Czech-Born Photographer Focuses on Documenting Temples

“It was my dream of Angkor,” Jaroslav Poncar says of his photograph of rain slanting into one of the two impossibly long galleries at Preah Khan temple. “It was a shower out of the sunshine.”

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Jaroslav Poncar works this weekend on his project to document, with photographs, every centimeter of Angkor Wat’s extensive bas reliefs. (Jan Wesner Childs)

The Czech-born photographer must have looked ridiculous, the handle of an opened umbrella stuffed in his trousers pocket while he ran around Preah Khan, snapping pictures in a five-minute downpour.

The umbrella pocket is one of several devices that shape the 75 photographs of the Angkor temples in Poncar’s black-and-white photo exhibit at the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana until mid-April.

Using a lens that machine-rotates 120 degrees vertically, Poncar scans the enormous, parasitic trees that impale the temples. He has also tramped all over Angkor Wat and the Bayon with a horizontally sliding panoramic camera in what is likely the most definitive photographic documentation of the temples yet.

Poncar, a resident of Germany for 33 years, works at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne as the dean of faculty for imaging sciences. His program is regarded as a leader in the study of photography technology.

An urge to visit Cambodia first struck Poncar in the early 1970s, after he traveled through Central and East Asia to photograph decaying early Tibetan paintings.

But Poncar did not get a visa to Cambodia until 1993. He has visited twice a year since, he said, motivated to help preserve indigenous artifacts of Indian-influenced cultures.

In 1995, his idea to capture on celluloid every centimeter of the Angkor Wat bas-reliefs pushed him to scrounge $100,000 from private donors and the German government.

“Angkor has many fans among people who are well off,” Poncar said recently at the Cambodiana, explaining his ability to raise such funds.

He brought along six students from his university program. The primary piece of equipment used for the project was a specially adapted version of the Swiss-made Seitz panoramic camera.

The $30,000 camera—which looks like a miniature space satellite suspended inside a queen-size bed frame standing on its side—records the scroll-like bas reliefs by sliding horizontally on rails.

All told, Poncar said the camera traveled 7 km to capture the 12th-century bas reliefs at Angkor Wat. It also produced a 2.4-meter photo negative, the longest ever, he said.

Poncar filmed all the reliefs at night with artificial halogen lamplight to avoid the “confusing” angles of daylight.

The Angkor project resulted, among other things, in a book called, “Of Gods, Kings and Men” (Serindia Publications, 1995).

“You could say it’s the comic [strips] of the gods,” he quipped, citing the images of the Hindu god Vishnu creating life out of an ocean of milk.

His work has led him to a post as director of the

German-funded Apsara Conservation Project.

Poncar aims to finish photographing the bas reliefs in the pavilions of Angkor Wat and each of the 1,850 sandstone apsaras at Cambodia’s most widely recognized temple.

Next year Poncar hopes to take a sabbatical from teaching to return to photograph the 700 lintels in the great temple.

Unlike the five-minute rain shower at Preah Khan, the lintels should be here when he returns.

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