In 2012, Deanna Piowaty, the editor of Combustus, an on-line magazine exploring art and spirituality, asked to publish some of my work. When I agreed, she sent me a series of questions about my work, to which I was to provide written answers. I found the questions so stimulating and apropos, that I decided to do some serious introspection and soul-searching in order to come up with substantial answers worthy of the questions. Select excerpts from these answers appear in the final piece, which was titled "In Pursuit of the Sublime" (including the work of a few other artists). I'd like to share here the full text of the editor's questions and my responses, which amount to an extended artist's statement.
Steven—Your images haunt. I want to paper my walls with them - both the landscapes and the portraits. I want to create a book of poetry with your works on every facing page. I want to write a novel peopled by them. And yet you have told me you are first a writer. Can you share with me how your creative expression has evolved? Who or what were your inspirations?
First, I like that you used the word ‘haunt.' I’ve heard that from a number of people. I like the fact that images can contain mystery, ambiguity, beautiful strangeness and strange beauty. I like that they can touch something in us beyond the literal and the rational - that they can penetrate into the subconscious, invoke archetypes, stir nuanced emotions, leave us with a taste of the uncanny and the surreal. If we are sensitive and open, curious and attentive, we cannot help but be haunted by beauty, by the mysteries of existence, by the hidden meanings of things, by what some have called “the Sublime” - that which fills us with a sense of awe and fascination.
If you’re asking how did I evolve or expand from writing into photography, it’s still kind of a mystery to me. When I began photographing seriously in 1994, I had no photography or fine arts background whatsoever. Being unable to draw a straight line, as they say, I could never have imagined my becoming a visual artist of any sort. I had friends who were artists, and I always admired their ability to communicate personal vision on canvas or paper, but that was out of the question for me.
Nevertheless, at a certain point I started feeling a certain vague need to indulge my creative self, to find a way to create, but in some manner more tangible, more physical, less abstract than writing. Writing, especially of the academic kind I’d been doing, such as for publication in academic journals, is a highly abstract, cerebral kind of activity, because you’re basically manipulating linguistic symbols to represent abstract ideas. You’re pretty much stuck in your head playing with concepts and words. That can be intensely interesting, intellectually, but can also leave one feeling somewhat disembodied, out of touch with physicality and sensuality, detached from the feel-able here-and-now. Acknowledging the existence of that inner hunger for a more physical form of creativity didn’t really come until later, after I’d dived into photography and looked back and saw what had happened. In any case, a certain weariness with words and concepts resulted both from having recently spent three years in the highly cerebral environment of graduate school (Harvard Divinity School), and the fact that I’d spent the previous seventeen years living as an ascetic monk in Hindu ashrams, mostly in the U.S. In that particular religious environment, the idea that “you are not your physical body” was axiomatic, and avoidance of “material pleasure,” including sensory and aesthetic pleasures, was the rule. So, after two full decades of “transcending” and intellectualizing, I was left with a certain feeling of dislocation, of estrangement from my own instincts and intuitions, of being strangely out of touch with whole dimensions of myself. I realize this analysis itself may sound over-intellectualized, but it was a felt fact to me (though not fully understood until later).
I like to think, in retrospect, that it was “the universe” or “my guiding spirit” or some such manifestation of cosmic wisdom and benevolence that guided me into photography (the Universe was well aware that I lacked the hand-eye coordination to draw or paint). The details of how the Beneficent Beyond led me by the nose to the Cambridge (MA) Center for Adult Education to take a few introductory photography classes aren’t particularly significant, but it’s worth mentioning that doing so was rather counterintuitive, since I wasn’t at all in the habit of casting about for new hobbies. Long (not really so long) story short, I quickly became hooked on the unique alchemy of photographic image-making and darkroom printing, and within a short amount of time classmates and instructors were admiring my work, even though I was a complete novice. So, seemingly out of nowhere I’d discovered a talent and a passion.
Even now, nearly two decades later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of being an “artist.” Besides the fact that I got a late start (age 42), I sometimes feel like it all came to me too easily. Not that I haven’t taken the craft of photography very seriously and put in vast amounts of time in the darkroom, but visual skills seemed to appear of their own volition, not as a result of intensive study and practice. Having a “good eye” was somehow latent within me. Something sparked it, and I hit the ground running. I can’t help but acknowledge it as a free gift from somewhere, and I’m extremely grateful to the bestower. One thing I don’t have much of, though, is a gift for self-promotion. I feel awkward about blatant self-advertisement and lack the requisite technical savvy. I make images, assemble them into print-on-demand books (with Blurb.com), and wonder whether anyone’s noticing.
