Living Without Attachment

MANY REGARD LIVING WITHOUT ATTACHMENT AS A VIRTUE AND SOMETHING TO WHICH TO ASPIRE. But, in my experience no amount of striving, even for those who meditate, can bring you to this state. To strive for such a state is to be attached to it and so paradoxically the very thing sought carries within it a kernel which makes it an inevitable impossibility.

Just over a month ago I was living happily in Turkey. I loved both the people and the climate. Life revolved around domestic chores, servicing the needs of Irem my partner, and twelve year old daughter. Every day I would walk and make some photographs, cook lunch, write a little, wash-up and smile.

It’s now been a couple of years since the day when, whilst wiping up some dishes, I felt the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders and knew that, despite appearances, all is well and as it should be.

Attachment to Prematurely Editing Self-Talk
Simply Reinforces The Ego

With this realization came a detachment from the habitual self-talk in my head. I had listened to this intently in the past and let it create all kinds of emotions within. As a psychotherapist I come across articles by those who suggest we rewrite our self-talk – reframing these words to be more positive. It doesn’t really work because words aren’t the source of anxiety they are, rather, a consequence of it.

The words in my head didn’t stop with the cessation of anxiety. Now, however, I find I have the power to edit and rewrite them without adding a personal level of judgmental stress.

Happy in Hartland

Today celebrates my second week living in Hartland, Devon. I am still lodged in a B & B, but very comfortable here. I was roped into selling books in aid of The Small School, because my daughter is now a pupil. It was a wonderful morning in which I met all manner of sociable people living simple, ecologically-based lives. Certainly, there seemed no sign of the ambitious hurly-burly world of Istanbul where I was just two weeks ago.

I am amazed because the cold, some might say, inclement weather seems to warm my soul.

Abandoning A Mediterranean Beach

How can this be so? The recent past of swimming off a Mediterranean beach already seems a dream of yesterday. It’s fading, whilst life today is three dimensional. Were I attached to the past I would be enduring pain, rather than the bliss that comes from being open to possibility. Such openness is an unexpected quality of living without attachment.

Many in the Non-Dualist community claim we can do nothing to bring about such a way of being. Fundamentally, I agree, but since each of us is simply pure being experiencing a unique mysterious reality bubble in which we appear to be an individual who can make choices there’s no shame in going along with this game of life, provided we don’t get suckered into believing we’re really a person deciding anything.

Living The Dream

Think of a dream. In it you seem to make choices, even if the normal laws of physics no longer apply, or you have special powers such as the ability to fly. When you awaken, however, you tell yourself it was all a dream. Today I regard everyday reality as also a dream. For me life is like an infinite Russian doll in which being is layered upon being, a dream within a dream, within a dream.

So if you are riddled with attachment and negative self-talk, or believe that the world is a terrible place, why not pretend that you accept that what happens is what happens, eschew making up stories to explain events, and simply attend to what comes along.

Terry Cooper, a former director of Alpha House, the U.K’s first therapeutic community for those suffering addiction problems, once shared with me a metaphor that seems apposite. It dates from days when milk was delivered to people’s doorsteps in bottles.

Terry advised that when milk was delivered we should take it in and keep it fresh. We might put it on tea, or coffee. We could make porridge, or add it to corn-flakes. Later we might bake cakes, or even Yorkshire Pudding, or Welsh Rarebit. If any, then, is left we make a milky pudding. At the end of the day we wash the bottle and leave it on the step to await the morning and a new delivery.

We have choices about how we consume our milk, and even if we choose to wash out the bottle or return it unwashed to the door-step. But what happens at the dairy, or the farm, or in the families of milk or cowmen isn’t our concern, We cannot influence them, or even pretend to do so.

I think this a great metaphor for how to engage with life, even if milk-men now only exist in that dream we call the past.



Classic Chrome on Fujifilm X-Pro1 and X-E1

PEOPLE FREQUENTLY ASK WHY FUJIFILM NEVER OFFERED CLASSIC CHROME AS A RENDERING OPTION FOR THEIR X-PRO1 AND X-E1 CAMERAS. I confess that I’ve googled to see if this update is available on a few occasions.

