Sotheby’s Magazine

Capturing the Hidden Beauty of Tibet's Impossible-to-Photograph Locations

By Matt Stromberg
To capture Tibet’s most important murals and mandalas, Thomas Laird had to wait for technology to catch up with his vision, finds Matt Stromberg.

W riter, photographer and artist Thomas Laird, sitting in a narrow hallway of the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica, asks, “Imagine that this hallway were half this width and 20ft high, and all the murals began 10ft in the air, and there were no windows – how do you shoot that?” Yet, in his book Murals of Tibet, he’s tried just that. “I’m breaking the laws of optics to make these images,” he says. “These are not just photographs.”

Murals of Tibet was published last year by Taschen, in an edition of 998 copies, in its massive Sumo format. Ten years in the making, the book features images of 120 murals spanning 1,000 years from 13 sites across Tibet.

Since many of the murals are located in nearly impossible to photograph locations, Laird used a cutting-edge multi-image capture process to shoot small sections of the murals, which he then meticulously stitched together digitally. In doing so, he presents the works not exactly as they might look, high up in a dimly lit temple, but in a more idealised form, true to their original intention.

“I see myself not as a documentarian, but as an artist,” Laird says. “I’m out to create an image that is accurate to the vision that was transmitted from India to Tibet, to you, through my hands.”

To understand Laird’s love for Tibet and its murals, you have to go back over four decades, when he visited Nepal for the first time, as a teenager in 1972.

“I just didn’t want to be a farmer or a doctor or a lawyer or anything that was on offer,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what I wanted and I wanted the space to find out on my own terms. Kathmandu was kind of the Paris of our generation. It was cheap to live, it was incredibly stimulating, and a cast of characters from all over the world had assembled there.”

Eleven-Headed Avalokiteshvara, 15th century, Gyantse Kumbum. Photo by Thomas Laird, 2018/TASCHEN, Murals of Tibet.

Laird was so smitten with the Himalayas that he got a grant to make documentary recordings of Tibetan ritual music. After visiting the area on and off for a decade, he decided to move to Nepal permanently (he has lived there full-time for the past 35 years).

From his new home, he began developing his photography skills and became a journalist, both writing and shooting stories for Time, Newsweek, National Geographic and other publications.

"This is a collection of all the great art of Tibet in one massive book, to a degree that will never be done again."
Thomas Laird

His obsession with murals began in 1986, when neighbouring Tibet was opened to foreign tourists. Laird was one of the first 100 people allowed in. “Boom, straight away, as soon as it opens, I was off to Tibet,” he remembers. “At that point there were zero restrictions on where we could go and how long we could stay.”

He took trips there with scholars of Tibet, who educated him on which temples to visit and the best murals to photograph.

“I was all over Tibet finding these great hidden treasures and coming back with bad photographs,” he says. “I was spending all this time and money, gnashing my teeth in anger, because photography can’t capture these murals.”

Thomas Laird. Photo by Allen Boudreaux.

Laird had to wait for the equipment to catch up to his vision. “My work was impossible without multi-image capture,” he says, “and that’s why there were no great full-resolution images of Tibetan murals before my work, because in the 20th century you didn’t have the digital technology to allow this.”

Even today, Laird’s process is incredibly labour-intensive, both in setting up, lighting and shooting each of the many photographs that make up a composite image of a mural, but also in the post-production stage, where the photographs are stitched together and manipulated for accurate and consistent colour.

Laird wanted to share his groundbreaking images with the rest of the world, but needed help in circulating them outside of Nepal.

Other than in a few museum installations, reproducing the images at life-size, Laird had been reluctant to publish them in a book, for fear that the reproductions would be too small. He sent a cold email to Benedikt Taschen, founder of the eponymous publishing house, sharing his process and telling him that he was only interested in the Sumo format, which measures approximately 20 by 28 inches.

“Benedikt is crazy, but he’s my kind of crazy,” Laird says. “He’s willing to go there with you.”

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, with a draft copy of Murals of Tibet, Boston, 2014. Photo by Mina Magda. Courtesy of TASCHEN.
The 14th Dalai Lama signs pages for Murals of Tibet with Thomas Laird, 2018.

Taschen was sold on the book, but with the caveat that the Dalai Lama sign every copy. Laird had spent 50 hours interviewing the Dalai Lama for a history of Tibet he had written, but was reluctant to reach out to him for a commercial project. In the end, however, he knew it was the only way the book would get made.

“This is a collection of all the great art of Tibet in one massive book, presented at the height of publishing skills, to a degree that will never be done again,” Laird explained to His Holiness, “and by supporting this, not only do you bless this, not only do you make this more personally valued, you help preserve it.”

The Dalai Lama agreed, with his own caveat, that Taschen make a significant donation to the Mind & Life Institute, which he did. Soon, 1,000 pages were couriered to the Dalai Lama’s palace in India, where he signed them all before shipping them back to be bound into the final printed books.

The book's cover depicts Buddha Shakyamuni in a masterpiece from the Gyantse Kumbum painted by Konchok Zangpo in the early 15th century.

Murals of Tibet itself is a lavish, image-only tour through some of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism: from the Drathang Monastery, which houses the oldest large murals in Tibet; to the Lukhang Temple, known as the “Buddhist Sistine Chapel”; and the Gyantse Kumbum, with its golden roof and 73 chapels and shrines.

The murals are reproduced in full and with detailed images, and depict a wide range of subject matter, from sacred mandalas and Buddhas to the origin of the universe, battle scenes and even tantric sex. A scholarly companion volume features essays and commentary from Tibetan scholars Heather Stoddard and Robert Thurman (father of American actor Uma).

Different audiences will have different reactions to the book, but Laird feels that everyone from the general public to practising Buddhists can glean something from the treasures within.

“For Tibetans, every aspect of this book is filled with precise spiritual teachings,” he says. “I don’t expect foreigners to have that experience, but there is something very valuable here. We don’t understand exactly what Greek statues meant to the Greeks, but that doesn’t mean we don’t treasure them.”

Interior of chapel at Gyantse Kumbum, Tibet, with Excellent Generosity Green Tara and the statues of Green Khadiravani Tara flanked by two four-armed attendants, Marichi, left, and Bhrikuti, right. Photo by Thomas Laird, 2018/TASCHEN, Murals of Tibet.

For Laird himself, this work is the result of decades spent studying and living with the culture, art and people of the Himalayas. It is something he couldn’t have imagined when he arrived in Nepal, fresh out of high school, more than 45 years ago.

“This is the culmination of my whole life, of my career as a journalist, as a photographer, as a writer, as a producer of stories,” he beams. “For me, this is the meaning of my life. I live and die for this stuff. That’s all I do, capture and share it. The mission now is to make this accessible to as many people on the planet as possible.”

Matt Stromberg is a visual arts writer based in Los Angeles.
Murals of Tibet by Thomas Laird (Taschen), collector’s edition of 998. Hardback, from £9,500.

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