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Borobudur Under the Full Moon Captured by Caroline and Hughes Dubois

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. He envisaged making large prints of such objects using a plate camera in a studio. Dubois’s 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 their 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 volcanos. 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 Program 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 wide-angle lense 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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