A memory shimmers at the edges of my mind. I am five. I am standing in a house built in the 1700s; the day is super muggy, and the air is heavy and wet. The house is dark except for the flickering of a few beeswax candles. We have just moved in and have not yet turned on the electricity. The sweet smell of honey and hot wax fills the room.
It was probably that late summer day that my obsession with dancing flames began; my curiosity for temples and Catholic churches aglow with amber rays started early. I stuck my finger in the pools of hot wax over and over, dipping and cooling and peeling away perfect sets of fingerprints until all ten lay in a pile on the edge of the table. I lost myself for a few moments, transfixed by the flickering light and the warm shadows moving across dark paneled walls.
In a second, I had traveled somewhere else, somewhere into the future or perhaps the past. I stepped outside, unsure how much time had passed: one candle had burned nearly to the bottom, almost touching the silver candlestick base, while the other had barely moved. Candlelight is spiritual; that is what my five-year-old self learned that day. We can’t help but be drawn to it like a moth on a dark summer night, or a Junebug banging itself against a screen to be closer to flames inside. It holds both light and darkness.
As a kid, I was somewhat obsessed with hand-dipping candles and building them up, layer by layer. Liquid solidified to become something else, something more tangible. As a photographer, I am drawn to cultures that celebrate light. I am drawn to layers of storytelling. Of the many of the places I have traveled to celebrate light, India and Mexico come immediately to mind. Mexico shimmers on Day of the Dead.
Candles are nestled among marigolds, photographs next to sweet bread and chocolate left for loved ones who have crossed over. Candles burn bright in every home shrine and atop graves decorated with garlands of flowers. The light calls the loved ones back to be honored and celebrated.
In India, candlelight is commonplace. Shrines and temples are lit daily. Diwali, celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, is translated as the celebration of light. While it is a myth that all of India can be seen lit on this one night from space, it truly does shine. A communal warmth can be felt on Diwali; it is a time to celebrate light over darkness and good over evil. Feasts and pujas abound. There is a smokiness and a taste to the atmosphere on Diwali; it is an acrid smell, but not an unpleasant one.
On any given morning in Varanasi, thousands of tiny clay diya pots line the edges of the ghats, remnants of evening prayers. The pots are filled with little cotton wicks and ghee or mustard oil; in the evening, they float with the swell of the river, carrying flowers and prayers to loved ones beyond the earthly realm. In the morning, they bump against the worn steps leading to the water, flowers wilted and worn. They are then collected and thrown into piles, smashed, and returned to the earth from which they were made. The morning is filled with a ghostly light from a thousand extinguished flames.
Andrea Gentl is a New York City-based photographer and writer. She has spent the better part of the last thirty years traveling the globe and photographing with her partner, Martin Hyers. The duo’s work is known for its beautiful light. Travel informs every aspect of Gentl’s work and serves as her greatest inspiration. She splits her time when traveling between an old artist loft in Soho and a small farmhouse in upstate New York.