About 25 years ago, when lifelong Californian David Heath was in the early stages of a career in business, he stepped into a client’s office, sat down and saw behind the client a big, strange, beautiful photo: the plains of Bagan, dotted with ancient temples. Burma.
“That’s my country,” the client said.
By the time Heath actually got to Burma, the year was 2010 and the country’s military leaders had decided to start calling it Myanmar. But in many ways, Heath said recently, that moment in the office was the beginning of a new life.
Over the following years, Heath, a resident of Huntington Beach who is now 58, spent more and more time traveling. He also invested more and more study and energy into photography. When he got to Yangon, the Myanmar capital formerly known as Rangoon, the scenery moved him in a way that no place else had. So did the people, he said.
"They're so amazing, resilient, compassionate and present," he said. "I've learned so much from them."
To put it in photographic terms: Heath came for the landscapes and stayed for the portraits.
Over the last five years, Heath has gone back 10 more times to the country, which sits between India and China. On each visit, he has spent at least two weeks, soaking up influences from that country’s own painters, photographers and architecture. (Myanmar’s population, about 51 million, is mostly Buddhist.)
The result is “Burma: An Enchanted Spirit,” a new self-published photo book that’s startling in its beauty and intimidating in its price ($89.95 via heathstudios.com). Though some of the pictures are posed, there’s no Photoshop foolery in the book, Heath said, and no flash photography.
"I'm an artist first and a photographer second. A couple of them, I played with the colors," said Heath. "But the main goal is to get the colors to look like what I saw... The colors there are so vibrant, whether they’re farmers or temples or young novices.”
To get the images that fill its 248 pages, Heath traveled by air, land and water to many corners of the country, typically at the side of a monk-turned-guide named Win Kyaw Zan.
“This book would not be possible without him,” said Heath. “He’s taken me so many places, and we push each other so hard, artistically.”
The book begins with a brief preface from no less than Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s foremost activist and chairwoman of the National League for Democracy, who calls it an “enchanting” work.
Meanwhile, the country itself – which was part of the British Empire from the 1820s to 1948 – has been changing fast. Though many outsiders remain uneasy about the influence of the military, a civilian government took over in 2011. Since then, international tourist arrivals have tripled to about 3 million yearly.
"It's changing fast. The tourist invasion has begun, which is bittersweet," said Heath.
In the future, Heath said, he’s hoping to make photography and the arts his full-time job. He’s got a long list of places all over the world he wants to see and shoot.
But he’s also looking at sites where he hopes to build a school in Myanmar, to see the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River and shoot Hkakabo Razi, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia at nearly 20,000 feet. And there’s a tribe in the Kachin region that’s known for its colorful textiles -- he'd like some pictures with them.
In other words, said Heath, “we've just scratched the surface."