These days, photographer John McDermott, once described as the “Ansel Adams of Angkor” by a New York Times writer, might be redubbed as the foremost “artist-entrepreneur” of Siem Riep, Cambodia.
The owner of three galleries, McDermott understands the dynamics of selling art in a tourist town that has had explosive growth since 2003 when global tourists began to come in significant numbers to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, about a thirty minute drive from the city.
McDermott’s personal journey – from his home town of Little Rock, Arkansas, to Los Angeles, Bangkok, and finally Siem Reap – preceded the tourist boom. After living in Bangkok for six years, photographing the region for a magazine, McDermott read about a total solar eclipse that was to pass over Angkor Wat in 1995. Taken with the idea of photographing the temples in the eerie light of an eclipse, he headed to Cambodia. Looking at his pictures later, he discovered that the black and white photos shot with infrared film were the most interesting. “They gave a surreal look to everything,” he said, “mimicking the light seen before the eclipse.”
John McDermott, Temple Lion and Clouds – Pre Rup, Angkor, Cambodia, 2008; Courtesy John McDermott
McDermott shot the temples virtually alone. "At that time," he said, “perhaps 3,000 people came to Angkor Wat to see the eclipse, a miniscule number when one considers the thousands who visit the temple complex daily today." Now, the three-mile drive from Siem Reap to the temples is a vast traffic jam of tuk-tuks and tourist buses, many overflowing with Chinese visitors.
There were no hotels then. It was only five years later, after Thailand opened its border with Laos in 2000, that tourism in Siem Reap began to flourish and then to explode. For the first three years, from 2000 to 2003, McDermott showed his work in hotel lobby exhibitions. When the FCC Restaurant decided to expand into a hotel with a few retail shops, they invited McDermott to open a gallery, which he did in September 2004 with the help of his wife and a staff member, who was fresh out of hospitality school.
Three years later, with the gallery at the FCC Angkor Boutique Hotel thriving, Siem Reap was booming as more shops, restaurants, and bars opened, especially in the area around the Old Market. Ever the entrepreneur, McDermott started looking at old shop houses there. The neighborhood had mostly been residential so the places were pretty run down. “But I found one I liked and rented it, then renovated it and turned it into my second gallery. It was much larger – four rooms total – and it allowed me to showcase other photographers from the region as well as my own work.”
McDermott’s third gallery opened in October 2012 in the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, which was then undergoing renovations and creating new space for shops. McDermott hired the architects who helped design the gallery in the Old Market and they worked together to come up with a gallery that “would fit into the upscale hotel.” The Raffles gallery rotates exhibits, with the help of a curator.
As an artist-entrepreneur, McDermott is sensitive to the issue of affordability and he pays great attention to the price points of his work. His limited edition pieces sell for anywhere from $500 up to $10,000, with sizes from 11 x 14 inches to 40 x 80 inches, depending on the image. Most of the buyers for his limited edition prints are westerners, many from the US and the UK. Photo reproductions of the prints, which are photographs from scans that are printed in a consumer lab, are priced from $15 to $125. For those with even more limited budgets, he also sells postcards and greeting cards.
McDermott still uses a darkroom to print the silver gelatin prints and he is shrewd about the tools he uses to market and sell his art, namely, the Internet, websites, and tourist contacts. “The Internet is of course where the world lives and shops these days so you must have a good presence there – a website of your own and listings with other sites that might sell art for you, especially since there are now galleries that are specifically online, many more than brick and mortar galleries, which are harder and harder to get into these days.”
In a tourist environment like Siem Reap, though, McDermott depends heavily on word-of-mouth contacts. Since people are in town for relatively short stays – to tour temples – McDermott works with travel agents and tour companies, arranging events for travelers that fit conveniently into their itineraries.
While there are many shops selling tourist art in Siem Reap, there is no real competition, especially not in the area of fine art photography. “We are the only big gallery in the town that shows top professional work,” he said, although he added that “he wished there were many more.”
John McDermott; Monks in a Sunlit Doorway – Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2000; Courtesy John McDermott
Sadly, McDermott’s Angkor Wat portfolio could not be photographed today. “A lot of these pictures can’t be shot anymore,” McDermott explains. “Now, there are too many people and too much restoration work.” All of the gates have big wooden braces surrounding them as does the iconic twisted kapok tree.
So, he has moved on to places outside of Cambodia. “I have been making a couple of trips a year to places like Kathmandu, Bali, Jordan, and Myanmar to shoot new collections,” he said. Mindful of all his opportunities, McDermott added that he is also “putting a lot of time and effort into my commercial photography business which involves shooting hotels and resorts, portraits, and such, and then doing photo tours with tourists, where I take them places in and around Angkor and teach them about how to make better pictures.”
“This all keeps me pretty busy,” said McDermott. Resourceful, resilient, and talented, the artist entrepreneur of Siem Riep is thriving.
(Image on top: John McDermott, Two Towers – The Bayon, Angkor, Cambodia, 2010; Courtesy John McDermott)