It isn’t, or at least the availability is not obvious.

Classic Chrome didn’t appear as an in-camera option until the X-Trans II sensor appeared in later cameras. The lack of firmware upgrades for it on the for the X-Pro1 and XE-1 are thought to be connected with the way in which the newer sensor works.

But, both the X-Pro1 and X-E1 are boxed with a custom version of SilkyPix a RAW converter that is specially adapted for the Fujifilm X-Trans sensor. Kodachrome was included within the rendering options available even before the end of February 2015. I am currently using SilkyPix version The Kodachrome option is often overlooked because the .jpg files from all the X-Series cameras are so good many, especially professionals, avoid using RAW. RAW processing increases workflow time, and when you’re busy, rather than a hobbyist, time is money. Also the option is marked ‘K’, rather than Chrome.

If you really want a ‘chrome experience’ from your X-Pro1 or X-E1 processing a RAW file using SilkyPix is a fast and painless way of achieving one version of this classic look. Not everyone is happy with the result from the default SilkyPix K setting. You may want to play around with it.

The following image is a Standard (Provia) .jpg from my XE-1, and the images below it are variations processed using the different methods described in the texts below them.

Fujifilm X-E1 Provia

Fujifilm X-E1 Provia (Standard)

SilkyPix Kodachrome RAW Conversion

Kodachrome SilkyPix RAW Conversion

Kodachrome SilkyPix RAW Conversion

Three Versions of Kodachrome 64 from Alien Skin

The colors in the default image are quite nice, but they’re not anything like Kodachrome. This is emulated far better with SilkyPix. But, as an experiment I fired up Alien Skin Exposure. It offers many versions of the classic film. Using Alien Skin’s Exposure also defaults to adding film grain to your file, an in-camera feature only just released on the Fujifilm X-Pro2.

Vintage 1930s Kodachrome from Alien Skin

Vintage (1935 – 1964) Kodachrome from Alien Skin

I well remember this film from my childhood, and also Kodachrome II, which replaced it during the 1970s. Originally, the movie version of this film, this was balanced for artificial light and an amber filter was used to correct the color for daylight.

Kodachrome II, (1970s) by Alien Skin

Kodachrome II, (1962 – 1974) by Alien Skin

The final version of Kodachrome was popular with photographers, such as Steve McCurry, working for National Geographic. Here the film was at the top of its game. This is the version produced using Alien Skin Exposure.

Alien Skin Kodachrome

Alien Skin Kodachrome (1974 – 2010)

A Quick and Dirty in-camera Classic Chrome tweak

Alien Skin provides very nice renditions across a range of films, including the three versions of Kodachrome illustrated above. One advantage of using Alien Skin Exposure is that it can also add film grain to your files, adding realism to the film simulation. But, SilkyPix and Alien Skin can’t produce Classic Chrome in the camera. After some Googling I came across a report of someone achieving a very approximate workaround by using custom settings on their X-Pro1 and X-E1 cameras. To achieve the result below select Astia and toggle Color to -2 and Higlight and Shadow to +1. I’m unsure that the result looks like Kodachrome, but it is quite pleasing.

Simulated Classic Chrome on Fujifilm XE-1

Simulated Classic Chrome on Fujifilm XE-1

For those wishing for the more vintage look it’s possible to process the RAW file in the camera. To get this antiqued effect make your RAW conversion settings: Film S Astia, Color -2, Highlights +1, Shadows +1, WB Shift + 2 Red -1 Blue. This takes just a few seconds 🙂

In camera chrome tweaked in RAW conversion

My in camera chrome plus adjusted WB in RAW conversion

Processing RAW images in your camera is both quick and simple. The only problem with the method is that you cannot see the result until after you press the button. You may not be able to achieve the exact look of Classic Chrome boxed with the X-Pro2, X-E2s or X 100T, but if you own the X-Pro 1, or X-E1, you don’t need to throw your camera away because it lacks Classic Chrome in the menu. Just experiment with SilkyPix or in Camera conversions until you achieve an effect that suits your style of photography.


