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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.

Henna Hands

I captured this image at the foot of the Taj Mahal in March, 2002. Helen and I were at the tail end of nearly a year of traveling around the world on $30/day between the two of us (airfare, scuba diving and our one safari in Kenya were outside of that budget). In all, we spent two full days inside the Taj Mahal compound, watching the light change, Helen sketching in her diary, me taking the occasional photograph (see: limitations of shooting with film).

At one point during the first day, with the crowds picking up and the light directly above and probably at it’s least interesting, Helen and I ventured forward, removed our shoes and walked inside the mausoleum itself. Seeing the chamber built for the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal is a required visit, but the comparatively small space is less impressive than the building itself.

I was happy to get back outside, into the sunshine and where I could soak in the building’s famous exterior. That’s when I noticed this well-appointed woman and her tattooed hands.

As is my way, I approached her with my camera hanging from my neck. I smiled, pointed to her hands, and told her they were beautiful. She smiled and let me know it’s part of the wedding custom – she was getting married there, at the Taj Mahal. I asked if I could photograph her hands and that’s when she held out her hands as you see here.

I’ve since learned that this form of henna tattoo is called “mehndi” and is part of a larger Hindu wedding tradition. Among other folklore, one theory has it that the darker the henna, the more the bride will be loved by her husband and respected by her new in-laws. Perhaps one beloved tradition is that the bride isn’t allowed to do any work until the mehndi has faded away. In effect, across all fronts, darker is better.

Of course, the dark henna, meant to impress her husband and ward off the start of any work, was perfect for my camera and black and white film. What’s remarkable for me in the image is how all the elements come together – the intricate, dense and dark patterns painted on her hands offset by the also intricate but light and airy patterns on her sari, all separated by her symmetrical arms and series of bright bangles.

This is one of those images where everything came together in an instant to create, what for me, is the perfect moment. Shooting film – a resource I doled out carefully during a year of backpacking around the world – combined with the woman’s graciousness and clearly limited time, I took exactly one frame of her hands.

Clearly, I’m happy with how it worked out.

Reclining Buddha

I captured this image in 2002 at the Ajanta caves outside of Aurangabad, India. Helen and I were in the final three months of a year of traveling out of small backpacks and on $30/day between the two of us. It was a great trip – as Mark Twain once said, “adventure is discomfort misremembered.”

We landed in Bombay after a flight from Zanzibar (flights, SCUBA and safaris were outside of our daily $30 budget). And after five days in and around Bombay, our first challenge was to find our way to Aurangabad.

Enter our first experience with the Indian train system. For perspective, the Indian train system was once the single largest employer in the world and is still in the top ten (the US Defense Department is now the world’s largest employer). And consider that the Indian train system moves considerably more people than it employs. With this as a backdrop, Helen and I entered the central station in Bombay, successfully queued up and purchased two second class tickets to Aurangabad.

This, it turned out, was the easy part. Finding our way to the correct track and train, on the other hand, proved a nearly insurmountable challenge. All the signs pointing to different trains and tracks were written in Hindi script. I stopped a handful of people and asked them each in English if they could point me to the train to Aurangabad. English is not an official language in India, but it’s still there, lurking in the background among the educated class – a holdover from India’s days as a British colony.

Still, no luck. Everyone I asked just shook their head and flipped one hand, palm side up, in the universal Indian expression that roughly translates to “I have no idea what you’re saying.”

A bit anxious about missing our train and in a bit of desperation, I turned to the next well dressed Indian man I saw, embarrassingly adopted my best Indian accent and asked if he could direct us to the train to Aurangabad. To my delight and astonishment, my accent did the trick. We finally were pointed in a general direction and given a track number.

There wasn’t much to the town of Aurangabad. We stayed in a dusty hotel that sat right between the Ellora Temple and the Ajanta Caves. I’ll admit it, the Ellora Temple held me in sway. Helen and I had seen the rock-cut churches of Lalibella in Ethiopia several months earlier and the Ellora temple is India’s answer to that great Ethiopian treasure. Cut out of a single hillside of rock, the Ellora temple with it’s many floors, large elephant guardians and other intricate grandeur is truly a wonder of the world.

