Spiritual Passports: The Unseen Images of an artist who never lived to see them
Imágenes nunca vistas de una artista que no vivió para verlas
Photography: Martha Wood
Poetry: Pablo Neruda
This project came together like the best ones do: out of the blue, in collaboration, and with great imagination and mutual trust. I was asked to tell a story of inspiration, adventure, death, and discovery, by interviewing those who survived, and giving space to the uncanny and masterful images left behind by an amateur photographer, Martha Wood, to her husband, travelling companions, and ultimately the world.
“The sun rose at 6:26. For more than an hour, Eisner and Wood waited for it to crest, reading … a poet whose words still--a precise century after his birth--spoke clearly of love, distance, shadows, flowers and death. Martha rose, left Rona and set off toward the Temple of the Sun. Once returned, she raved about the amazing images she’d captured. Then, laughing, she announced that unfortunately, her camera had been empty. Eisner consoled her. “At least you have them in your mind!”
As Martha Wood and Rona Eisner contemplated images, in poetry, in their minds’ eyes, and in the reality that is Machu Picchu today, Andy Johnson [Martha’s husband] trekked uphill, through villages, woods, alongside streams, contemplating the pragmatic Incan approach to mountain passes and summits. He recalls, “Instead of making switchbacks, they just say,
There’s the pass; the shortest route is straight up.’ There were a couple days when we were just walking up steps for 8, 10, 12 hours.” On June 17, sometime after noon, Johnson’s group crossed Warmiwañusca, Pass of the Dead Woman. This was the highest altitude the group would face: 13,650 feet. They would camp just a mile away, at Pacamayo, but descend almost 2,000 feet to get there.
At the top, Frost [guide] spoke on the radio in Spanish, then turned to Johnson. The news was worse than he had dared to fear. He spoke softly, but directly. “There’s no easy way to tell you this, Andy, but your wife has passed, and you need to descend as quickly as possible.”
It was 4:30. The sun would set in just over an hour. The only way down was over a poorly maintained and badly marked part of the Inca Trail, used mostly by porters, and not in the dark. Assigned to Johnson was one of the group’s native guides, Miguel Mayo. To guide, Johnson knew, was not only to show the way, but also to lead and inspire. To stay close, emotionally, too. Andy had already hiked quite a bit with Miguel, and knew that the young man had confidently, and naturally, it seemed, moved up the ranks, from the mandatory studies of history and English through porter, cook and assistant guide, to become a man everyone wanted by his side. Encouraging the less fit, he would urge “baby steps” and talk about everything--his parents, the hikers’ families, anything to take their minds off of the endurance they were demanding of their bodies.
It was this man who would lead Andy JOhnson down, 2,000 feet, to the valley of Urubamba, where his soul mate, now lifeless, awaited him. Andy describes the trail over which Miguel led him as “steep, with washed -out portions that were traps for the unwary.” Lit only by their headlamps, this dark, treacherous descent meshed inextricably with the shifting state of Johnson’s troubled mind. “The news of my wife’s death hung over me like a heavy, dark shroud,” he writes later. “Practically numb, I drifted between the fog of denial and the reality of having to negotiate the difficult trail.”
Four friends, three winding paths, and finally, communion in an unfamiliar land. On film, Martha Wood captured vestiges of this meandering journey, but never saw what she had made. We have seen what she has created, but do not know what she knew. The story of Martha Wood is a story of vision, and at the same time, of the unseen.
We seldom question our eyes, but often doubt our sixth sense. Dispersing logic, the images Wood left speak of unity, majesty, and peace.
May all of our paths lead to such an end.