In any case, when I began looking into the history of the medium, I found myself drawn to the work of photographic artists who appeared to have a more introspective and subjective orientation - artists who seemed to be expressing inner states of being, those with, let’s say, a Romantic, Symbolist, or Surrealist sensibility. Names that readily come to mind include Europeans Leonard Misonne, Joseph Sudek, Frantisek Dritikol, and Andre Kertesz, and Americans Anne Brigman, Wynn Bullock, Minor White, Charles Laughlin, Paul Caponigro, and Ruth Bernhard. Over the years I’ve amassed a sizable library of photographic monographs, anthologies, histories, etc. which serve to inspire.
One of the themes that comes through so powerfully in your work is the merging of the spiritual with the corporeal, the tangible with the intangible. Can you tell me a bit about where this comes from for you? What led this to become such a prominent aspect to your images?
That pretty much hits the nail on the head. I’ve evolved over a long period of time into what someone might call a Monist, one who sees everything, including “matter” and “spirit,” as all being one energy, a kind of unification of all things and beings into one life principle. I didn’t get to that point by studying philosophy or shopping for something new to believe in. It’s come pretty organically. I didn’t start out in photography with any pre-formed philosophy of art or even a clear sense of the kinds of things I wanted to photograph. It was a very organic process of letting my eyes and heart lead without analyzing too much. This getting out of my head and into my senses, particularly the sense of sight, was a new experience for me. I just learned to trust my eyes as aesthetic antennae. Over some time I came to understand, consciously and intellectually, that the thematic core of my evolving aesthetics had to do with a kind of deeper looking, a depth probing for evidence of spirit. That meant opening up to the subtle undercurrents of beauty, strangeness, mystery, and surreality in the visible world. To me, that constitutes a certain spiritual orientation to life, one that happens to have a strong aesthetic motivation: a search for beauty in spirit, spirit in beauty.
Autobiographically speaking, and to over-simplify a bit, from my younger to my middle years, the center of my attention underwent a dramatic shift from a quest for Truth to a search for Beauty. Early in life I’d been obsessed with the concept of Truth, with figuring out what is “real”, what “reality” is, and how to see it clearly - how to attain “enlightenment.” But that quest had an obsessive aspect to it. It emerged from a kind of deeply felt ontological anxiety. I was so determined to pin down Truth and Reality, that at age eighteen I dropped out of conventional society, renounced drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll, and moved into a Hindu ashram to live a life of celibacy, study, and meditation in quest of ultimate truth in the form of Krishna. I stayed there seventeen years and left at age thirty-five. That’s a big chunk of my life - my youth!
During my monk years I became deeply conditioned to think of “matter” and “spirit” as two distinct and essentially opposing principles, one to be cast aside, the other to become fully immersed in. That represents a rather stark bifurcation of reality, not to speak of a rather self-alienating and schizophrenic way to live and think. It radically devalues whole realms of selfhood: physical, psychological, sensory, sensual, aesthetic, even intellectual (since the mind itself rates as “subtle-matter”). One cannot, at least with integrity and sanity, live one’s life as a disembodied spirit.
I didn’t plan it this way, but in my post-ashram life photography became for me a way to reintegrate into a fuller state of being, a necessary corrective to an extreme matter vs. spirit worldview. I had to re-learn how to be at home in the world, comfortable in my own body - learn how to patiently look at things, really notice them, feel relational to them, experience things aesthetically. So, photography, the creative act of opening ones eyes and looking deeply and intensely at everything and recording impressions in tangible form, became a path of awakening, of becoming more aware, attentive, receptive, focused, present. If this language has a Buddhist, particularly Zen, sound to it, it’s no accident. Though not a practicing Buddhist, as such, I see much wisdom and get inspiration from the essential Zen notion of radical awakening, of existing in the present moment, being alive to the here and now, getting the conjectural mind — the mind that thinks too much, plans, analyzes and worries too much — out of the way in order to experience reality more immediately, unconditionally, intensely, even ecstatically. For me, these are as much aesthetic concepts as they are philosophical.
Your images are also very intimate. The word "bliss" comes to mind. Even the landscapes, the mountains, the trees, the sky...all seem as if they are being observed in a moment of private ecstasy. Throbbing with the vibration of life. And then your portraits: We almost feel as if we are intruding, there is such a feeling of emotions being laid bare. How are you able to tease out such authentic moments? And why do you think this speaks to us as your audience so deeply?