Helen and I spent a day exploring the Ellora Temple got a good night’s sleep and tackled the Ajanta caves the next morning. The caves date back to the 2nd century BCE and contain some of the oldest known Indian cave paintings. There are 28 caves in all, each representing a different Indian Monastery from the ancient era – and all the caves were consumed by the jungle and rediscovered by a British army officer during a hunting expedition in 1819.

The caves were each different, each amazing and many contained ancient drawings and carvings. That said, by the time we reached cave 20, I was feeling a bit worn out and tired of spending so much time indoors. As amazing as the Ajanta caves were, they paled in comparison to the grandeur of the Ellora Temple we had explored just the day before. Of course, having made the trek to Aurangabad, and being there in that amazing place, Helen and dutifully entered each open cave and in order – after all, we didn’t want to miss anything.

When we entered cave 26, we knew why we were there, at the caves, and walking in and exploring each of them. There, carved into the far wall near the entrance was this amazing reclining Buddha. The light shone in through the opening and cast an perfect waft of light across the Buddha from head to toe.

I pulled my camera to my eye and considered the light, my film speed and the composition. This was long before digital photography and back when the light limits of our cameras were defined by a combination of the aperture (lens opening) and film speed (ASA). You could push the film, essentially fake the film out and pretend you were shooting one that performed better in lower light. You’d then process the film differently in the lab. But the trade off was in the clarity of the image (it deteriorated the more you pushed the film) and the fact that the entire role of 36 frames would need to be shot and processed differently.

Bearing in mind that I carried 12-15 rolls of film with me at any given time, and considering that I would shoot perhaps six frames of this Buddha – at most – pushing the film was out of the question.

All told, given the light and the lens I had, I needed to shoot with the shutter open for a full second. Without a tripod. That’s an insane length of time to hold the camera steady. But seeing the Buddha and the light before me, I knew I had to try. To get this picture, I braced myself against the opposing wall, pressed the camera tight against my face, took a deep breath, held it, and slowly pressed the trigger – concentrating on the Buddha and trying to channel all the calm and inner peace that I could in that moment.

I’m very pleased with the result – and, of note, one of the limited edition prints of this image resides in the permanent collection at the San Jose Museum of Art.

To this day, every time I sit in the doctor’s office and get my blood pressure taken, I imagine I am in Ajanta, looking at this Buddha. I don’t hold my breath, but I focus on being calm, relaxed, and steady. And, in the moment, I am all of that.

There are times when I set out to capture a certain image only to be disappointed that the image I wanted doesn’t exist. Usually, my initial disappointment gives way to the wonder of surprise and the delight at capturing an image I had no idea awaited me. This was one of those times.

To set the stage, Helen and I backpacked around the world for the better part of a year in 2001/02, before kids, before a mortgage, before we started our art business and, truth be told, before I had established my reputation as a fine art photographer. Indeed, some of the images I would capture on this trip, including this one, marked the turning point in my career.

Our journey started with a brief sojourn in England, then off to Turkey and over land through Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. Then through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar before heading off for three months riding the trains and exploring India.

Before we had so much as packed our bags and left San Francisco, we knew India would be on our itinerary. And while I wouldn’t categorize myself as having been impatient to get there, I was certainly excited at the thought of seeing (and photographing) the Taj Mahal.

Finally in India and as we rode the train from Trivandrum to Chennai and then north to Bhopal, I started allowing myself the fantasy of photographing the Taj Mahal in all her glory – the white marble, the light bouncing off the water that would sit motionless in the reflecting pools. The longest train ride we took in this stretch was 30 hours. That’s a lot of daydreaming about capturing the perfect shot.

We arrived in Agra on a Monday afternoon and quickly settled into a nice hotel (by backpacker standards) walking distance from the Taj. That night Helen and I set our alarms and the next morning we were up well before sunrise and were the first to enter the famous mausoleum an hour before the sun came up.

