Dusting Off Photos From an Old French Craze for Angkor

When Henri Mouhot’s travel journal was published in the early 1860s, his descriptions and sketches of Angkorian monuments sparked an obsession with Cambodia that led generations of French researchers and archaeologists to spend their lives studying and restoring them.

Fascinated by the history and beauty of the monuments, they took scores of photographs of monuments across Cambodia, both to illustrate their reports and preserve Khmer art.

A reclining bronze Vishnu statue at the Angkor Archaeological Park’s West Mebon monument in 1936 (EFEO)
A reclining bronze Vishnu statue at Angkor park’s West Mebon monument in 1936 (EFEO)

Beginning tonight, about 40 of those photos will be on display at the Institut Francais in Phnom Penh as part of the exhibition “Voyage Into the Heart of Cambodia.” Dating back to the 1890s, the images were selected from among 26,500 that have been scanned so far by the French School of the Far East (EFEO) in Paris.

The selection includes a 1936 image of stone statues lined up on the ground at the Banteay Samre monument, another showing a damaged bronze bust of a reclining Vishnu statue at the West Mebon monument taken the same year, and a shot of two monks at a well near Angkor Wat in 1952.

“These photos were taken with some flair at a time when not everyone had a camera,” said Dominique Soutif, EFEO’s representative in Siem Reap.

And because most of the photos were taken before the dawn of digital cameras and the French scientists were careful not to waste film, they were taken with great care, he said.

They also were taken by people for whom Cambodia was a lifelong passion, Mr. Soutif added, putting himself in the same category. “As it happens, I love this country and its heritage, and it’s my job to study it.”

The EFEO was founded by the French government in 1898 with the mandate of studying the history and culture of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam—countries then under French administration—and safeguarding their monuments.

When Thailand returned Battambang and Siem Reap provinces to France in 1907, the EFEO began restoring monuments at Angkor.

Several EFEO researchers died in the course of their work.

Jean Comaille, who in 1907 became the first administrator of what is now the Angkor Archaeological Park, was murdered in 1916 while carrying pay for park workers.

The exhibition was first held in December at the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap City. Francoise Callier, the festival’s program director, had the task of selecting the photos.

“I told myself that I had to find an approach because otherwise, I would never manage,” Ms. Callier said, explaining that she prioritized photos of archaeological teams at work and those of large Khmer statues that may no longer be in Cambodia.

The exhibition opens at 6:30 p.m. and runs through August 20.

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