Serendipity is a word that crops up a lot in conversation with the British photographer Max Milligan. Good fortune and coincidence, it seems, have been the watchwords of both his life and his work. We are talking about the publication of his fourth book of photographs, The Lebanon – a work that he describes, inevitably, as “very serendipitous”.
It’s certainly heavy – 10.1lb, according to my bathroom scales – and carries a hefty (undiscounted) price tag of £80. But then again it’s not so much a book to be stashed on a shelf, as a beautifully bound work of art containing nearly 300 sumptuous colour plates of the Middle East’s most complex and misunderstood country. It is, he says, his “vision as an outsider and artist”.
Its genesis was indeed serendipitous. In 2005, Milligan, who is 45, attended a charity dinner in Ghana, the subject of his previous book of photographs. He was amazed to discover that the Lebanese woman he was seated next to was the mother of an old school friend with whom he had lost touch, Charles Chedrawi. They had been at Millfield School in Somerset together a quarter-century before, sharing dormitory japes and tents on Dartmoor.
Once the friendship was re-established, Chedrawi urged Milligan to make Lebanon – a country the photographer had never visited and knew little about – the subject of his next project. In return, Chedrawi would finance the research and publication of the book.
Due to start work in 2006, Milligan had to hold off following Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon. It was a salutary reminder of the turmoil of the region. When he started his travels in the country two years later, it was with a determination to avoid the political and sectarian.
“The gritty underbelly I wanted to get away from,” he says. “You read about it in the paper every day. And in a year and a half of photography, I had no trouble from anybody because I came as an artist, not a journalist.”
It is a paradox that strife-torn Lebanon, which endured civil war from 1975 to 1990, should be one of the most hospitable of countries. For such a small place it is also blessed with astonishingly varied topography, from Mediterranean beaches to mountain forests, and a plethora of Classical and Biblical sites and neglected ancient ruins. Over a series of eight trips of two or three weeks each, plus a final visit of two months, Milligan attempted to sum up the variety and contradictions of a country that a friend’s mother described as “an impossibility that works”.
The project also marks “the emotional leap from film to digital photography”. The pictures for his previous books – including the acclaimed Realm of the Incas, about Peru – had all been taken on film, and he was a reluctant convert to digital. But the decision proved its worth in the case of the picture he describes as “the best shot of the book”.
Driving just before dusk one evening, he caught sight of a wolf – a rare occurrence in a country of enthusiastic hunters – and stalked it for 15 minutes, in rapidly fading light, before it obligingly turned to face his camera through a cloud of foliage. “I swore I would never leave film, but if I’d had my old Leica I’d never have got this shot,” Milligan says.
The image facing the shot of the wolf is another of the book’s highlights – a goatherd counting his livestock, silhouetted against an evening sky of episcopal purple. These two photographs sum up the integrity of Milligan’s work, which he describes as “straight”, eschewing manipulation.
“What interests me is to capture reality,” he says. “Then the challenge is to capture an amazing reality.”
In pursuit of that goal he reckons he visited just about every village in Lebanon. The images he captured range from the Bekaa Valley under a full moon – taken with a three-minute exposure – to a mirror-clad public lavatory that projects a surreal, collage-like impression of the ancient harbour in Tyre.
There are pictures of “some frogs having sex – and some Lebanese [on the beach] wanting to have sex…”; Deep Purple performing Smoke on the Water at Baalbek; a nun, obligingly cropped (“she asked me to cut her feet off because she was wearing Nikes”); and lightning bolts in the night sky that he describes as “a big piece of serendipity” because when you turn the image on its side you realise the lightning is in the shape of Lebanon itself.
Thus he returns to his favourite, self-deprecating theme: “So much is serendipity,” he says. “I don’t create anything at all. I just capture.”