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Local Photographer Captures the Wonder of Machu Picchu


Architectural photographer Mike Torrey talks about capturing the interconnection between the natural world and man-made structures.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Mike Torrey will give a slide presentation and sign copies of his new book Stone Offerings: Machu Pichu's Terraces of Enlightenment at Warwick's in La Jolla on Thursday, June 11, 2009, and at Foundation Yoga in Solana Beach on June 19, 2009.

DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I’m Doug Myrland, filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days. Architectural photographer Mike Torrey has produced three books of photographs. The first two were "The Building of Tony Gwynn Stadium" and "The Gates of Central Park." His newest book takes readers to the stone terraces of Machu Picchu. Mike Torrey has traveled far for his photography profession, but he's rooted in San Diego. And, Mike, we're very pleased you could be with us in the studio today.

MIKE TORREY (Photographer): Thank you, Doug. Great to be here.

MYRLAND: Right up front, I want to remind everybody that Mike Torrey will give a slide presentation and sign copies of his new book, "Stone Offerings: Machu Pichu's Terraces of Enlightenment," at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla this coming Thursday, that's June eleventh, and then again at the Foundation Yoga in Solana Beach on June nineteenth, and you can go to for more information. And, Mike, just to jump right in, how is it that you came to have a career in architectural photography?

TORREY: I have always photographed and after another career, I started exploring photography more. And, actually, I went to San Diego State and when they were building Tony Gwynn Stadium—I was a big baseball fan—I went out there and started photographing and ended up going out there a couple of times a week for the duration of the construction and did a little mini-book and a poster on it, and there's part of the opening ceremonies and such and it's kind of how I got started in being fascinated more deeply with both architecture and photography.

MYRLAND: When I was working full time here at KPBS, I used to often take a lunch break and take a walk in that neighborhood by Tony Gwynn Stadium. And I always thought it was a very architecturally interesting sports complex, and I never did figure out quite what it was about it that I found so appealing. Maybe you have an answer to that question since you took so many photos.

TORREY: I don't know if I have answers for that. It was more, I think, from the love of photography and baseball that, as I explored it, under construction, it more revealed what it was about baseball and light, to me. And so the – from an architecture standpoint, it's a nice baseball stadium. It's one of the nicer college baseball stadiums in the country so it was just a fun – a fun time and a privilege.

MYRLAND: It's really quite a wide spectrum that you've covered in your three books, from Tony Gwynn Stadium to Central Park to Machu Picchu. I'm not seeing a theme there.

TORREY: Well, the theme is a couple of things. One, it's light, it's following the light and being attracted to what light does to different structures. And then it's the structures themselves, being interested in things that are built, the built environment, and what impact they have on us as human beings.

MYRLAND: Now Machu Picchu is a famous place and you said you learned about it in fifth grade, right?

TORREY: Yeah. I did a report in elementary school and – on Peru, and learned about Machu Picchu at that time so I think it seeped into my consciousness at that point and then was – had been on the list of places to go for a long time.

MYRLAND: And I read in the notes in your book that you discovered there really wasn't a large format coffee table kind of book that you could find about Machu Picchu.

TORREY: After I got back from the first trip, I – someone had asked me about publishing the images to help them raise money for the foundation in Peru. And so in looking at what was out there, there hadn't been a book on it in many years, and there really weren't much in the way of really nice coffee table books that were just about appreciating it. It was – So as I went further into it, the book emerged from both the need and just the expression of the images that are there.

MYRLAND: Tell me about how you got to Machu Picchu from the fifth grade to your other career to publishing a couple of books on architectural photography. How'd you end up going to Machu Picchu there the first time?

TORREY: The first time was through a trip with architects, architecture students, professors. Through the new School of Architecture, a trip came up and it was literally five weeks later I was in Machu Picchu. So it came up rather suddenly and there were three days in Machu Picchu that were planned, and that was the catch for me in terms of wanting to go and just explore with my camera for three days. It was magical to – amazing place. It was more profound than I could've imagined. You see it and you go wow but there's something about the place that's just magical. And I think everybody that goes feels it and they're not really sure what it is about the place that captures them and that's the part that sort of haunted me, that I wanted to pursue through the view ca – finder of my camera so…

MYRLAND: Let's give a few historical facts that are actually known. There are some things that are still unknown about Machu Picchu.

TORREY: Plenty, yeah.

MYRLAND: But it's a – it's built of stone, many thousands of tons of stones. Any idea how many people occupied the area?

TORREY: They've estimated that as many as 1200 lived there and they calculated that based on the amount of food that could have been grown there and the space. So they – maybe 1200 at its peak. It was mostly, they believe, a retreat for the emperor and Spaniards never found it. And had they found it, after the Inca were finally eliminated that they would've destroyed Machu Picchu. And what was interesting about Machu Picchu is it was disappeared for 400 years. It fell beneath the canopy of the rainforest and was only rediscovered in 1911.

MYRLAND: Our guest again is Mike Torrey. He's an architectural photographer and his new book is called "Stone Offerings: Machu Picchu's Terraces of Enlightenment." And the light in your photographs is amazing and you must've had to show a lot of patience waiting for some of those lighting effects, those natural lighting effects to take place and then capture that image.

TORREY: Well, one of the great – thing about Machu Picchu is the light is always changing and so I – There were times when I had to wait quite a long time to – for the light to be right and to also – it's – the book is – most of the images show Machu Picchu without any people in it, which was one of the challenges for me, is there are usually a couple thousand people there at a time. So it was waiting for people, waiting for light. But there were other times that it threw me off guard. It was – There was no – there was hardly any time at all to photograph. I – The image that we have here in the studio is a large framed shot of the Temple of the Three Windows, and if I had pulled out my tripod I wouldn't have gotten the shot. I just had to go ahead and just shoot right away.

