the regional Indian King Krishna decided – and did! – in the 8th century. Helen and I visited the temple in the spring of 2002 and it remains one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen and photographed.

The Temple is located in Ellora just outside of Aurangabad and near the Ajanta caves. Nearly every structure in the world is built from the bottom up. Think of the Great Pyramids as an obvious example. One giant stone laid on top of another giant stone until a structure exists that takes one’s breath away.

At the world heritage sight in Petra, Jordan there are some rather elaborate architectural carvings made to look like buildings. The difference is that Petra, carved as early as 312BC, is merely a series of barren caves with ornate facades. And while the facades look wonderful, they have no architectural integrity. The facades are entirely decorative. The closest I’ve seen to what exists in Ellora were the rock cut churches of Ethiopia in Lalibela – churches cut out of solid stone and dating back to roughly 1200. But even those, as magnificent as they are, pale in comparison to what happened in India.

The date isn’t precisely known, but evidence indicates that it was during the 8th century when Indian carvers stood atop a small mountain of granite and began carving. Short of having a drone (non-existent in 2002) or a helicopter (not in my budget), it’s challenging to capture the grandeur of the entire temple, made up of more than one building as well as buildings of multiple stories. And so when perched atop a hill overlooking the temple, my eye wandered to details that could tell the story for me.

For me the story is about the splendor of the architecture, the sheer enormity of what was accomplished here. To capture this, I decided to focus my attention on the elephant carvings at the foot of the temple. Of course, the statues by themselves don’t tell the story – one needs the added effect of the woman in the image for scale. It’s terrific for the image that she’s wearing a sari – that places us squarely in India. I watched the woman walk slowly and with what imagined was a measure of peace into my frame from right to left. As thrilled as I was to have her walk into my viewfinder, I also struggled with the light. The entire side of the temple was in the shade with the sun peering over the far right corner.

Were I shooting today, I would be shooting digitally with lots of memory space. I would easily snap 20 frames as she moved across the temple. At the start, she would be in the far right corner, I’d have to shift the camera to the right to accommodate her position without crowding her in the corner of the frame. The challenge would be an excess wash of light from the sun. But no matter, with digital equipment, I would capture everything and suffer the time-intensive editing consequences later on.

But this was 2002 and I was shooting film. Film, I might add, that was a precious commodity for me back then. I didn’t have the luxury of clicking off more than a few frames, and ideally would take only one.

I remember seeing a contact sheet from famed photographer Garry Winnogrand once. Every frame on a roll of 36 images was a completely different image. At least on the contact sheet I saw, Winnogrand didn’t work a scene – he found his perfect shot in every situation, captured it and moved on. That’s what I endeavored to become and – with severely limited film resources on our round-the-world journey – what I needed to do here.

I waited until the woman had walked as far along the edge as I was comfortable having her, just before reaching the first corner. I weighed the challenge of capturing enough of the temple to give a sense of depth and receding into the distance – as well as providing a mystery as to the height – and weighed all of that against the blown out brightness I knew would overcome the top right corner. All of this happens quickly and in the moment, I clicked the shutter and captured this image.

There are times when I look at this photograph and am frustrated with the blown out corner. I wish it didn’t have to be there. But when I consider the alternatives to framing the image, I realize that the image is, for me, already perfect. I suppose if I have any doubt, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – a venerable collector of fine art photography – acquired one of the limited edition prints of this image for their permanent collection.

Bravo to the Indians who constructed this. And thanks to the miracle of photography for permitting me to capture this image.