In Praise of The Expo Disc

FOR SOME YEARS I’VE BEEN WRITING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY AND AWARENESS. I even discuss how, in post-processing, I attempt to restore to images the colours as I saw them and why they moved me.

I discuss the defining moment, when an experience registers in consciousness before we describe it in dualistic terms, such as colour, tonality, pallet, exposure and other words.

For me, photography explores experience – mine – and attempts to communicate it. I discourage people from making value judgements, about their own work, and that of others.

Some years back I purchased what I thought an expensive gadget called the Expo Disc. I don’t remember just how much I paid but I thought I had lost my marbles!

I tried it out immediately, and was amazed by the realistic results, even with my compact, and this was perhaps ten years ago.

Then, because it was so expensive I kept it in its case, couldn’t be bothered to attach it to my belt, and my expensive toy rarely got used.

Yes, from time to time, I got it out. Attached it with a lanyard around my neck, but still it seemed more of a nuisance than an asset. Meanwhile, I was shifting the white balance in my camera to the manufacturer’s settings for sunny, cloudy, shade etc.

I even got egocentric at one time declaring that as I shoot RAW anyway I always tweak the WB in post-production.

I also use a range of legacy lenses and digital filters to tweak colours and create period styles.

Deep down, however, I like my images to have the colours that inspired me. The Expo Disc achieves this painlessly, but you have to be prepared to discard the protective case and just put the thing in your pocket.

Do this and you’ll reap a return in investment in spades. The colours are perfect. They recreate the magical experience of seeing 🙂


Why Photography and Awareness?

Animated gif of a rock pool at Hartland Quay

Rocks at Hartland Quay, Devon 2015

WORDS . . . TRICKY BLIGHTERS, because they are rooted in dualism. That’s why some like to make photographic images. No duplicitous words there.

Take the idea of ‘The Decisive Moment’. It was popularized by Henri Cartier-Bresson as a way of describing a split second when an apparent outer event coincides with an equally fictitious inner psychology. But don’t you sometimes need more than a split second to fully become aware of your, repetitive, free flowing, original nature?

It’s all appearance and fiction because it’s not two becoming one but, rather, multidimensional awareness overlapping and interconnecting. For many, however, their fate is to experience nightmares in which their worlds, and they, are experienced as separated.

Consciousness plays such roles usually without revealing your real identity, but sometimes, as part of the show, you may find yourself knowing what you really are.

Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len, for example. He admits to curing an entire ward of the criminally insane without visiting with any one of them. Instead he read their files and worked upon himself using ho ‘oponopono a traditional Hawaiian healing practice. This powerful technique demands that we take responsibility for whatever appears within our experience in the knowledge that it really dwells within us, clouding the clear plane of awareness.

Language separates because sentences are split syntactically into subjects and objects. The thing to remember, however, is that despite this apparent dualism, every sentence carries a complete meaning. It is this not simply the specific meaning of a sentence that is conveyed, but also the implication that communication reaches out.

Photography, too, has always been a medium of communication. But in the wonder of conscious-awareness, who or what is specifically communicating with whom?

Michael Eldridge, my friend and teacher, writes: ‘And so,’Photography and Awareness’, although the other way around would make more sense because with a developed and acute awareness, photography just follows like a happy and obedient puppy.’ I like this metaphor.

Cartier-Bresson put what Michael alludes to in this exchange:

‘Why did you press the button at that precise moment?’ asked the painter, (66 year old Paul Bonnard).

Cartier-Bresson turned towards one of the unfinished canvases leaning against the wall, and pointed in detail: ‘Why did you put a little touch of yellow here?’

Michael goes on: ‘. . . I would prefer the word ‘Absorption’ to ‘Awareness’ but it would sound silly as a title, so we’ll let it stand.

