- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

The exhibition "Sacred Sites: Silk Road Photographs by Kenro Izu" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery serves as prelude to the Silk Road exhibits, events and performances of the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which opens June 26.
"The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust" celebration on the Mall will be the first folklife festival in the Smithsonian's history to concentrate on one theme.
Mr. Izu, a 53-year-old Japanese-born New Yorker, is perhaps best known for his photographs of the ancient Buddhist temples at Angkor, Cambodia, and his still-life images of nudes and decaying flowers. The photographer sought to capture the Silk Road's spirituality and succeeded magnificently in this exhibition of mystical photos, which opened earlier this month.
Traders and holy men for thousands of years traveled the "road," a loose gathering of small routes joining China, India and the Mediterranean over Central Asia's rough deserts and mountains.
The photographer concentrated on holy sites along the Silk Road, mainly in western China; Ladakh, India; Mustang, Nepal; and the Tibetan plateau. He believes the sites have a spiritual resonance created by travelers worshipping there through the years. What's more, he focuses on the rocks and sand that have pushed up through the earth to create an almost moonscape effect.
"People always ask me why I am photographing stone monuments. The important thing is the spirituality of these monuments. The atmosphere, the air surrounding the monument, is what I am really interested in," he says in the introductory exhibit label.
One example is his dramatically moving photo of the Lamayuru Monastery in Ladakh. Mr. Izu and his guide reached the mountain road above the monastery one morning in 1999. He began the lengthy process of taking the picture, first by unloading his equipment and then setting up his large-format camera.
The photographer patiently waited for what he considered the right moment. Just before sundown, a shaft of light from the setting sun pierced the monastery's tightly clustered buildings. The blackness of the mountain behind them and aridness of the far hills give this a heaven-and-hell feeling.
The image "Mount Kailash, Tibet," the Himalayan snow-covered peak worshipped by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, also is unforgettable. To photograph the remote peak, Mr. Izu journeyed for six days in a Jeep along rough roads. When he arrived at the pilgrimage road that encircles the mountain's base, he hired porters and rode on horses, donkeys and yaks.
Mr. Izu set up his equipment before dawn on the freezing morning of the third day. The water in his canteen had frozen, and a savage wind was whipping snow that had fallen. When day broke, sunlight fell on the peak and showed the snow blowing about its top.
With his large-format camera, he was able to take one of his long exposures while sunlight created a halolike light around the peak. He also utilized a tonal range of glistening light to capture the radiance of Kailash and the eerie, darkened foreground. Worshippers had placed markers to commemorate their visit.
Mr. Izu took the image on his second, most recent trip to Tibet in 2000. He says in the catalog that it best sums up the heart of his pursuit, that of experiencing with all the senses the essence of these sacred sites.
The photographer addresses the transiency of life and impermanence of other things in photos such as "Tholing Monastery, Tibet" and "Dunhuang Caves, China." The rough pebbles, sand and huge boulders of Tholing set in the arid landscape of western Tibet echo his words on the introductory exhibit label: "Stone is the closest to something that lasts an eternity. But sometimes the border between the sand and the stone is vague. When I saw this, I thought stone is not forever. Everything eventually goes back to the soil."
He commissioned the world's largest portable view camera in 1993. The 14-inch-by-20-inch negatives are perfect for his working with rich details and subtle gradations of tones. He feels the camera is necessary for capturing the myriad gray tones of the rocky sites he photographs.
The Sackler, part of the Smithsonian Institution, plans two other Silk Road-related exhibits. "The Adventures of Hamza" is set for June 26 through Sept. 29, and "The Cave as Canvas: Hidden Images of Worship Along the Silk Road" can be seen now through July 7.

WHAT: "Sacred Sites: Silk Road Photographs by Kenro Izu"
WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Jan. 5, 2003
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 202/357-2700


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