Around the World in 8000 Days: Travels with Michael Palin. An Exhibition of Photographs by Basil Pao
This is the catalogue of an itinerant exhibition published to coincide with its last stage at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (29 October – 10 November). The exhibition has been presented before at the Royal Geographic Society in London and earlier at the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock, Wiltshire, the birthplace of photography in England. The photos record Michael Palin’s travel programs for the BBC that started in 1991, therefore 22 years of photography around the world.
The photographer, Basil Pao, is here for the event. I saw him walking breezily into the exhibition gallery, tall, fit, long graying hair, wearing round-rimmed glasses; then sitting on a bench by a large window overlooking Hong Kong harbour, chatting quietly in Cantonese with old friends, his Panama hat resting over his backpack on the window’s corner. The scene was set like one of his well-framed pictures and tells a story: from his native island of Cheung Chao, Basil Pao left for the world and has comeback as a legend.
The exhibition brings on display around 30 colour photographs and the book contains 219 gorgeous pictures. Over the weekend I have visited the exhibition twice and I will comeback before it finishes. As for the album of photographs, I will treasure it for many rewarding moments to come.
Photography for me, as any art form, is an occasion to learn; I learn on the subject, on the form or support, on the artist, and what they try to tell me. As expression, a photograph conveys emotions and invites me to a dialogue. Not everything happens in an instant. One needs time, also disposition. Art appreciation may depends on your background and collection of experiences and, sometimes, simply on your mood. I have much to learn looking at these pictures, not only the places I not even dream to go.
These are photographs of landscapes and of people. Most of the time the people punctuate the landscape, in others man seems absent. In more than one occasion, only after a longer concentration on a picture I have realized there was a human manifestation, a car, for instance, that I had missed at first sight. Man and landscape are blended, and these images remind us that they belong together. The monuments, the architecture, the different customs and spirituality, the festivals, the seasons, also troubling reminders of a world that has never been perfect, over all life is brought to us in celebration, eyes look with optimism, faces smile, even some pictures show unspoiled sights without tourists.
Many of these photographs record wild nature, gorgeous mountain ranges, breathtaking waterfalls or turbulent waters. Sometimes a rundown wall in bright primary colours or a derelict door is the protagonist. The travels take our photographer from rarely visited places to more common sights. But for the most part I am completely surprised by places I did not know they exist.
This overriding positive and sometimes humorous spirit that pervaded the entire project is expressed in the catalogue introduction “Travelling with Mr. Pao” by Michael Palin :
This dedication to getting it right, to capturing something he’s never captured before has, at times, driven me mad. “Mike, can you stand there? No, not there. Closer. Right by the rim, where I can see the smoke behind you” (Mount Bromo, Java 1996) or “Mike, get in with those guys!” (Whirling Dervishes, Sudan 1991)
I love most of the catalogue’s photographs, not to say all, so it would be hard to select any in particular, but some has stuck in my mind: “A quiet moment on the steps of the Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki”, the dramatic vertical background of massive columns and their shadows, a girl sitting on the steps, her elbows resting on her knees, she is thinking; “Evening prayer in the middle of the Tenere desert, Niger”, the sunset lending a magical light to the dunes and the bowing Touareg ─ a composition that places the human figure, not casually, on the left; and the dramatic “Cricket match at 3,050 m. in the Shandur pass, the Himalayas, Pakistan”, where the contrast between man and mountain is magnificent.
There is no artifice in these photographs, Basil Pao was lucky to be there, and obviously he was happy to be there. He lends his eye, talented, learned and experienced and he does not want to distort our view, he shares the view with us. It would be wrong to say these are travel photographs, it is not photo-journalism either; these photographs do not belong to a genre. Basil Pao has become a classic, and he is on a class of his own.
Roger Watson, curator of the Fox Talbot Museum and the man behind the idea of the exhibition summarizes in the catalogue’s foreword much of what these photographs convey. In his heading “I have travelled much in Ladcock” he paraphrases Henry David Thoreau’s comment that he had “travelled much in Concord”, the small town where this transcendental philosopher lived. It’s the inner journey what is important and the photographs of Basil Pao help me to travel it across. I will be content in my armchair passing the pages of this catalogue.
The exhibition ends on this coming Sunday, 10th November 2013. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum is in Central Pier 8