Idyllic Landscapes: a photographic ballad of Armenia

In December 2004–Asbarez published an extensive photo essay by Vah Peroomian–a UCLA space scientist with a passion for photography–that chronicled an eight-day journey of photography and exploration to Armenia in October 2004. Vah–who has found it increasingly difficult to avoid the call of the homeland–has journeyed to Armenia twice more since–in April and September 2005–and has not only photographed his favorite landscapes–but has also written three additional photo essays based on these travels. Vah has exhibited his work at Bel Air Camera Gallery in Westwood–California ("My Mountainous Homeland," April 2004)–Pacific Community Center in Glendale–California ("Tales of Survival," May 28–2004)–Homenetmen Ararat in Glendale–California ("Armenia and Yosemite–Natural Wonders Worlds Apart," June 12-14–2004)–and Ararat-Eskijian Museum in Mission Hills–California ("A Visual Poetry of the Homeland: Photographs of Vah Peroomian and Ara Meshkanbarian," September 25-October 30–2005). Vah’s upcoming photography exhibit–"Idyllic Landscapes: a photographic ballad of Armenia," will take place on February 3-5–2006–with an artist’s reception on February 3–from 6-10 PM. The exhibit will feature new photographs from his previous three trips to Armenia. In these photographs–Vah emphasizes the texture of the Armenian landscape–the overlooked detail–the moss-covered tree one often zooms by without a second glance–and the magical light of clearing storms in the Armenian highlands. He looks beyond the church or the monastery–to see the context in which it was placed–be it the lush valleys of the Tavush region–or the unscalable crags of Artsakh. The photo essays–an excerpt of which is printed below–provide additional context to the adventure that his homeland represents to Vah.

April in Armenia: of torrential rains and the rites of spring
[excerpt]

Wednesday–27 April 2005

The adventure began–or in a way–continued where I had left off six months ago in October–with my insistence in organizing a car for a quick jaunt to Dilijan. During the first four days in Yerevan–my cameras had only captured the emotion-laden pilgrimages to Dzidzernagapert–as the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide had taken center stage. Now–I was ready to embark on the adventures that draw me back to Armenia–to photograph the landscape that I fall in love with over and over again.

Rain clouds once again obscured everything as we departed from Yerevan in the early afternoon. We left against better judgment and the admonishment that it was raining "everywhere" in Armenia. My cousin Mookooch’s friend Gago drove me in his natural gas-powered car–which unfortunately suffered from a lack of appreciable top speed. Being green in Armenia often means being slow. As I chatted with Gago–I explained that as long as I could find interesting subjects in decent light–rain was irrelevant. This is why I was leaving Yerevan–desperate for a glimpse of the countryside I love. Much to our surprise–the horizon looked clear of clouds and a hint of sunlight lit my soul as we sped toward Sevan. Just the thing I needed to lift my thoughts from the somber occurrences of the previous three days.

We emerged from the Dilijan tunnel into pea-soup fog. Not willing to give up–we drove toward our first stop–the now-familiar gnarled tree at the 90 km marker. The best light for photographing moss on tree trunks is that provided by overcast skies–and I was determined not to return from Dilijan empty-handed. The weather proved much more cooperative–though–and once again surprised us. In six short kilometers–we went from unyielding fog to broken clouds and hints of sunshine. I had perfect lighting for the budding tree emerging from its winter’s sleep. Tiny leaves dotted its branches and contrasted with the carpet of moss covering the thick trunk. Spring was so annoying–a nymph flaunting shameless nipples on all the trees in the world–wrote Pablo Neruda in his "Ode to Fall." Having visited this tree first in fall and now in spring–I saw before my eyes a symbol of renewal–of awakening–full of life bursting forth.

It’s amazing what something as small as a photograph of a moss covered tree can do to one’s spirits. I was recharged–in full swing. We sped by the butcher shop and were greeted by glimpses of sunlight that magically lit the tree-covered slopes of Dilijan. The trees–in various shades of green–were interspersed with fruit trees at full bloom–the white flowers of apple trees glowing silver in the welcome sunlight. We sped toward Haghartsin–crossing our fingers and hoping for the sun to hold off the clouds just a bit longer.

