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Denpasar, Bali

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Island of the Spirits

Photos by John Stanmeyer at the Ganesha Gallery at Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay December 9, 2010 through January 10, 2011.


While residing on Bali for close to 5 years in a state of virtual seclusion, the internationally acclaimed photojournalist, John Stanmeyer, wandered the more remote corners of the island to document esoteric rituals and dances.

In order not to "produce yet another lovely color book on the island of the Gods," Stanmeyer chose instead to use black and white film and perhaps the world's simplest camera – the Holga. Invented in China in 1981 for the mass market, this US$25 'toy' has become iconic among those who wishing to return to the roots of photography and rebel against the digital revolution.

Click Images to Enlarge

The resulting photos are reminiscent of early photographs before the invention of razor-sharp lenses and high-speed film. The mystery and emotion of the subjects – trance dancers, ritual cleansing, waving krisses and cremations – is all the more emphasized by the earthly atmosphere, luminosity and movement that result from low light conditions and slower shutter speeds.

So, too, Stanmeyer, in spite of his homage to the ancient past, makes no attempt to cover up influences from the post-modern world. Thus in 'Cleansing' the supple backs and legs of the young men bathing in a river glen are tattooed. Intriguingly, at first, the soft focus evokes the impression that the tattoos could be the silhouettes of leaves from the canopy above.

Another characteristic of the Holga seen in the beautifully printed photos shown in this exhibition is a dark fuzzy frame resembling Daguerreotypes - one of the first forms of photography.

An experienced photographer such as Stanmeyer understands the risk of mishap or failure when using film and a camera with a viewfinder and no light meter. Indeed, such 'chances' creates opportunity. Here the results provide a pleasant relief from the homogenized conformity assured by automatic digital cameras. In the present context of the Holga we not only see but feel the grit.

The compositions of the photos are quirky and asymmetrical. In "Melasti" we see only the forearms and wavy blades of two brandished krisses against a moody sky. In "Ubud Cremation" a lone hand points to the far away peak of a cremation tower carried on the shoulders of a crowd of agitated men. One face juts out firm and steadfast in the chaos.

Having worked in over 70 nations and won numerous awards, John Stanmeyer has largely focused on conflict, social injustice and disappearing cultures. While Bali's traditional ways do not seem to be in imminent danger, this unique series of photos raises important questions about the island's heritage and where it is headed at this critical juncture in history. In the tradition of Gregor Krauser, the doctor who produced the first extensive photo documentation of the island in 1917-1918, it will stand as a singular milestone in a time of glossy, digitalized ads promising packaged paradise. The collection of photos has also been made into an exquisite book of the same title produced by Afterhours Publishing of Jakarta.

Island of the Spirits – Photographs by John Stanmeyer

Ganesha Gallery at the Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran Bay

Open Daily, 9 am – 6 pm December 10, 2010 through January 10, 2011

© Bali Discovery Tours. Articles may be quoted and reproduced if attributed to


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