‘You see, when we are in a state of absorption, the awarer (sic) is not there as a separate entity and there is no duality.’

Here I take issue, although it’s probably just words being deceiving. This state of ‘absorption’ to which Michael refers, is misleading. Nothing, and on-one, gets absorbed into anything else, because they are both properties of the great illusion. No matter how much you may hypothesize on the nature of living the only thing that ever resists dissection is the fact that you experience and that you are aware of doing so. From where you, apparently, are everything you experience occurs upon a screen of awareness with which you originally, and correctly, identified .

Nathan Gill wrote in 2000: ‘If all there is is Consciousness, if there is only Consciousness, then why or for what are you still seeking? If there is only Consciousness then right now you must be that and everything else that appears in and as awareness must also be that, including your sense of separate self if that is how you appear now. Any personal sense of I or ‘doership’ or ego must be Consciousness. What else could it be?’

Michael continues:
‘And we all experience this state when deeply into a book or film, or fishing or playing chess whatever. And of course children spend most of their waking hours in this wondrous state until adults begin to interfere. And the deepest state of absorption is when we are in the act of creating, whether a painting, a poem, a garden etc. In short, simply doing the things we love, if we haven’t forgotten what these are.’

I love this idea but feel impelled to clarify something. Awareness implies a grasping of life’s immediacy. There is a possibility, for most largely misconceived, of taking responsibility. Absorption, on the other hand, suggests something less concrete. Something dreamlike perhaps?, to be possessed, not quite all there, spaced out.

It’s not forgetting what creative things we used to enjoy that causes our problems, but rather having forgotten what we are.

Jean Bolen, a Jungian Analyst, once explained to me that when this happens archetypes may consume us. We then become insensitive to those with whom we live or work. A variety of symptoms may break out, as a result, ranging from a chaotic lifestyle with its missed appointments and inability to stay with planned agreements, to plain old fashioned narcissism and insensitivity.

American psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson was once consulted by a painter who suffered with a creativity block. Erickson gave the man a post-hypnotic suggestion that the next time he attempted to paint he would go into a deep trance and complete the painting with no memory of the event.

In due course the man set up a canvas, and before starting took a bite from a cheese sandwich he had prepared for his refreshment. When he took the second bite he found that the bread was dry, which puzzled him. Upon looking up he was amazed to find that his room was quite dark and before him was a fully painted canvas. A whole day had passed.

Many of us would like to enjoy such ability when completing tax returns, or cleaning the lavatory basin, but we must ask ourselves what role awareness plays in this story.

The question also relates to how art is regarded.

Dutch-born painter Willem de Kooning first began to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in the 1980s. He began working far faster than ever before, producing more than 300 paintings before he died. These lacked the density and layered complexity that had put de Kooning at the forefront of Abstract Expressionism. Where before he took eighteen months, or so, to complete a work, often painting and repainting layer upon layer on the canvas, his work was now ‘complete’ when ‘assistants’ were ‘satisfied’ by it.

This is one of the dangers of focusing upon ‘absorption’ as a destination. Within the dreamlike matrix projecting what we call ‘reality’ awareness tends to conjure up what incomplete aspect of the idealized image it has of itself that it focuses upon.

Sometimes, words matter after all.

Cartier-Bresson said many wise things. Here are three of them: ‘You just have to live and life will give you pictures. . . . We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole. . . . While we’re working, we must be conscious of what we’re doing.’


Adams & Eggleston

WHEN YOU’RE IDENTIFIED WITH BEING A PHOTOGRAPHER YOU CAN’T STOP YOURSELF FROM MAKING PICTURES. Painters are like this with oils and canvas. Even without a camera in your hands you will be making mental images that record snapshots of another world.

This world forms a synthesis of what appears to be ‘out there’, waiting to be photographed, and ‘in your head and heart’ comprised of intuition, movement and emotions. In fact there is solely one world for you, which you assemble as a result of stories you have learned, or created, and the pleasures and pains you seem to have experienced. All this occurs through and within Consciousness, however, because of conditioning most personalize Consciousness and associate it within an egoistic concept of themselves. They claim ownership of Consciousness when referring to their Personal Awareness. I attempted to explain this theory briefly, and more poetically, here in 2001.