What a beautiful question, or series of questions. It really gets to the heart of the matter. If I may, I’d like to divide your question into its two parts, concerning landscape and portraiture, with the connecting thread being the ideas of “intimacy” and “bliss.” “Bliss” happens to be one of my favorite words (and experiences!). Rather than thinking about bliss in esoteric mystical terms, try thinking of it in terms of a deep and full experience of what is in front of our eyes, our immediate environment, or some object or scene within our environment. To me, to see something deeply and to feel it deeply is (or can evolve into) a kind of ecstasy. Our normative state is that of learned insensitivity. Our society teaches us to think and plan for the future, not to savor the present moment, to analyze things rather than experience them personally and directly. That may sound simplistic, but I don’t think it is. We have no idea how closed down we are, how we sleepwalk through life half-aware, until something rouses us, even momentarily. I’m not implying a sustained state of blissful enlightenment, necessarily, but a capacity at least for episodic awakenings, compelling experiences that remind us of the hidden beauty and wonder of things. I like the phrase “aesthetic ecstasy.” We all have moments when we seem to wake up and feel deeply touched by some aspect of our environment, as if experiencing it for the first time, as if we’ve landed on some distant planet, our senses pulsing with amazed attentiveness. I aspire to that intensity of seeing and being - a worthy goal, don’t you think? In one form or another, something like that state of heightened awareness has been the goal of artists and mystics through history. I think of those two things, art and mysticism, as being closely related. Not that all art is mystical, or that all forms of mysticism contain a strong aesthetic component. Some art is simply descriptive, or emotionally expressive or, especially in postmodernism, an emotionally detached toying with concepts. But for me personally, art and spirituality both suggest highly sensitized seeing; a capacity for deep and nuanced emotion; and a desire to share those profound inner experiences through authentic expression.
With regard to landscape as an artistic genre, or to nature in general, I don’t think I’m truly experiencing nature — say a tree, forest, or expanse of sky — unless I’ve opened to it sufficiently for it to touch me deeply, for it to delight my eyes, stir deep and subtle emotions, even awaken some sense of the infinite and the eternal. One can’t always exist at such a high pitch of experience, of course, but one can consciously and deliberately open oneself to its potentiality, acknowledge it as a real option. If faith plays any role in this, it’s simply faith in human potential and in the grandness of existence - faith perhaps sparked by an intuitive sense of the miraculous, or as a result of passing brushes with the Sublime (another favorite word of mine). My own earliest “brushes with the Sublime” were a result of early experimentation with psychedelics (I’m a child of the 60s). Anyone who has tripped out in nature has experienced what it is to be a full-fledged nature mystic, to feel intensely the profound spirituality of trees and meadows and sky and ocean, to experience true rapture. I’m not saying that one can’t experience nature profoundly without a plant or chemical aid (St. Francis of Assisi did quite well), but for many of us not so spiritually evolved, psychedelics dramatically intensified our awareness of the natural world. It’s now widely acknowledged that the deep ecology movement that grew out of the 60s was, to a significant degree, catalyzed by such experiences. I don’t recommend depending on LSD or psilocybin mushrooms to feel the beauty of nature, but those kinds of enhanced experiences do set a high bar; they create a model or a basis for imagining how nature can be experienced more intensely, aesthetically, ecstatically. One emerges from that experience knowing for certain that we all possess an innate capacity for mystical awareness, cosmic consciousness. It becomes clear that we all possess some kind of inner antenna for the Sublime.
So, no doubt when I’m photographing nature, landscape, I try to open to that deeper realm of mystic beauty, and later, in the darkroom, I attempt to convey those impressions through tangible imagery. I should mention that I shot many of my landscape images with infrared film, which has a mystical quality about it because it’s sensitive to visual wavelengths not normally apprehended by the human eye. Infrared images tend to be bathed in strange light, to have an otherworldly quality. I love shooting infrared, and Kodak broke my little heart when they stopped manufacturing their infrared film a few years ago.
I include in the landscape category what may be called “nature studies,” which for me mean dramatic close-ups of rocks, trees, tide pools - micro views of natural scenery. Those images have a kind of hallucinatory quality because they involve a mode of seeing that is deeply influenced by imagination. I put together a book of this work called Pictures from the Earth: Things Seen on the Surface of a Strange Planet. The surface of the earth provides an endless aesthetic delight: images that form in the mind as a combined product of outer and inner vision, eye coupled with active imagination. Anyone who has been in nature while in an enhanced state of consciousness will know of what I speak. We need to learn how to look at things patiently, meditatively, with the open eye of an innocent child or that of a newly landed extraterrestrial visitor. And that expanded, deepened seeing creates a kind of intimacy with a sacralized nature, an appreciation for the holiness, beauty and spirit of the earth. At its best, this creates a kind of blissful intimacy, as you suggested. Maybe all this sounds very mystical and esoteric, but it’s rooted in tangible experience.
