“I wanted to make portraits of the people I was spending my time with, in the environment where they live, which changes dramatically with every season.” – Monica Denevan
The photographer Monica Denevan‘s striking black & white photographs of Myanmar, possess a timeless quality, capturing the beauty and humanity of the Southeast Asian nation.
Denevan first became interested in photography and the editing process, during grade school. She would borrow her mother’s Kodak Instamatic camera and photograph her friends at the family camp near Yosemite that she attended every summer.
“I would impatiently wait to pick up the color pictures at the local drug store after returning home. I was aware then, that to my eye, there were images that were better than others for many reasons; that I liked the way a friend looked in one picture but not so much in another. The importance of editing began to form for me at a young age.”
At high school in San Francisco, she was offered her first darkroom photography class during a winter break. During the week-long course, she shot a roll of 35mm film, and then processed, printed, and mounted one of the images – ‘a straight-forward image of a cable car, printed quite flat’ – on a matte board.
She later attended San Francisco State University where she studied photography. She made friends with other photographers as well as painters, from whom she said she ‘learned a lot’, and worked on ‘live’ class assignments
“It was in this environment that I fell in love with portraiture; the extreme attention and focus that was needed on both sides of the camera, the art of direction, the attention to detail, the vulnerability, the intense looking.”
She also spent many hours in the darkroom, practicing and experimenting, learning through doing, making mistakes, and asking questions. It is a process that remains close to her heart: years later, in her own darkroom, she still enjoys ‘losing track of time while working on photographs, striving to print better and be more efficient.’
It was a trip to Myanmar (then Burma) however, at the beginning of a five-month journey throughout South-East Asia in 2000, that truly galvanized her practice. Denevan describes these weeks in the country as ‘pivotal’ and would later return to the country alone, spending time in cities, towns, and small fishing villages, meeting, and befriending local families who helped her with translation, transportation, and logistics, and who she is still in touch with today.
“I knew almost nothing about the country yet was inspired to visit based on one picture in a travel guide. I had just started the trip, and everything was new to me and extremely sensory. Everything slowed down and was immediate; there were no cell phones, no internet, and a lot of time to experience small moments.”
Though throughout both these early trips she captured many photographs, she knew that she ‘could do better’, and so she returned the following year, and again every year until 2020.
The portraits she captured during these sojourns are truly extraordinary. Using the same medium-format Bronica that has been her stalwart since 1999, as well as, occasionally. the iconic Holga – a cheaply-built, plastic camera known for light leaks and imperfections, but one that Denevan treasures – her stunning black & white images portray everyday people – fishermen, children, and families – in their local environment.
In contrast to the portraits traditionally captured by outsider ‘travel’ photographers which invariably possess anthropological undertones, Denevan’s are sensitive, intimate, and dramatic. She captures her subjects as one would models, carefully posed against the landscapes with which they are familiar.
Inspired by Richard Avedon’s early images which were, likewise, often captured in ‘real’ locations rather than studios, her portraits bear the striking elegance of fashion photographs and display a remarkable eye for light and tone, whilst conveying a sense of intimacy that speaks to the strong relationships she formed over successive trips with those she photographed.
“I wanted to make portraits of the people I was spending my time with, in the environment where they live, which changes dramatically with every season. They were strong, not only physically, as fishermen are, and people who carry children, water from the river, and all manner of heavy loads on a daily basis, but also resilient.”
In addition to Myanmar, Denevan has traveled and photographed in China, and Lao amongst others, and over the years has exhibited extensively across the globe. However, regardless of location, or subject, her images are united by extraordinary artistry and a deep respect and affection for those she photographs.
All images © Monica Denevan