Capturing the essence of Alchi
The explorer, author, and photographer Peter van Ham has ventured where few have dared. Braving long periods of subzero temperatures, high altitudes, and treacherous mountain passes, Peter has spent more than 35 years recording a vanishing way of life in the Western Himalayas. He has traveled to regions previously closed to outsiders. In some places, he has been the first and only person to visit, let alone document the few surviving temple sites in the Tibetan realm.
Peter had long dreamed of photographing Alchi — a remote Himalayan monastery complex that holds some of the oldest and best-preserved paintings and sculptures in Ladakh, India. The temples’ wall paintings and sculptures are of great importance, reflecting not only Tibetan culture, but also the cultures of India, Central and Middle Asia, and significant for people around the world, expressing philosophy and religion that spans centuries.
Phase One’s imaging fidelity was absolutely critical to this project’s success. In fact, after the Dalai Lama saw the images, the administrators for Alchi declared a ‘prohibition’ against future photography because the benchmark had been set and anything else would fall short and thus not do justice to capturing the essence of Alchi.
Cultural heritage preservation through photography
With support from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and his younger brother, Nari Rinpoche who is the spiritual head of Alchi, Peter undertook the sensitive, months-long project, working in the dark, the cold, the high altitude (low oxygen) and often under dangerous conditions due to deteriorating buildings. To ensure that he would obtain the most accurate captures for scientific investigation and for cultural heritage preservation, the finest imaging technology was critical.
Gear included the Phase One XF camera with Schneider Kreuznach lenses and Z4005 Ultra Color Bi-Color and two Z180S Ultra Color Bi-Color LED lights by F& V. In some cases, he had to compensate for a particular shot to avoid distortion. Then he was able to stitch together a series of images and focus-stack them with Helicon Focus to ensure sharpness from top to bottom. The camera’s digital sensor also permitted excellent dynamic range, which was especially useful in post-production to correct light fluctuations.
When the discussion arose whether to renovate the monastery, a comprehensive documentation of all interiors was proposed in advance. Fortunately, I was able to show the Dalai Lama images I had taken in Ladakh with the Phase One XF… He was so impressed by the quality of the images that he suggested having the entire interior of the monastery documented with this detailed technology.
Peter published Alchi: Treasure of the Himalayas, a compilation of the Alchi project. It was called “one of the finest art books ever produced,” by David Shulman, writing for the New York Review of Books. His next project was a collaboration with Oschatz Visuelle Medien in Niedernhausen, Germany (https://www.oschatz.de) who developed a method of printing enlargements of the Alchi images onto wallpaper, thus imitating real wall surfaces.
Transforming an interior gallery space into an immersive experience of entering a remote Himalayan monastery is a unique accomplishment. It was possible only because of the resolution of the Phase One captures, which permitted enlargements to enormous sizes, while retaining details and sharpness, preserving in astonishing detail the rich colorful interior of paintings, mandalas, as well as towering sculptures of Bodhisattvas.
After two successful gallery and museum shows in Switzerland and Germany, Peter has recently launched an exhibition in New York City at Tibet House US. There he has transformed the 2,000 square foot gallery into Alchi’s interior with full-sized print images, some as large as 16 feet x 78 feet. Visitors are amazed at the real-life quality of the images which make for an unforgettable, immersive experience.
Project Alchi was featured in the April 2023 issue of Mediumformat.
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