Archives for posts with tag: Museum of Fine Arts Houston

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.

I captured this image nearly 20 years ago in 1998, and it still stands as one of my favorite images. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston agrees and recently added it to their permanent collection. I can remember clearly taking this picture on a hot sunny day in Rangoon. I spent slightly more than three weeks in Burma, but this scene unfolded before me within the first two days of arriving in the country.

About arriving in Burma. Back in 1998, Burma was essentially blocked from trading with the entire world. It’s a remarkable feat, really, to have pissed off all the world powers, but they had managed to do so. One side effect was that a requirement for entering the country was to bring $250 of U.S. currency – no travelers checks or credit cards, just cash – and trade that at the airport for FECs or Foreign Exchange Currency. That was one way that the military dictatorship that ran Burma acquired hard cash to buy things such as arms on the open arms market.

I, like every other tourist, had signed an agreement to bring the said $250 of cash with me. That was a prerequisite to getting a visa. And so I boarded my quick flight from Bangkok to arrive in Burma with my visa clearly taped into my passport. Oh, and I had cash. Enough to get me through a month in Burma. Only, I had most all of the cash hidden away in different places in my backpack and I had no intention of trading my cash for FECs. I also had two $5 bills in my money belt. And an emergency $20 tucked into a sock.

At the Rangoon airport, the handful of tourists on my flight dutifully handed over their $250 and received $250 worth of FECs in return. They would spend those FECs in Burma and receive Kyats, the local currency, as change. Any FECs left at the trip would be all but useless. Even trading Kyats for dollars was tough.

When it was my turn to hand over my $250, I presented a credit card, knowing full well that due to all of the banking blockades, no one in Burma – not least of all the government – could take a credit card. The authorities made a big show of pointing out the paper I had signed agreeing to bring $250 of cash into the country. I pointed out that in the rest of the world a credit card was the same as cash and shrugged my shoulders. They confiscated my passport and started asking questions. “How are you going to pay for your hotel?” they asked. I told them I would go to the bank and have money wired in. “It is Sunday, the banks are closed,” they pointed out. I’ll go tomorrow, I told them. “How will you pay for the cab?” They asked incredulously. Oh, I told them, I have $10 with me.

I opened up my money belt and fished out the two lonely $5 bills I had placed there before leaving Bangkok.

The police at the Burmese airport demanded the $10. I laid $5 on the counter and insisted that I needed the other $5 to pay for the taxi into town.

The net result was that a $5 bribe got me out of paying $250 in exchange for FECs. The police took my $5, gave my passport back and sent me on my way. Two weeks later, after spending four days together – a guide in a remote part of Burma asked me to explain what happened at the airport. He then proceeded to let me know that I had been followed and tracked ever since arriving in Burma and that he, as my guide, had to report to the police on everything that I did. Among other things, the government wanted him to find out from me was how I ended up with money to pay for my travels when I had arrived with no money. “I worked it out at the bank,” I lied.

There was a lot to see and photograph in Burma. I had stepped out of my backpacker hotel the first night and stepped into a scene that was utterly unrecognizable – the sheer magnitude of people living on the streets and going through all manner of life that we go through behind closed doors and just laying it all out there for everyone to see. That was Rangoon at night in 1998.

During the day, the chaos still existed, but it was more recognizable. I remember watching the public buses pass through the streets filled beyond capacity with people moving around the city. And then this unfolded before me. I had but a moment to get into position, move around yet more people headed toward the door, focus, set exposure and shoot. I was shooting film, of course – digital didn’t exist yet. And I had limited film with me and, of course, no assurance that I could buy film in Burma. So every click of the shutter was precious. I took one picture of this scene – unheard of today – and this is it.

I love every nuance within the scene. Look carefully and you’ll see someone in the doorway staring out at me, looking directly into the camera. For me, he makes the shot. This image alone sparked the idea for me to create a series called The Daily Commute. I have played with this idea off and on over the years and while I have yet to launch the collection, I have plans for this series that I am, to this day, still excited about and plan to pursue again when I have a free moment.

This image works for me on many levels. It’s a fascinating moment in time. It’s well framed and composed. And, truthfully, it’s a stark reminder as to the varied lives that people across our planet are living right now, even as you read this. I am grateful that I was able to travel in Burma, grateful that I’ve had the broad range of experiences that exposed me to how people live in countries both wealthy and poor – and grateful that I was able to capture this image on film.

I recently printed this image again and framed it in our new framing facility. It now sits on the floor in my house awaiting a decision as to where it will hang. Soon enough, this daily commute will again, albeit as a 2-dimensional image, be a part of my daily life.

Getting to work every morning in Rangoon, Burma

Collectors Nathan and Rachel Bearman have generously donated 15 of my limited edition prints to The Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The prints that the museum selected and which the Bearmans donated came from my collection “Around the World in 89 Photographs.”

It’s difficult to say I have a favorite image from this series. In fact, the collection was supposed to be only 80 images in total, so clearly editing and winnowing down a series is not my strong suit.

This image is one of the 15 being acquired by the MFAH. I took this picture in 1998 in Ragoon, Burma… now known as Yangon, Myanmar. While I have traveled on buses like this one in different parts of the world, I did not get on this one. And whereas today I would snap off 20-30 pictures of this bus trying to get the perfect shot, back in 1998 I was still gingerly testing my limits as a photographer. I took just one frame.

There’s a lot going in this image. In addition to being a ridiculously jam-packed bus, there is the attempt by yet one more person to board, there is the guiding hand that’s helping get more folks on, the conductor with the wad of money and the telling eye contact from the upper left-hand corner that (for me) draws us in and forces us to examine the humanity of the moment.

I grew up commuting on subways and busesĀ in Manhattan and the Bronx. As a young adult working on Madison Avenue (actually Grey Advertising on Third Avenue, but who’s counting), I spent many a morning confronting one subway after another that was completely full with no room for so much as one more person. Back then, I dealt with the situation by learning how to jump onto and ride the subways between the cars (involves a not terribly bright maneuver that includes peeling back a protective gate to prevent exactly this act).

This single image sparked my idea for the collection “The Daily Commute” that was exhibited for a year at The Oakland Museum of California nearly a decade ago. I fell in love with the idea of sharing the various commutes that we all endure and in a way that allow us to find perspective on our own commute. In my dream, these images are exhibited on New York subways and buses… and while I’ve explored that possibility, government budget cuts make it impossible for now.

Eventually, I’ll re-visit “The Daily Commute” collection and re-introduce it on my website. In the mean time, this is one of my more iconic commute images and it lives in “Around the Wolrd in 89 Photographs.”

I’m proud to report that, thanks to the Bearmans and to Del Zogg and Anne Tucker at the MFAH, it will now live on at this prestigious museum as well.