Some Thoughts on Yoga Photography (and a Manifesto of sorts)


There’s a scene in a surf movie, (possibly Thomas Campbell’s ‘The Present’) where Dave Rastovich says that the beauty of surfing, like music, is its ephemeral nature. The fact that things exist only for the time that you are engaged in them was kind of a standard way of existing (and certainly, of experiencing art) for most of human history.

David Byrne in ‘The Way Music Works’ talks about the idea that music is composed for the places and cultures from which it emerges, but prior to recording, the music required people to actually perform the music, and it was never the same ever again! It is also quite possible that an ordinary child in today’s world may have heard more Mozart performed than even Mozart himself, or anyone else of his generation. You’d have been very lucky to have even heard a piece once in a lifetime, properly played by an orchestra, back when Mozart was at the height of his genius.

But that isn’t the world we live in any longer. We now create stuff with an entirely different conception of time! We obsessively self-observe and are constantly bombarded by images of others showing us their peak moments which we then, sitting waiting at the dentist, for example, compare with the most mundane and dreary routines of our own lives. 

But I don’t want to get into the whole FOMO-thing here. Someone, smarter than me, has already given a bunch of TED talks about it. 

So photographing yoga raises a number of issues. It’s the outward appearance of something that is, in fact, an inner experience and the outer shell of it is, in many ways, completely meaningless, like looking at an iPod and trying to appreciate the owners music taste, while the iPod is switched off! 

It’s cool, but offers nothing of itself. So as a photographer, I have to conceive of what I’m doing in a different way in order for it to have any meaning at all. 

There are two parts to my personal thought process around this. 

The first (and more esoteric) is that the act of watching and recording something, or someone, fundamentally changes the situation. I became very aware of this phenomenon as a very tall, outspoken Jewish white guy trying to be an ‘invisible observer’ in a Muslim protest march, a township taxi war, or in a black nurses strike. 

My very presence changed the behaviour of the people I was supposed to be documenting. 

It was personally devastating, because without the anonymity I felt I should have had, I was unable to make the kind of images my photojournalist heroes made. 

People reacted to me, or performed for the camera with the power of the media I represented, in mind. 

I was simply a tool of the agendas of whoever was either in front of the camera, or more frequently, the people who were paying for me to be there. That’s a pretty devastating place for a sensitive little flower like me to find himself, so I quit and had to re-frame what I do.

The second aspect of this is that I’m actually making something. 

The image I’ve capture at a two-hundred and fiftieth of a second is not, in fact, a ‘capture’ of something as much as it is something which didn’t exist before! 

It is a Thing!

To call a photograph a ‘capture,’ as some people on Instagram seem to do, irks me. 

It’s like calling an oak tree a snapshot of sunlight, while not acknowledging the tree for being a thing in, and of, itself! 

So with this in mind I always set out to ‘make things.’ 

A big part of that process is planning and previsualisation. 

Ansel Adams said he stopped being just a’photographer’ and started being a ‘artist’, when he returned, days later, from a mountain trip with his pack mule, massive cameras and attendant gear to print a photograph that he had preconceived before he left home. 

The Thing-ness of a negative, a glass plate or a print is easier to grasp than the Thing-ness of a digital image, but it is essentially the same if it has been ‘crafted’ by an artisan or artist.

I struggled with this idea for years because my images were never entirely as I had set out to make them. 

I thought there was something wrong with my work or worse something wrong with me! This is a very hard judgement to disassemble, and in many ways I’m still doing it.

On the other hand, there are artists like Gary Winogrand, who’s street photography was the essence of the random occurrence. But in the case of Winogrand or or any other artist who sets out to ‘capture’ the randomness of the world around us, it seems to be the conscious ‘looking for’ and ‘opening up’ to randomness that is the previsualisation part of the process.  herman de vries, for example, has worked very explicitly with this.

There’s a randomness that infuses everything that I do and I like to leave space for it. I loosely understand the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi to be this very idea. Allowing nature into the rigidity of one’s composition, or creation, in fact makes it better and deeper, rather than making it a failure. 

So I have to some extent found a comforting philosophical way out of that dilemma.

But back to the yoga photos that proliferate so many Instagram feeds around the world. How does someone (me) work with the bodies of dancers and yogis, in photographs, and on social media in a way that doesn’t simply advance the narcissism and shallowness of this bizarrely trivial period of human history? (Not doing backbends in doorways, in a bikini, in Zanzibar, India or Bali while on holiday is a good start!)

How can I a) make good art and b) speak to something deeper than creating even more gym-bunny-porn? 

(Don’t get me started on food-porn, that’s a whole other level of fucked up and is even more pervasive and tragic!)

Honestly, I don’t necessarily know that I can. But I can try. So here’s my approach, I try to work like a choreographer. I try to compose the compositions to express something more than just an interesting body shape, perhaps approaching something emotionally, but more often, my personal framework is more Jungian, so it has very subtle references to Archetypal and Mythological teaching stories. So I’m working is the same lineage as many of the great artists from the Renaissance on (I’m not claiming any status by this, just framing my work). Sometimes I discuss this with the subjects in my images and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I only see the connection in the editing process. I try to work with a strong ‘brief’ for myself. I hate going into a shoot without a clear plan. But I’m completely comfortable with deviating entirely from the plan I started out with. 

In fact, deviating from the plan is 100% necessary for any creativity to exist, because as William Kentridge apparently once said, ‘You start at A and head for B in any creative process, but B is a known point, so in order to create something new, you can’t actually just go to B. Somewhere, on the way to B, you find C. And C is a new place!’ That’s where the creativity and the planning and the study and the years of training meet and magically create Art. 

It is not to say it’s good art! 

That isn’t for the artist to decide. All the artist has to do is create and create and create. The final value judgement is not for the artist to make, just the constant self-reflection of the process that refines the work.

Remember that the yogis, models and characters in my images are people who have worked incredibly hard, or lived very specific lives, to achieve the things they can embody, and while this external shape may not reflect their inner experience, it can create an inner experience for the viewer and that is what I consider my craft to be all about. 

So, when you look at my work, you may just see yoga-porn, you may see a well-crafted image and you may feel the whole thing as something deeper, but while I want you to ‘get it’ I can’t really tell you what to ‘get’, or have any attachment to your opinion or judgement at all. 

In principle, while you’re viewing my work, I should be off creating something new, because that what I do. Or surfing, because thats what I do too.