What it means to photograph
One of my favorite photographs is one I never actually captured.
I spent several months in 1998 traveling solo through Myanmar with a Contax G2 rangefinder camera and a trio of prime lenses.
The Contax G2 was a cult favorite at the time—tack sharp German lenses paired with the brilliance of Japanese engineering. It was a rangefinder, meaning the photographer peers through an approximation of what the mounted lens sees via a viewfinder angled to replicate its field of view. This quirky detail would come to play a major role in this story as unlike the more modern Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras of the day, images were taken without the benefits of a real-life ‘preview’ of the image about to be made.
In the hills above Kyaikto, Myanmar on the border between the Mon and Bago states sits an incredible buddhist shrine called Kyaik Htee Yoe Pagoda (sometimes anglicized as Kyaiktiyo).
The sprawling complex sits atop a mountain ridge overlooking the forests below and the Gulf of Martaban in the distance and draws thousands of visitors each year who come to pay homage to this precariously balanced massive boulder covered in hundreds of layers of gold leaf.
As the setting sun began to bathe the rock in a golden amber light, I sat on the top stair you see in the image above and took in the scene.
And just then, as I sat there contemplating my several month journey in this incredible country, up the stairs in single file walked 9 buddhist nuns in traditional pink robes in perfect silence. I knew I had left my aperture around f/8 by force of habit so I raised my camera to my eye reflexively, framing the diagonal row of women just below the Golden rock, pre-visualizing my acceptance speech at some future National Geographic award ceremony.
It was only when the nuns had disappeared behind me that I noticed my lens cap was still on.
I had 16 frames of pure darkness.
There’s no prompt in Midjourney that will ever give me the feeling I had watching the scene unfold, nor replace the real memory I have of the moment.
And on the day when some future version of Midjourney or the like inevitably does allow me to make this image from my memory, it will not replace those feelings from that day. For to photograph is to write with light that is actually there not to conjure pixels that might have been.