Now, to the second part of your question, concerning portraiture. You say: “We almost feel as if we are intruding, there is such a feeling of emotions being laid bare. How are you able to tease out such authentic moments? And why do you think this speaks to us as your audience so deeply?” I’ve become convinced that inner essences reveal themselves on outer surfaces, that if one is sufficiently sensitive and attentive, one can discern the mind, heart and soul of a person in their face, in subtle facial expressions and in accompanying body language. The eyes are certainly “portals to the soul,” as some wise soul said. Some people, to be sure, conceal themselves behind a permanent game face, or suffer a chronic disconnect between inner and outer - unwilling or unable to be present in their physicality. I can take a picture of such a person and get a good likeness, a superficially flattering portrait maybe, but I take no particular pleasure in that. In choosing subjects, I try to adjust my psychological radar to people who are more open, less guarded, more outwardly expressive, who allow their personal energy to flow outward. Over the years I’ve become increasingly sensitive to these subtle physical cues. I’ll walk into a room and my eyes will shoot over to one particular person. My radar is pre-set to female faces (I unapologetically admit to that - it is what I find most aesthetically compelling). But not to any beautiful female face. I can be totally bored photographing an exquisite beauty if I don’t sense something deeper than the obvious outer layer (the “thin candy coating,” to cite an old M&M commercial). There needs to be some kind of genuine soulfulness, a sense of a depth-dimension to the person, or at the very least an unusual or intriguing kind of beauty that speaks to me or appeals to me aesthetically. But, even then, I’ve discovered that when a particular flavor of beauty happens to attract my eye, it is usually the outer expression of a deeper kind of person, someone possessing what I think of as “grace” - a certain naturalness, unpretentiousness, refinement of movement, an organic flow. When I speak of female beauty I include that sense of grace, which for me is related to soulfulness and spirituality. My special radar has brought me into contact with some wonderful people over the years. Some have become close friends.
So, my interest in photographing women is not just aesthetic but also psychological. There’s no question that women are generally more emotionally open than men, less guarded; their faces allow more access to their emotions. There is something in the female psyche that seems to be instinctually more open to authentic human connectedness, an openness and transparency that allows for portraits that reveal more, invoke more feeling, suggest deeper layers of being - images that are essentially more psychologically expressive and spiritually evocative. And much of that psychological depth, as I said, is centered in the eyes, windows on the soul. I think over time I’ve developed a real sensitivity to the power of the gaze as both receptive and expressive. I recently edited a collection of my female portraits that I titled The Female Gaze, in which the viewer’s gaze is actively met by the women in the images. It’s a response of sorts to the problematic “male gaze” analyzed by feminist theorists. The woman before us in the image not only is receptive to our gaze, but is projecting her own being through her eyes. We see beauty, but we also feel the soul that animates the body. Some of the portraits are quite psychologically intense.
The other part of the portrait equation, is that once I have such persons in front of my camera, most are able to relax to a point where they feel very safe, comfortable, and appreciated. I genuinely like people, and am fascinated by what’s happening within their consciousness. I’ve always been intrigued by human psychology, by subjective experience, by what it actually feels like to be this other person. In German there is a great word: Einfühlung, which literally means “feeling-into,” and is usually translated as “empathy.” But it has a deeper meaning, referring to what might be called “sympathetic creative imagination”: a special capacity for feeling one’s way intuitively into another person, a capacity generated by a sense of shared humanity. So, I like to think that my portrait subjects, some at any rate, are able to sense that genuine, benign curiosity in me, and feel safe in opening themselves up to a deeper scrutiny. Now and then a sitter will open up more than she’d plan to. Conversation may stir certain emotions. Or I’ll ask the person to try to evoke a certain sentiment within herself. Sometimes it seems that the simple fact of being noticed, of being regarded with attention and appreciation, will stir hidden emotions, even bring tears. In our depths we all hunger for attention, acknowledgement, appreciation, and when I’m working with someone I’m being extremely attentive to them, to every small nuance of physical and emotional expression, in a friendly, non-threatening manner. That in itself seems often to provoke an emotional response and a genuine opening in some people. Many women in our culture have had to resign themselves to being looked at by men as decorative or sexual objects, and are surprised and disarmed by a male gaze that is authentically benevolent. I greatly value a sitter’s trust, and I have never, and could never, violate that sacred trust. In any case, I think a sitter projects the most beauty, looks the most beautiful, when she is completely at ease, able to simply be herself. “Posing” or trying to project “sexiness” seems always to detract from natural beauty. And if I’m able to tease out authentic moments, as you put it, it’s because I try to create a space where that is possible.
