Borobudur: Un­der the Full Moon


High above the Parisian sky­line in the tra­di­tional stu­dent quar­ter of Paris, the Dubois stu­dio and apart­ment is flooded by light. Hughes Dubois ex­er­cises his spe­cial pho­to­graphic skills, while Caro­line Leloup-Dubois takes care of spe­cial projects and text con­cep­tion. Bel­gian Hughes Dubois has 40 years of ex­pe­ri­ence dis­cov­er­ing and ap­pre­ci­at­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary tribal arte­facts and works of art. This son of a Bel­gian in­dus­tri­al­ist was al­ways fas­ci­nated by how light changes im­agery, ever since he be­gan to take draw­ing les­sons as a child.

Dubois worked as art di­rec­tor in ad­ver­tis­ing both in Brus­sels and Paris. He was rapidly at­tracted to the best of tribal art af­ter a chance en­counter. As an art di­rec­tor he met gifted pho­tog­ra­phers who in­spired him to ma­nip­u­late cam­eras him­self. While work­ing for pho­tog­ra­pher Roger As­sel­berghe in

1977, col­lec­tors Fran­cois Neyt and Jac­ques Blankaert brought a Hemba statue from Zaire, Africa. The statue pro­voked a shiver of recog­ni­tion due to its un­be­liev­able strength of ex­pres­sion. Dubois en­vis­aged mak­ing large prints of such ob­jects us­ing a plate cam­era in a stu­dio. His pas­sion and thirst for more in­for­ma­tion about these ex­tra­or­di­nary arte­facts was born.

It was only af­ter work­ing to­gether with Emile Dele­taille that Dubois learned to con­cen­trate on the ac­tual ob­ject, and not only on the tech­ni­cal as­pects of pho­tog­ra­phy. This in­volved sculpt­ing the ob­ject with light di­rected from sev­eral sources. Dubois co­op­er­ated with Dele­taille on record­ing Precolumbian Arts to­gether with col­lec­tors Ber­jon­neau and Son­nery. They brought out a book en­ti­tled Re­dis­cov­ered Mas­ter­pieces from Me­soamer­ica, fol­lowed by an­other huge vol­ume on Undis­cov­ered Mas­ter­pieces of Black Africa. Many more pub­li­ca­tions fol­lowed.

Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, Dubois changed his method of pho­tograph­ing the tribal pieces. He stopped mov­ing around the sta­tion­ary ob­jects with a cam­era. Now he em­pha­sises stu­dio work plac­ing each ob­ject on a re­volv­ing plat­form, us­ing a large dig­i­tal plate cam­era and spe­cial lights to re­veal im­por­tant de­tails. He works to­gether with a com­puter ex­pert who op­er­ates the spe­cialised com­puter con­nected to the dig­i­tal cam­era; to­gether they seek mul­ti­ple views of the ob­ject and ad­just the colours.

“I re­gard the ob­ject al­most like a piece of mu­sic which I in­ter­pret us­ing light,” he ex­plained. This tech­nique lends that ex­tra sculp­tural ef­fect to the tribal arte­facts and also re­veals the skill vil­lage ar­ti­sans em­ployed to cre­ate in­stru­ments for their cer­e­monies.

Af­ter tribal art from Africa, pieces from Asia, Ocea­nia and the Amer­i­cas fol­lowed. The colours of the im­ages ap­pear more sober and re­fined than nor­mal photo im­ages, re­veal­ing an in­trigu­ing plas­tic­ity due to the tech­nique em­ployed. It is ob­vi­ous that the tall Bel­gian re­spects the per­son­al­ity of each ob­ject and its maker.

Un­til re­cently the Dubois pho­to­graphic pro­duc­tion was re­stricted to stu­dio work, but then he and his wife Caro­line Leloup vis­ited Borobudur tem­ple in Cen­tral Java, built in the ninth cen­tury amidst two sa­cred rivers and four vol­ca­noes. A sense of mag­i­cal won­der slowly en­gulfed the pair dur­ing their first visit.

It was in­deed an al­most mys­ti­cal in­tu­ition that prompted them to un­der­take the jour­ney to in­ves­ti­gate one of the world’s most im­pres­sive Bud­dhist mon­u­ments. Their first visit took place on a moon­lit night when they sim­ply walked around the many ter­races lead­ing up­wards, fas­ci­nated by the in­tri­cate de­tails of the sculp­tured bas-re­liefs and the free-stand­ing Bud­dha stat­ues on the top lev­els. The ethe­real light added to the mys­te­ri­ous un­fold­ing of their first trek. It slowly dawned on them that these sculp­tures were the fore­run­ners of pho­tog­ra­phy: a stone book re­veal­ing the Ja­vanese peo­ple’s search for en­light­en­ment was man­i­fest here in the three-di­men­sional stone mon­u­ment rest­ing on a man­dala base.