A quick note, we paid $60 in entrance fees – and while today we’re fortunate and wouldn’t think twice about the cost, back then, we were traveling on $30/day – between the two of us. So the entrance ticket was an extravagance.

Imagine my chagrin, therefore, when we got inside the compound only to discover that the reflecting pools had been drained. I took a few shots in sheer frustration and waited for the sun to come up and to see if the pools might be filled later in the day.

While I waited, in vain I might add, the workers came out to clean the pools. Now, suddenly, I knew why I was there – on this rare day – when there was no water in the famous reflecting pools. I was there to shoot not the classic Taj Mahal shot, but to capture the odd image, the image not of glamour but of reality, in which we see the workers doing the most common and mundane of chores, cleaning the bottom of a pool. Only this pool was in front of one of the seven man made wonders of the world.

As for the large black birds – I had no idea they were there. I was focused on the workers, trying to compose a shot with seven different people in it, all moving at their own pace and direction – and trying to conserve film at the same time. This was before digital. Because I only traveled with 20 rolls of film at a time (I purchased film as we traveled), each shot had to count. Suddenly and without warning, these birds took flight, appearing out of nowhere. I clicked the shutter and got one frame with the birds in the image. And this image is, by far, my favorite shot of the Taj Mahal.

Helen and I spent the rest of the day watching the light (and the tourists) transit the Taj Mahal. It was wonderful to have an excuse to spend an entire day in the presence of such beauty.

By sunset, the pools were still empty. And while I thought I had some interesting shots in the can, I still wanted my reflecting pool shots. On Tuesday, we strolled back to the Taj Mahal but this time we passed on paying our $60 until we could be sure there was water in the pools. This turned into an odyssey unto itself. The helpful folks outside the compound directed us to the central office in charge of the monument that in turn led us into a rickshaw taxi and a trip around Agra going from one office building to another in search of the bureaucrat  who would tell us when the reflecting pools would be filled.

On Thursday morning, Helen and I were fairly sure the empty pools had been filled. We awoke well before dawn and made our way to the Taj Mahal entrance. Only we let the folks there know that we weren’t in a position to pay $60 again unless we could be 100% certain there was water in the reflecting pools. In effect, we said, we wanted a free look to be sure – if the water was there, we would pay, no problem.

The folks who ran the ticket office didn’t know what to do with us. Finally, a tall, lean and rather firm standing soldier came by to speak with us. His English was wonderful. He was sympathetic and said he’d walk with me into the Taj Mahal compound where he and I would see for ourselves what the situation was.

Off we went at such a brisk pace that, all these years later, I still remember struggling to keep up with him.

And then a funny thing happened. To enter the Taj Mahal compound requires entering a main gate and then another inner gate. Both gates are guarded by the military. As we approached the outer gate and at the sight of my escort, the guards snapped to attention as if their jobs depended on speed and perfection. I took note, but thought perhaps this was merely a show for the tourists outside the gate.

But no, inside and out of sight of all the tourists save myself, one soldier after another snapped to attention as we strode past. When we got to the inner gate, the guards fell over themselves to come to attention and then open the gate as quickly and efficiently as possible for my escort and myself.

I turned to my escort and remarked, “You’ve been holding out on me. It seems you’re the commanding officer here.”

“Indeed I am,” he said with a smile.

And then there we were – inside the inner gate, facing the Taj Mahal in all its pre-sunrise glory. “Is that enough water for your photographs?” The commander asked, waving gallantly at the now full reflecting pools.

“Most certainly,” I said.

The commander had work to attend to and asked me to show myself out of the compound. Which, of course I did, getting curious looks from the guards the entire way back to the ticket window where Helen waited with our backpacks.

Helen and I spent another entire day at the Taj Mahal. By early afternoon, the guards were chatting with us, noting that they had seen us there for an entire day several days earlier and also wondering how it was that I knew their commanding officer.

“It’s just part of my job as a photographer,” I told them.

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. Read the rest of this entry »