If you ask William Eggleston why he makes photographs you get a straight, honest, answer. He says: ‘I like to do it.’ Isn’t that enough?

Alec Soth - image Jolson CC 3.0

Alec Soth – image Jolson CC 3.0

Another photographer, Alec Soth once said that there are now too many Egglestons in the world, or words to that effect. I take this to mean that there are today many people photographing mundane subjects and assembling them as collections in photo-books. This begs a question, however, are the photographs any good?

An image isn’t good, or bad, in comparison to any of William Eggleston’s photographs. Each of his images stands, or falls, on its own merit. The same applies to any image you happen to make. Some, when experiencing an image through the filters of their ‘personal awareness’, which is just code for conditioned prejudices, will not be able to see any merit in your work. An iconic landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, was critical of Eggleston’s work when it was first displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, (MOMA). He dismissed it, but back then in 1976 Adams had the attention of politicians, such as Richard Nixon who, like advertising agencies, were keen to sell us the iconic idea of Americans as plainsmen. Beat photographers thought differently, especially following the publication of Larry Clark’s disturbing work Tulsa in 1971.

I think there are, today, too many Ansel Adamses in the world, and too few Egglestons. Flickr, Picassa, and Facebook are crammed with dreamy images of blurred waterfalls and saturated meadows. Meanwhile, the world is drowning in beautiful, if deadly, human-made detritus. It is true that Ansel Adams was moved by the majesty of the American landscape, especially the Yosemites. He experienced the high peaks, tones, and the struggle to achieve perfection in a print as if a great musical work, which is not a bad way. His problem, however, is that even if he heard notes, or saw a potential score in the ordinary when he photographed it few were interested.

Baton Practice Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943 - Ansel Adams

Baton Practice Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943 – Ansel Adams

William Eggleston, seems to live in a unique, other worldly, place where he has remained oblivious to praise and criticism alike. It helps to have been born into a wealthy family, of course. within his images everything is beautiful, even objects most find ugly. He’s on some trip!

Adrian Searle, wrote in The Guardian:

“The pleasure of an Adams photograph lies in the quality he brings to, and draws out of, the rocks and ponds, the trees and falls. . . . Adams’s America presents itself as ancient and apparently uninhabited. Eggleston’s America is trashy and shrill, messed-up, beat-up, littered with man-made detritus. Adams and Eggleston do, however, make an oddly apposite pairing, harsh though the contrasts and contradictions are.”

Shell Oil Field, Pacific Coast, 1945 - Ansel Adams courtesy of Fortune

Shell Oil Field, Pacific Coast, 1945 – Ansel Adams courtesy of Fortune

Once, following an encounter group in the 1970s, someone spiked the last cup of tea with LSD. I have long since abandoned the idea that what I experienced, during my journey home and the few days following, were the result of gestalt therapy. I am grateful to whoever it was because, for a while, I was able to fully identify with the world as it surrendered to me. Flowers would beckon from the hedgerows and seem to kiss my soul. There was no space/time between us.

I feel, somewhat this way when I see a photograph, indeed I feel I may claim no authorship, save the moral right to copyright images under the Berne Convention, for pecuniary reasons. I do not make them, any more than they make me. They simply happen. I think it must be the same for William Eggleston.

Water Tanks, Ataköy 2015 - image Stephen Bray

Water Tanks, Ataköy 2015 – image Stephen Bray

Where Ansel Adams required a mule, packed with large format cameras, plates and lenses, with which to set out like some archetypal prospector into the mountains mining for images in idyllic landscapes; Eggleston simply walks out of his front door, or takes a car ride with his son. He is not recording landscapes but, instead, experiences. Nothing is contrived, although his images are carefully framed in order to convey the psychological flavor of his experience.

