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A fine art photographer moves on

Peter Olszewski / Khmer Times Share:
John McDermott first came to Siem Reap in 1995. Supplied

It is history in the unmaking, as Siem Reap-based and internationally-renowned photographer John McDermott – famed for the dreamy beauty of his temple photography – shuts his gallery shops and hangs out a new business shingle.

“This is the first time in fourteen years that I do not have a gallery here,” he says. “We closed the McDermott Gallery at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor a couple of months ago, and the entire FCC Angkor Hotel is undergoing a major renovation, so all the shops there, including our gallery, are closed until that is completed.”

This move also coincides with a career transition, from fine art photographer to director of McDermott Studio which, he says, is simply survival.

“It is very difficult to make a living as a fine art photographer. The galleries performed quite well for a few years and I was able to support myself and my wife.

One of McDermott’s photos, taken in Cambodia. Photo: Supplied

“But when we had kids, the game changed and life got more expensive.”

Now he’s moving mostly into commercial photography.

“I was a commercial photographer by trade for many years before I came to Cambodia,” he says. “There is a very good market for this type of work now and it is not dependent on the seasonal tourist market.”

He also does photo tours with individual clients, or with groups, accompanying them and documenting their trips, then compiling the photos into book printed just for the group.

“It is a lovely way to document your trip, and then have a book where you can enjoy all your pictures, instead of having them sitting on a hard drive somewhere,” he says.

McDermott’s brilliant Asian career dates back over a quarter of a century and is partly due to that rascal, Bill Clinton.

“I had been working in Los Angeles for a few years in the movie business but I got tired of that,” McDermott says. “I had gone back to my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, to regroup. It was 1992, election year, and Bill Clinton was elected US president. He was from Arkansas and Little Rock was the center of the universe for a short while.”

McDermott’s interpretation of the Skytrain in Bangkok. Photo: Supplied

McDermott got a call from a local magazine editor friend saying a writer from a Thai start-up English language lifestyle magazine was in town doing a story on Clinton and needed a snapper.

McDermott took the pics and the Thai magazine then asked him if he wanted a job.

“One thing led to another and I was on a plane to Bangkok two months later,” he says. “I had never been to Asia before, so this was my first visit to the eastern hemisphere and I never looked back.”

McDermott then first came to Siem Reap in 1995 to capture photos of a total solar eclipse over Angkor. He returned to Siem Reap in 2000, when Raffles Hotel had just reopened after renovation, and he held a small exhibition of his earlier Angkor photos.

“The hotel was full of American and Japanese travelers and, surprisingly to me, the exhibition sold out,” he says. “I was looking for a subject to make a book project around and I saw that tourism was going to explode there in a few years.

“I realised that the temples would never be the same once the hordes arrived so I decided to make Angkor the subject of my project. I wanted to do a comprehensive portrait in a very specialised style while it was still ruins in the jungle as opposed to a major tourist destination.

“I spent the next four years going back and forth between Cambodia and the US working to put something together. I would shoot in Angkor for a few months then go back to the States where I developed film and made prints, and tried to figure out exactly what I would do with all the pictures and how best to present them.

“I was doing regular exhibitions in the Raffles to help finance things, and by 2004 tourism had grown enough to create a market for prints, so I opened the first of my galleries in the FCC.”

But now due to a changing tourism market, the galleries are gone and while McDermott’s iconic temple photography is no longer on view or for sale in a gallery, the photos live on in his book, Elegy: Reflections on Angkor, and he lives on in his transitioned career.

“I am staying very busy with diverse types of work that lets me both travel in the region and work here,” he says.

Reflecting on his career, John McDermott muses on his most treasured moment.

“I would have to say it was getting that call back in 1992 to see if I could do the photography for the story for the Thai magazine.

“That was the whole catalyst that got me over to Asia and introduced me to new peoples, places and cultures. It was a whole new world and it changed my life.”

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