Werner Forman’s travels as a photographer took him all around the world. From his humble beginnings in Czechoslovakia, first photographing aeroplanes he moved on to photographing antiquities, artworks and cultural monuments, which took him eventually to 35 countries. During the seven decades of his active photographic career he was the co-author and sole photographer of over 80 books.
Many of the places that he went to were (and often still are) difficult to get to, for example Outer Mongolia was very inaccessible during the 1970s. Politically it was also hard to gain entry to countries like China during the Cold War, but in 1956 Werner and his brother Bedrich were invited to photograph cultural artefacts and be guests at symposiums of Chinese photographers because of the close ties between China and Czechoslovakia. This meant that he had access to museums and cultural events he wanted to visit. His reputation as an international art photographer stood him in good stead in these encounters and he got into the good graces of local people and any officials he met. Once he had their confidence then they could be very helpful in enabling him to visit the places he wanted to visually capture.
As he was shooting on film, there was the additional difficulty of processing the film. There were usually no local laboratories, so he would have to take the exposed films back to the Czech Republic before he would know if he even had any usable material. All this meant that Werner Forman has to plan his trips very carefully. He had to make sure that he had all the necessary visas, take enough film to cover the shoot – he wouldn’t be able to nip to the nearest shop if he ran out – and take all necessary precautions, vaccinations, and equipment to ensure the trip was success.
Two previous articles have told of his brushes with death in Ghana and New Zealand. Even his less dramatic trips were adventures in themselves. When he went to Outer Mongolia, he managed to obtain the confidence of the people in a remote monastery, and they did a banned Tibetan dance for him, in secret, so he could photograph it, thus making a record of the culture for posterity.
Some of the places he visited, were not only remote, but in poor repair and it was hazardous to climb over them to find the best places for photography, bearing in mind that if you had an accident it might take days to get you to a hospital. When he was photographing the ancient temples and shrines of Bali, some of which pre-date Hinduism, he found that the sacred temple monkeys were very friendly, although they were probably on the lookout for a free meal too.
Another early trip was to Burma (now called Myanmar), where you can see Werner clinging to the outside of Buddhist temple spires to get some shots, clearly quite a precarious mode of photography. In 1962 he also visited North Korea, and was able to obtain images of traditional life in that inaccessible country. A few years later, in 1966, he visited North Vietnam and came up with striking images of a belfry on a lake where ‘water theatre’ events were held.
Overall Werner Forman’s travels and his diplomatic approach to gaining the confidence of both governments, and local people, meant that he could explore very inaccessible places and take photographs of unique cultural events and architectural heritage.