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The name “Angkor Wat” stirs in the popular imagination visions of antiquity, discovery, religion, mystery. But Angor Wat is only the main structure in the huge complex at Angkor in Cambodia, much of which still remains uncovered. Photography from the air reveals numerous sites that have yet to be excavated or reclaimed from the banyan tree roots and other foliage that have enveloped their secrets for many centuries. Some parts of the complex have been looted and others damaged during the Cambodian civil war between the government and the Khmer Rouge. Elements of the Khmer Rouge holed up there, resulting in destructions by government forces firing on them. And some of the choicest sculptures reside in Western museums while others are in private collections or on the block at auction houses.[1]

Like the “discovery” of America by Columbus or the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham, the “discovery” of Angkor by French archaeologists was but a recovery of what the local people had all along known was there.

Cambodia was still a colony, part of French Indochina, in 1911 when the stunning jungle-clad structures, spread across some 250 square miles, began to be revealed by clearance and rescued from centuries of nature’s wiles, particularly the roots of the banyan tree, as seen on this book’s cover. Those roots descend from high branches and envelope everything below in their creeping and clinging tentacles, reaching into cracks and crevices and separating ton-heavy stones from their immediate neighbors, resulting in the collapse and disappearance from view of majestic monuments. This catalog of an exhibition of photographs held from September 9, 2010 to January 3, 2011 at Musée Cernuschi (Musée des arts de l’Asie de la ville de Paris) records the early efforts of a continuing project to identify and restore those formerly-hidden monuments and, in so doing, recover the physical evidence of a culture’s history and memory. Although this book is not new, it has not been as widely noticed as it deserves to be. The exquisite photographs illustrate clearly how photography employed for other purposes can simultaneously serve art and history. Angkor is, of course, much photographed but the photos in this book reveal how photography was employed to document the rescue of the monuments. We see some monuments in the state in which they were found: stones dislodged by vines, monsoon rains, and tree roots; and others we see in various stages of reconstruction. A unique feature of the selection of photos in this book is the inclusion of images showing laborers working on the buildings. Many of the images were made by named professional photographers, accounting for their high quality. The text records both the history of Angkor and the history, to date, of the recovery of the buildings and sculptures. Each of the photographs is completely documented and accompanied by an extended description of what is depicted.

The value of those photos can be gleaned from this statement (19):

The famous map of Angkor Wat attributed to the Japanese pilgrim, Shimano Kenryō, and dated between 1623 and 1636, is probably the first image of Angkor to have made its way out of Southeast Asia...Apart from that map, the only ‘images’ of Angkor known before the mid-19th century were the purely mental and interpretive ones based on descriptions published by missionaries and other travellers.

The recovery and restoration work is an undertaking of École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO). For the past six decades, EFEO has been restoring Angkor’s Bapuhon site. An exhibition of Angkor photographs and the publication of this catalog celebrated the completion of the Bapuhon project. The images are drawn from the EFEO’s photographic archives. The few pages devoted to the archives, by Isabelle Poujol, its archivist, provide information on the photographers, including John Thomson and Henri Parmentier. The more than 100,000 photographs in the archive are mostly of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, the Indochina of French colonial times. A vivid selection of those grace this volume. Their quality is extremely high and the reproduction is superb. Through text, maps, and both old and later photographs, the recovery of Bapuhon is fitted into the larger context of the whole of the massive Angkor complex. Supplementary materials in this volume include an archaeological map of Cambodia, another of Greater Angkor, a synoptic table listing events in Cambodia and other Asian countries that had influenced Cambodia’s culture, a chronology of “some interpretations of the EFEO in Angkor,” a glossary, a bibliography, and a vignette about the Richards verascopes that were used to produce stereoscopes of Angkor.

Anyone not about to rush off to Angkor or to the EFEO’s photographic archives in Paris could enjoy hours of armchair travel with a copy of this beautifully produced softbound book.


Raymond Lum is Librarian for Western Languages, Harvard-Yenching Library, and is Book Review and Resources Editor of TransAsia Photography Review.

Notes

    1. See “Officials Are Set to Seize Antiquity,” New York Times, 5 April 2012, p. C1.return to text