What is your definition of spirituality?
It’s probably ill-advised to attempt to define something so utterly subjective, so personal, so multiform and multifaceted, so metaphysically nuanced and conceptually booby-trapped, as “spirituality.” That said (and that’s saying a lot!), I think of base-line spirituality as an intuitive sense or awareness that there are greater and more fundamental realities than those of which we are normally conscious - an intuition of higher, more harmonious and sublime modes of existence beneath or beside or above the perceivable world; along with a feeling of essential connectedness to all other beings, or to Being itself. I’m not speaking in terms of theologies and orthodoxies, but of immediate, felt experience, even if that experience is vague, subtle or fleeting. I like Wordsworth’s phrase (and poem title) “Intimations of Immorality.” Another way of saying all this, or looking at it, is that personal spirituality is based on a kind of bedrock cosmic intuition: the feeling that there simply has to be a better place than this wretched, tortured planet - a deeply-felt assumption about the basic decency of the universe: a sense that Divinity, whatever that may be, could not possibly be content with such a flawed product as this limited world. A conviction or trust that there’s got to be something way better than this - either elsewhere, in another time, or here and now but not accessible to “normal” vision. The spiritually oriented person seeks access to, or at least occasional glimpses of, that higher reality. I like Rudolf Otto’s characterization (in The Idea of the Holy) of the core religious or spiritual sentiment as being profound awe and fascination, a sense of the numinous, of the “wholly other,” a feeling of overwhelming and sublime otherness. Spirituality isn’t a set of fixed ideas, metaphysical speculations, or religious institutional forms, but an inarticulable sense of the sacred, along with a fundamental attitude of openness, vital curiosity, childlike wonder, and trust in an assumed Cosmic Benevolence. People try to connect with this quality of awareness in different ways: through formal meditation, communing with the natural world, deep engagement in an art form, serving humanity, and so on. Another approach, which I mentioned earlier, is the mindful and judicious use of psychoactive substances, which a lot of spiritually oriented people claim as foundational to their own spiritual journey. It’s an open secret that many seekers, and many artists, have used psychedelics to explore consciousness and creativity. And that’s been going on not since the 60s, but since human pre-history.
How essential is art (and the artist) to society?
I think it’s absolutely essential. I don’t think its merely recreation and entertainment or something to indulge only when more important work is done. Human beings are, among other things, Homo Aestheticus, beings for whom beauty and deep self-expression is essential to a full and meaningful life. If we don’t exercise our imagination, if we don’t allow ourselves to be stimulated and stretched by a wider scope of experience than our own, if we never expose our mind to higher or deeper imaginings, then we exist in a kind of solipsistic vacuum, a hall of mirrors, confined within the small box of ego. We diminish and impoverish ourselves if we attend only to the “practical” side of life, only that which aims at getting along in the world (while being mindlessly entertained). Then we are feeding our beast but not our angel.
There are many conceptions of art, but I think of it as meaning-making, soul-deepening, sensory-elevating, an honest expression of human spirit. It liberates us from the purely pragmatic, instrumentalist, biological mode of life. It’s how we explore what lies beyond language and rationality: beauty, mystery, the sub-conscious, ultimate meaning.
That said, I have no grand scheme to suggest for “society.” I personally tend not to think in public policy terms. I would never wish to impose art on anyone, nor stipulate a canon of artistic works that every self-respecting educated person should be aware of, or advocate for some specific art-curriculum for schools. Nor do I think that art should be a category distinct from life. But that’s another matter.
In the most ideal sense, artists serve humanity as heralds of other worlds, so to speak—other ways of constructing or experiencing reality. They are courageous, eccentric or mad enough to embrace deep subjectivity and solitude, explore chaotic subconscious realms in order to connect with deeper realities, deeper experiences, novel experiences, and then to return with strange artifacts, magical objects, constructed embodiments of inner vision and imagination. Having seen the unseen, they are wise (and reckless) enough to lodge protests against consensus reality, storm the barricades of normality, shatter idols and orthodoxies, rattle our mental cages.
That’s an idealistic view, of course (allow me my idealism). In reality, on the ground — in the galleries and the streets — much or most art is shallow, self-indulgent, derivative and commercial, and many artists are flaky, egotistical and untalented. But art always holds the promise of profundity and sublimity.
Do you feel everyone has the potential to be deeply creative? If so, how can we access this part of ourselves more deeply?