They did not leave mat­ters merely to chance as their idea be­gan to ger­mi­nate; they vis­ited Guimet Asian Art Mu­seum in Paris to con­sult doc­u­ments about the Bud­dhist stat­ues and per­ti­nent lit­er­a­ture. The di­rec­tor of Guimet, So­phie Makar­iou, guided them dur­ing re­search with ad­di­tional help from Pa­trick Carré, em­i­nent ex­pert on Ti­betan Bud­dhism.

Later the pro­ject ben­e­fited from the aus­pices of the UN­ESCO World Her­itage Pro­gramme and In­done­sian Gov­ern­ment sup­port. At Guimet they first chose about 60 pan­els which they judged to be of piv­otal im­por­tance, adding oth­ers as the pro­ject pro­gressed. Af­ter be­ing in­tro­duced to the cou­ple, renowned Asian art ex­pert Bruce Car­pen­ter was ini­tially puz­zled by their mo­ti­va­tion as count­less photo books were al­ready de­voted to Borobudur. A pro­ject of this na­ture in­volved fly­ing to and from Cen­tral Java dur­ing full moon pe­ri­ods, ig­nor­ing cli­matic con­di­tions and their busy sched­ules else­where in the world. It would also in­volve heavy equip­ment and a large team of as­sis­tants sub­ject to In­done­sian bu­reau­cracy. How­ever, Car­pen­ter, im­pressed by the peer­less qual­ity of their first im­ages, soon wrote a long es­say on the his­tory of the mon­u­ment to ac­com­pany the fin­ished work.

The cou­ple de­cided to utilise frontal views with­out any per­spec­tive while cap­tur­ing the im­ages of the bas-re­liefs. This meant re­pro­duc­ing im­ages in huge dig­i­tal neg­a­tives, on a one to one scale, in­volv­ing an enor­mous amount of pix­els. The re­sul­tant im­ages were then dig­i­tally stitched to­gether to cap­ture the flow of the sculpted pan­els. The stone floors were un­even and the pas­sages nar­row so that op­ti­cal move­ment was very re­stricted. Im­ages were taken with a Lin­hof cam­era with an ex­tremely widean­gle lens specif­i­cally con­structed for the task by Schnei­der Kreuz­nach. As the only avail­able light would be moon­light, they re­sorted to light paint­ing with pin-point lights to un­der­line the curves of the re­liefs and palette of colours rang­ing from black, white and grey in­ter­spersed by strange streaks left by re­pairs to the carv­ings, plus the wear and tear of cen­turies. The pair man­aged to take up to two im­ages per night be­tween sun­set and sun­rise, gar­ner­ing the amount of 120 im­ages spread over four years.

In re­al­ity there are a to­tal of 2,672 ex­quis­ite re­liefs stretch­ing more than three kilo­me­tres. These il­lus­trate a mul­ti­plic­ity of sto­ries from Bud­dhist lit­er­a­ture of the time framed in a his­toric Ja­vanese set­ting. The sheer scale of the carv­ings made it nec­es­sary for the two pho­tog­ra­phers to re­duce the amount of im­ages cap­tured un­der the moon­light to the most per­ti­nent stages of Bud­dhist pil­grim­age to­wards the ul­ti­mate truth. They could only work for about four nights around each full moon.

The Dubois re­alised that the mon­u­ment was in fact a com­pen­dium of Ja­vanese Bud­dhist his­tory mir­ror­ing the cus­toms, the dif­fer­ing so­cial strata, veg­e­ta­tion of the time and other de­tails such as the de­pic­tion of the boats used to travel as far as Mada­gas­car. The kings, queens and priests may have re­sem­bled In­di­ans but the rest of the peo­ple were def­i­nitely Ja­vanese with the cos­tumes and jew­ellery of the time. A mov­ing tribute to a civil­i­sa­tion long van­ished, with tan­ta­lis­ing hints of what must have ex­isted dur­ing the flow­er­ing of knowl­edge and artis­tic splen­dour. The pho­tog­ra­phers hope that they have thus con­trib­uted to the mem­ory of peace and beauty in Cen­tral Java be­fore more dam­age is caused by the on­slaught of tourism.

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