Haghartsin was even more beautiful than I’d seen in October. Blooming fruit trees dotted its landscape–their flowers a gorgeous contrast to the ancient textured stone of the khatchkars (cross stones) of the monastery. This was my third visit to Haghartsin in two years–and each time I had found it to be a different mixture of light and textures: the lush green of June–the throes of autumn in October–and now–the arrival of spring in the Tavush region of Armenia.

My first stop–just before arriving at the monastery complex–was at a small side road that offers a beautiful vantage point for photographing the monastery. This is where I’d photographed Haghartsin in June 2003–and this is where I was disappointed in October–2004–by the bad light and lack of fall foliage. Today–the view was distractingly beautiful. Haghartsin was framed by nature in varying states of wakefulness. For the fruit tress–spring had already arrived. For others–most notably the ancient walnut tree that graces this view of Haghartsin–spring was still a distant memory. This juxtaposition of dormancy and life in full bloom was refreshing.

One of the unique aspects of photographing Armenia is that often–while photographing a beautiful vista such as that presented by Haghartsin in the lush valley it occupies–you’ll realize that the next beautifully unique picture is but a swing of the camera away. A ninety-degree swing to the left found me face to face with one such wonder. Khatchkar–and blossoms… While you could find springtime blossoms everywhere on our Blue Planet–the combination of ancient carved stone and trees in their multicolor conflagration can be found nowhere else but in Armenia. The solitary khatchkar embedded in the wall of a stone hut–used perhaps by monks of old for solitude and contemplation–was now the focus of my attention.

While on the monastery’s grounds–my photography continued to concentrate on details. Gago kept looking through my camera’s viewfinder–puzzled at first that I was using a long telephoto to photograph a khatchkar from mere feet away. After a while–he announced–it’s not the melon–but its sweetness. My quest for texture in the Armenian landscape had found a perfect motto. My subject was a tiny–fist-sized bunch of bright yellow flowers placed at the moss-covered foot of a khatchkar at the monastery grounds. This photograph–which I later named "Elemen’s of Invocation," embodies for me much of what Armenia represents: an ancient culture–symbols of which have endured countless centuries of invasion and oppression–and the symbolism of life and hope that Armenia’s always turn to in good times and bad.

The sun disappeared behind clouds a final time–and after a few long-exposure shots of the interior–we were back on the road–heading for Yerevan. On the way to Haghartsin–chasing the sunlight much like the storm-chasers of the Midwestern US chasing tornadoes–we had passed two boys selling mushrooms at the turn-off to the monastery. My affinity for mushroom can often surpass that of the inhabitants of Hobbiton–and I was already sauting the mushrooms in my mind–mixed with a dash of soy sauce. Alas–though–the mushroom sellers had called it a day. This would be a trip without mushrooms–in the end.

The light had changed considerably–so we stopped again at the gnarled tree before heading for the tunnel. The evenness of the overcast skies rivaled the best lightbox setup one could ask for. Rain greeted us again at the tunnel–and I soon fell asleep convinced that I was done for the day.

I opened my eyes forty minutes later–to a sunny Yerevan. We were on the downslope from Sevan–and the sun was in between two clouds–the dazzling Mt. Aragats and another–smaller mountain in the foreground.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and jumped at the chance to photograph the sunlit slopes with the last light of the day. Back in the car–I commented that I wished I would finally see Mt. Ararat. I had barely uttered these words when the next curve of the road brought the Holy Mount into view–breathtaking in its grandeur–snow-covered as I’d never seen it before. Thus–at 7:50 PM Wednesday evening–on my fifth day in Armenia–I finally beheld Mt. Ararat. Oh–but what a view!

Dinner was another pleasant surprise. I’d once again managed to skip lunch–having only a pair of Dilijan potato piroshkis–delicious as they were–for sustenance. My family and I descended the steps into The Club–a shop/restaurant/tea house and WiFi internet caf with an extensive menu. The lamb shank–wrapped in eggplant–was exquisite–as was the 1998 Areni red from Vayots Dzor. Armenian wine has certainly come of age.

Though I slept at 2 AM–I was anxious–as the next day would bring my first sojourn into northern Armenia and the hills of Lori since 1990.

The full and unabridged versions of Vah’s photo essays can be found on the world wide web at www.vahep.com/Pages/Photoessays and will also be available in printed form at his exhibition. Vah can be contacted at vahe@vahep.com.

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