I think creativity is fundamental, and in theory we all should be able to access that realm, but we live in a society, a world, which fears depth and profundity. We want to stay comfortable right where we are, in our familiar little corner of the world, in the safety of our self-conceptions. We lose, or avoid, our ability to imagine. I think of creativity as being rooted in the free play of imagination. If we’re free to imagine, to think “out of the box,” to look beyond the ordinary and the “normal,” the world takes on a more intriguing quality. Rather than sitting quietly with our hands in our laps, taking instruction from others, we begin to roam freely, take chances, touch live wires. We discover we have a unique pair of eyes for seeing, a unique pair of ears for hearing, a particular way of perceiving, feeling and interpreting reality. Our perceiving becomes more charged, more pro-active. Looking both outward and inward, we find treasures, curious anomalies, new configurations, strange juxtapositions. Then at some point we might feel inspired to share our vision, describe our journey, create new aesthetic forms.
Some of us have very short tethers, tying ourselves closely to rigid egos in constant need of affirmation and identity verification. Such egos place strict controls on the free movement of imagination because the ego is in the business of solidifying its perimeter and maintaining the status quo. It must avoid close encounters with transformational ways of being and experiencing. It must not contemplate “otherness” too assiduously, must not wander too far from familiar psychic territory. The car of imagination thus remains parked in its garage, carefully protected from the dangers of the open road. Others of us with longer tethers allow ourselves to be taken for rides, led down garden paths, lured into back alleys and hidden rooms filled with wonders and mysteries, guided into unchartered territories, thrust into wider horizons, free to be tempted by whatever interesting currents are about, enchanted by every animal in the forest of the mind. That freedom is exhilarating, and it makes life rather more interesting.
I do believe we are inherently creative beings - that the soul by nature is creative and expansive. But that impulse is suppressed, or at least aggressively tamed and stage-managed, when we’re young. The natural sense of wonder that energizes art-making is slowly starved out of us by parents with an agenda to have us behave, contain ourselves, follow directions, conform, adapt, and “make something of ourselves” within the framework of the norms of society. The person who grows up with their natural creativity in tact, who is unafraid of being spontaneous, imaginative and expressive, may be in for a hard ride. The person with creative passions who acts from inner imperative is not particularly welcome in society any more than are other societal irritants: prophets, mystics, revolutionaries, and so on. To be a visionary and a creator implies taking a stance against the status quo, because society exists to perpetuate itself, to keep things orderly, predictable and profitable. Serious and fearless artists risk social censure; they risk financial destitution; sometimes they risk their sanity. Though society welcomes artists who are capable of creating commodities to which financial and egoistic value can be attached — art as investment and status object — most creatives get relatively little respect in a society that tends to view artists as marginal, self-absorbed, unpredictable, non-productive dreamers. You really have to believe in yourself and your work. You need to have faith in your own instincts and intuitions, and be able to disregard external and internal critics that may impede self-expression.
The question of how to access our personal creativity is a difficult one, because it’s such a deeply subjective process. I’m reluctant to advise anyone, except maybe to say a few rather obvious things: look long and hard at the work of other creators; begin to notice which things draw you in, which compel your attention, which stimulate and delight your senses. Give yourself permission to really take it in, feel it, enjoy it, relish and savor it. Notice what those aesthetic experiences spark in your own consciousness, how they make you feel, what new images they generate in your mind. Be attentive to your own inner experience - not only concerning art, but life in general. Listen for those sweet, wise inner voices that are always guiding and teaching. Look at lots of art, look at everything. Notice how you notice things. Notice the subtle reactions you have to seeing this or hearing that. Notice when you’re noticing is strong. Take note of which things enchant, provoke and delight you. Trust those sensations, explore them, wallow shamelessly in them. Don’t over-analyze. Don’t feel you have to intellectually justify your perceptions or feelings, or think you need to seek the approval of some artistic (or other) orthodoxy. Get to really know what turns you on, what yanks your chain, what floats your boat. Get out of your head, jump out of the cerebral box, cut through your own “mind-forged manacles,” as Blake put it. Lengthen your mental leash. Look under things and into things. Listen to silences, peer into empty spaces, look at clouds and trees and buildings and faces with rapt and rude attention. Seek sublimity in the smallest thing: “To seek Heaven in a wild flower and the universe in a grain of sand” (Blake again). “Dust be diamonds, water be wine!” (Incredible String Band song).
Can you tell me a bit about your childhood? How would you describe yourself as a young boy? Do you feel you have been able to preserve any of those qualities?
