Looking for Bali by Michael Dean Morgan

Photographer and writer Michael Dean Morgan has admirably captured in his new Looking for Bali the rhythms of everyday Balinese life. In these images can be seen the familiar routines carried out in many areas of island – a family-run roadside warung, an old woman walking a lonely village path, a bride posing in all her regalia before her wedding, a village healer paying a house call, boys washing in a communal bath, children playing pickup soccer and fisherman returning home at end of day.

Bali has been photographed so extensively that it can be difficult to publish anything truly original. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of repeating the clichés. Morgan has avoided documenting ceremonial pomp and grandeur – the frequent subject of celebrity visiting photographers – and instead focuses on other on more mundane topics. His interpretation of Bali is grounded in basic human existence outside the island’s ritual life.

Morgan was born in 1986 in Townsville, Australia in 1986 but grew up in the country’s remote north in Darwin. He studied multimedia design at Charles Darwin and Curtin Universities before going on to work as a studio designer and photographer for several years. Morgan first came to Bali as a teenager, his first overseas experience. As the years went by, and he traveled to other Asian countries, he shied away from Bali because of its ever growingcommercialization.

His initial apprehension gave way ultimately to attempt to go deeper and try to understand and appreciate what the island is all about. At age 27, he set about to change his perception by moving to Bali and starting work documenting the island and its people, a project that was to take nearly 3-years on and off between other projects. The book’s title conveys his search for other dimensions of Bali that he felt revealed the essence of its people.

In Looking For Bali, we are treated to painterly, intimate portraits of market vendors, painters sketching, fishermen angling, boys herding cows, mothers with child begging, priests studying Hindu scripture, worshippers preparing and placing offerings, puppeteers performing wayang shadow plays. Morgan is particularly sympathetic to farmers, fishermen and common laborers: juice tappers climb palm trees, workers fire roof tiles, repair surf boards, chainsaw trees, sell bakso and dig for clams.

The book is not totally bereft of religious pageantry. There are photographs of unusual ceremonies in the hinterlands that one seldom encounters even in the anthropological literature. Although worshiping the same Bali Hindu religion, different villages practice starkly diverse customs and rituals in different areas of the island. A dozen rural landscapes also indicates that there are some lovely, isolated places still left.

The front cover photo is the star of the book. This image of a young girl in dance costume sitting in the driver’s seat of a truck is so quintessential Balinese in so many ways. The picture speaks volumes about contemporary Bali, how the spiritual and the mundane mix so seamlessly and also exemplifies Morgan’s approach to the project. In his search for the “real” Bali, the photographer by chance came across a young girl, a new generation of Balinese, dressed in traditional attire and sitting in an unlikely environment.

Every good photo should tell a story. Having lived in Bali off and on for more than 45 years, I can’t fully appreciate an image without knowing where it was taken and exactly what activity is taking place. The last two pages of captionsprovides these details and thus enhances for me a deeper understanding of each photo. Moreover, a photograph should be able to stand alone and be admired just for its technical aspects and for its aesthetics and individuality. The layout of the book exemplifies this principle by placing the captions out of the way in the book’s back matter so that they don’t clutter up and distract from the appreciation of each image. Most photographs are allotted three-quarters of a two-page spread, a generous amount of space.

Both the captions and large type texts separating chapters contain surprisingly informative cultural insights into the the pastime of picking lice from the hair, the function of the pos kamling (safety posts) at village entrances and themakeup  of flower offerings. To supplement the many photos recording the stages of rice cultivation – plowing, planting and harvesting – there are explanations on the usefulness of duck fertilizer and rice husks and why it’s critically necessary to completely dry this life giving grain before storage.

Morgan is an admirer of Alex Webb, and you can see the influence of Webb’s raw, honest and spontaneous street and travel photography in this photographer’s work. Shooting from the hip simply and directly as in David Allan Harvey’s work was also a big influence. Morgan’s four-year study of media and design is apparent in the book’s sophisticated layout. If you look closely you’ll discover minute visual details – both in the foreground and background – in the high definition reproductions: rippling water on a lake, the outlines and colors of women’s dress and the intricate craftsmanship of farming implements.

Determined to do something different, the full-color images in this fine collection have recorded the common folk intimately and empathetically. As renowned Bali photographer Rio Helmi’s observed in the Introduction, Morgan’s intriguing photographic essay “captures imagery that celebrates a side of Bali that has been largely overshadowed and ignored.”

Looking For Bali is not an anthropological archive of an exotic culture, but a side of daily life that most tourists and even longer-term expats might never see.

Looking for Bali by Michael Dean Morgan, Afterhours 2017, ISBN 978-602-699-0136, hardcover,184 pages, dimensions 24 cm X 27.5 cm.


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