MYRLAND: Yeah, you usually think of professional photographers as taking a whole lot of shots and then picking the very best one. But you said in your book, that particular shot, you only had one exposure.

TORREY: I saw it and the light was magical and the clouds and the revealing that it was coming about, that was – that was the only one I could get. I walked away and…

MYRLAND: Yeah, I don't want to get too technical and geeky but I do want to ask you some photographer kinds of questions like how many different cameras did you use to capture these images?

TORREY: I had two cameras with me on the first trip and I actually think I had three on the second trip. But mostly I was just working with two cameras.

MYRLAND: Are they large format cameras? Digital?

TORREY: No, they're digital. They're 35 mil – 35 millimeter digital cameras, professional grade cameras.

MYRLAND: And then do you typically shoot many, many images? You said that when you put the book together, you gave your editor about four hundred photos and there are about a hundred and some in the book.

TORREY: Right.

MYRLAND: But to get to that 400 that you turned over to let the editor see, how many did you take and reject?

TORREY: Oh, gosh, I don't know. Well over a thousand. But, you know, the light – I was photographing for composition but the light wasn't right or people had come into the picture or – so there are a fair amount of outtakes, and then you photograph a horizontal composition and then you check to see if it's – looks good in a vertical composition. And so it's more kind of making sure that it's covered.

MYRLAND: Now you spend a day at Machu Picchu, you go back to your hotel or your campsite…

TORREY: Right.

MYRLAND: …or wherever you are. And then do you plug into your laptop and look at all those images from the day? Or did you wait until you got back to your home base and look at all of them?

TORREY: Well, you can flip through them on your camera, of course, but, no, I would download them and back them up on my computer and I wouldn't spend a lot of time looking at them because I was just too tired from climbing with all the gear and everything.

MYRLAND: I think I spotted a deer in a couple of photos.

TORREY: They're llamas or – and…


TORREY: They have llamas and alpacas and they are inhabitants there. They're the only real inhabitants there.

MYRLAND: Now you said that the theme among your three books so far is light. What's your next subject that you're thinking about?

TORREY: I can't wait to find out. I'm not sure what it is. Right now the book has just come out and so I'm talking about it and making sure that people are seeing the website,, and just getting it out there and we'll see what happens next.

MYRLAND: You made a decision or – or you made a decision in conjunction with your editor to have very little text in the book. Why did you come to that?

TORREY: Well, of the books that are out there, there's a – particularly the tourist guides, there's a lot of information and I had read several books. I led – I read "Lost City of the Inca," which was Hiram Bingham who discovered Machu Picchu. I read an engineering book, a spiritual book about it. But when I got there I realized that this was just conceptual – the conceptual mind, this was just information and that the – what was compelling about Machu Picchu, what was magical about it, was just being there and seeing what was going on between the built environment and the natural environment. And so the book is about the experience of Machu Picchu to reveal what is extraordinary about it and also, I think, also it has something to offer us here. I don't – I didn't see it as a archeological relic, I didn't see it as a – necessarily a historic site or purely historic site.

MYRLAND: Well, you've actually been quoted as saying that you found it kind of modern.

TORREY: It is – I think it is – it has something to say to us in the modern world. I don't – it's not modern. I think it is more about removing the time element because I think time can get in the way of it having some relevance to us. And I think that if we were able to build – to look at the natural environment and the built environment and see how they really connect, and that's what really struck me about this place, its wholeness of place that it connected with the wind, connected with the architecture, connected with the natural environment, with the sun, the landscape, and everything fit together and I think that's what's special about it. And I thought that words would get in the way of that too much. There's a photographic map.

MYRLAND: Umm-hmm.

TORREY: There's descriptions of points of interest. There's a beautiful introduction by Marie Arana, who is Peruvian born, a National Book Award Finalist and former editor at the Washington Post, about its history and her experience in childhood of Machu Picchu. And…

MYRLAND: I have to say, as a reader, it really worked for me not to have much text in the body of the book.


MYRLAND: I went through it in order. You know, I looked at the introduction then I looked at the photos and then I read the end notes, and I think it really caused me to spend more time looking at the photos and experiencing that vicariously than I would have had you had more text in the book.

TORREY: Oh, I'm really happy to hear that because I – I mean, I've gotten feedback that, you know, there are people who want to have information and that information is not denied. I just want them to – I want to give them that opportunity to experience Machu Picchu and so when I do the slide presentations coming up, I hope that it gives them an experience of Machu Picchu that even if they've been, that they may not have had that kind of an experience. And so there is – there's a magical quality about the place and I think that it has some relevance to us in the modern world, if you will, to our own built environment. It's us building our environment and it was them building their environment, and I see the connection that was – that's there.

MYRLAND: I want to ask you as a San Diegan, as somebody who's rooted here, are there places in San Diego that remind you in some ways of Machu Picchu or the light or the experience as a whole?

TORREY: You know, on New Year's Day, I think it was this year, I was in La Jolla and I'm walking along the coast and sat down and just, you know, watched. It was one of those beautiful, sunny New Year's days. And I asked myself, is there – is this more beautiful or is Machu Picchu any more beautiful than this place? And I – you know, it was no. I – Every place has its own beauty and when it connects to the natural environment, you know it and I think everybody, when they experience it, really values that.

MYRLAND: Well, Mike Torrey, thank you very much. I want to remind everybody that Mike Torrey will give a slide presentation and sign copies of his new book, "Stone Offerings" at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla, Thursday, June eleventh, and then again at the Foundation Yoga in Solana Beach on June nineteenth. You can go to our website for more information. And thank you very much for listening and joining us. I'm Doug Myrland and you're listening to These Days in San Diego.

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