I was a shy, insecure, hypersensitive, deeply philosophical little boy. I felt strangely out of place in the world. It took great effort to enact the role set upon me, to be the person my parents wanted me to be, which was to be more or less like them. Trying to project myself back into that still unformed mind of my child self, I would say that at an instinctual level, normal socialization — garden-variety parental indoctrination — felt weird and perhaps menacing. Adults in general seemed a strange breed of prefabricators, play-actors and manipulators. They talked but did not genuinely communicate, spoke words that seemed detached from true intent, said things calculated to create an effect or compel a certain behavior. They seemed to be unable to communicate from out of their own authentic depths, unwilling to connect soul to soul. In a pre-conceptual, pre-linguistic kind of way, I sensed the human world as some kind of fundamental sham, an arrangement of absurdities, a cruel joke. I realize this may sound like reading a lot of nuanced ideation and emotion into a child, a projection of adult attitudes into my child-self, but I believe that what I described is essentially the way my immediate world felt to me. How much of this mood-memory is universal — the intuitive experience of any new arrival to this world — and how much of it is distinctive to myself, I cannot say.
The essential tragedy is this: Not only was the expectation and pressure to fulfill my assigned role and join the charade overwhelming, but the stakes were incredibly high: it meant maternal love being granted or withheld, from one moment to the next - an irresistible form of behavior modification for a psychologically dependent child. From this perspective, “normal” child-rearing involves an exercise of complete authoritarian control and emotional blackmail over the innocent (the psychologist Alice Miller is brilliant on this point; see, for example, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware). Families thus function as de-facto totalitarian cults - even the “well-adjusted” ones that present a smile to the world. Few parents, I suspect, possess the enlightened instincts to allow their children to blossom and grow naturally, unimpeded by selfish parental agendas and strategies. I admit to taking a rather cynical view of society and socialization (my inner Kafka?). I see it as a kind of affront to the soul, as well as a device for manufacturing madness (read R.D. Laing, especially The Politics of Experience).
In adolescence I became happier, more confident, more socially adept. It is as a teenager, I believe, that I re-learned (or perhaps learned for the first time) how to be child-like, how to look upon things with unabashed awe and wonder in an unharassed, uncensored state of mind. LSD certainly helped. It was an eye-opener, mind-expander and spirit-awakener, as it was for many of my generation. And it didn’t hurt to be reading people like Emerson and Thoreau, great articulators of the preciousness of individuality, the liberated self. In my day-to-day life, I consciously try to cultivate a child-like attitude. I try to see with an innocent eye and an open, receptive mind. That ongoing project, which is its own kind of spiritual practice, coincides with and energizes my photography.
How does it feel to hear some of the reactions people have when they view your work? Have you ever been surprised by how others have responded? Is there a sense of you yourself being laid bare a bit along with your subjects?
I am delighted when people are moved by my images and bother to tell me so. I’m continually amazed that I even have the ability to create something that not only has aesthetic value, but that seems to touch people at a deep level. My main source of regular feedback is the comments that photographers and models from all over the world leave on my personal page on Modelmayhem.com (a website where photographers and models connect, plan shoots, exchange ideas, etc.). People have left hundreds and hundreds of comments on individual images in my portfolio. Sometimes they’re quite expressive, using words like “beautiful,” “dream-like,” “surreal,” “intense,” “archetypal,” “peaceful.” It’s actually from repeatedly hearing that range of adjectives that I’ve evolved a conscious sense of my own aesthetic. I didn’t start out with any clear sense of personal aesthetics or style. I had no particular agenda in mind other than to just get out of my own head and follow my visual instincts, let the eyes lead. I found that process to be quite liberating, an inducement to spontaneity and flow. I just photographed anything that I found visually interesting, visually compelling - usually something beautiful, or strange, or dream-like, or surreal. Why that particular cluster of qualities or moods excite me, I don’t know for certain, but it must reflect something essential in me.
So, the impulse to photograph is personal, involving my own search for beauty and meaning. Having the work be appreciated by others is an entirely separate realm of experience. I’m blown away that some people like or love what I’ve created. I don’t think it’s so much an ego thing (though we all like to hear we’ve done good) as much as a kind of spiritual gratification. That may sound self-congratulating or self-serving (or self-deluding), but I think it’s true. I’m genuinely pleased just to know that I’ve spread a little sunshine (or whatever I spread) around—that my images are out there as independent entities, living things that enter people’s eyes and minds and set off little aesthetic and emotional explosions. Seasoned flowerchild that I am, I’m an unabashed lover of beauty, of beautiful things, of the idea of beauty, and of the synergy between beauty and truth. I’m intrigued and amazed by the power of beauty to overwhelm and elevate the mind and spirit.
As far as feeling “laid bare” by the images I create, I suppose they do reveal much about me, at least about the things I love, the things I am drawn to look at and am moved by, my tastes in visual and emotional stimuli, my sense of reality. But I don’t think someone can really know me as a person simply by viewing my photographic work. There is more to me than what is contained in the pictures. In a sense, my images express the best of me, the idealist in me, the quester after beauty and ecstasy, but not the full complexity of me as a flawed, self-contradicting psychological being. I like what Walt Whitman said: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes, and are ultimately undecipherable and inexpressible.
What do you hope we, your audience, will discover about ourselves when we view your work?
I hope you’ll discover in yourself an innate power to delight in the visual, to feel inspired by beauty in whatever form, to be curious about how things look and how looking at them deepens our capacity to feel. We are aesthetic creatures, but we barely know how to use our senses, how to look at art or listen to music in a way that will open us to profound enjoyment, even ecstasy. It’s just one of the ways we close down, or never really open, to our environment, and to our own innate capacity for deeper experience and awareness. I speak as one who earlier in life was not particularly sensitive to the visual realm but who somehow found my way to a larger aesthetic awareness. I was not raised in a particularly art-loving environment, and being involved for many years in an ascetic (rather than aesthetic) religious path that saw the physical, “material” world (including the arts) as a lower order of being, as something that actually “contaminates” the soul, didn’t help. It was a fortuitous stumbling into the art and craft of photography that actually brought about an aesthetic awakening. I don’t make art as a public service, as a strategy for stimulating aesthetic consciousness in others. I’m really not that civic minded! But as a by-product of my own aesthetic endeavors, I hope that others are stimulated and perhaps inspired to look longer and harder at things, to appreciate the power of the image, and of awareness itself.
Another thing is, because my images (as I’m often told) sometimes suggest dream states, or subconscious or mystical states, I hope they help some people become more attuned to those hidden, mysterious, dark and sublime places within themselves - that they set off sparks of distant memory and imagination. Images can do that. Anything that presents itself to our senses enters us in some manner, flavors our consciousness, re-wires our brain, touches our soul. Many of the sights and sounds we’re subjected to in our society are harsh and disturbing - psychologically and spiritually toxic. Scenes of cruelty, vindictiveness, ugliness and pettiness saturate the media and poison the mental atmosphere. I like the fact that I am sending out into the world images, pictures, little visions, that may do a tiny bit to counteract all that and communicate a sense of beauty, gentle humanity, grace, even holiness. It makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile in this profoundly flawed world.
What themes do you hope to explore next?
The only subject or theme that I feel I haven’t explored sufficiently is still life, which I think of as odd or interesting arrangements of “found objects.” I did put together one book of that kind of work — Secret Lives of Inanimate Objects — but feel there’s much more I’d like to do. Over many years I’ve been haphazardly collecting objects, things, of every imaginable kind. Our house is filled with organic and inorganic artifacts, things I pick up at garage sales and flea markets, objects that call out to be noticed and memorialized. I’ve discovered a strain of animism in me, a sense that consciousness pervades everything, so that even inanimate objects are in some mysterious sense awake and aware, even capable of intentionality. I don’t hold that as fixed metaphysical doctrine, just an imaginative intuition, a potentially fruitful psychological experiment. In any case, I maintain the notion that one day, perhaps when I’m older and less mobile, I’ll dig into all my shelves and draws of odd objects and arrange them in various tableaus in front of my camera - allow them to say whatever they wish to say. I’m a fan of the surrealist practice, or game, of arranging strange and unexpected juxtapositions of objects, illogical or provocative groupings of things, in order to invoke a sense of the uncanny, of mystery, and dream.
Aside from photography, I have various writing projects in the works. Writing is as important to me as photography, and the two compete for my time. I seem to be made of three strands of identity: artist, intellectual and mystic - each needing expression. They co-exist in an interesting and unpredictable synergy. For a while now I’ve been doing lots of reading on the subject of psychedelics (“entheogens”), which I referenced earlier. I’m very interested in the relationship between psychedelics, creativity and spirituality and hope to write something of value on the subject. I’m also delving into autobiography and memoir. I just published a book titled India in a Mind’s Eye: Travels and Ruminations of an Ambivalent Pilgrim, which relates to my years as a Hindu monk and frequent traveller to India. (The e-book version is now available and the physical book can be ordered from the Blurb.com online bookstore). Besides writing projects, I have a few new photography books in the works. So, I’ve been working hard. Time has become more precious to me than it used to. I’m acutely conscious of the fact that the road ahead of me is shorter than the road behind. I live on inspiration and try to keep the creative fires burning.