It may appear that I’m suggesting that William Eggleston is a better photographer than Ansel Adams. Let’s be clear, I’m not. They are different; they come from different times. Ansel Adams was part of America’s ‘f64 group’ and lecturing in photography when Eggleston was hanging out with Andy Warhol at ‘The Factory’.

Ulli Lommel and Andy Warhol on the set of Cocaine Cowboys, 1979. Warhol is playing himself CC 3.0

Ulli Lommel and Andy Warhol on the set of Cocaine Cowboys, 1979. Warhol is playing himself CC 3.0

Warhol was also, among other talents, a photographer. He made colorful artwork inspired by commercial, everyday, packaging, and the iconography of stardom. Eggleston’s work isn’t derivative of that of Warhol in any way, but just maybe the time spent at The Factory spurred Eggleston to using the commercial dye-transfer process as the medium for his color photography.

There is a generation gap, between Adams and Eggleston, that is perhaps wider than the split between film vs digital. Eggleston reflects his conservative upbringing in his attire, but little else is conventional about him. Adams, on the other hand, looked far more like one of today’s people, dressed as he did in denim and cowboy shirts, but if he ever were a rebel it was in a different time. As Eggleston says:

“None of us was interested in, back then, what was considered art photography, which was very large large-negative landscapes like Ansel Adams.”

The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942 by Ansel Adams

The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942 by Ansel Adams

To photograph, and print, like Ansel Adams, requires great patience and skill, but I suspect there is a formula to it. Eggleston, on the other hand, is more spontaneous; almost like street photography but, when you really look, even his pictures taken on the street are more like landscapes than street photography as most know it.

Now go out and do your own thing!

Stephen Bray, 2014

Stephen Bray, 2014


Photography, Awareness, and Digital Media



Workshop poster by Colin Tracy

To be frank, though, I doubt our work has mass appeal. Digital people tend to find themselves hypnotized by the Apps on their phones, and being being available with a service, or ‘selfie’, whenever their boss calls. There is an audience, for our workshop, of course. It’s made up of those who like to slow down and enjoy each moment of living.

In galleries people come with time to look, see, explore and comment. Sometimes they are moved by what they encounter.

Playful comments, especially in visitors’ books, are the ones I enjoy most, because they reveal that people really have been touched by the work. Polite comments tend to be well meant but point to someone’s social conditioning. All are welcome.

Thinking about awareness led me to consider the nature of photography as a medium, particularly in this age where digital manipulation easily makes images share many of the attributes of painting. There is a cross-over with digital art.

Image © Stephen Bray

Digitally Enhanced Bonfire

I posted an image about this on Facebook a day, or so ago. I titled it ‘Digitally Enhanced Bonfire’.

Today’s work is more solemn. It’s not about changing light, but changing attention. Please watch and let me know what you make of it.


Digital Cyanotype

I was out in Marmaris with my favorite 40mm equivalent lens, the 27mm Fujinon that I use on the aging and wonderful XE-1.

The lens is perfect for working on the street because it’s compact. It also helps that I have a stepping-ring and set of N.D. filters that I can use with it when the sun gets bright.

Suddenly, out at sea this configuration of yachts against a wonderful sky invited me to make an image. The trouble was the image was just a tiny speck in the frame. I would never have considered cropping so dramatically were it not for the Internet. The images posted here are so reduced in size that cropping from a good sensor doesn’t make such a difference.

Cropped .JPG from camera

Cropped .JPG from camera

Besides, my first digital camera, which I still own, has only 2.3 megapixels and I found ways to make good prints from those files, way back in the last century, when  I first acquired it.

With the crop in mind I framed and recorded the image. The result looked rather like a Cyanotype. It pretty accurately resembled what I saw. More colors and subtleties were to be found in the image recorded by my mind’s eye, so I went into Photoshop and so made some basic corrections.

Basic colour correction

Basic colour correction

I love the result.

At this stage the image intrigued, and engaged me. I found myself creating a monochrome conversion. To make this work it was necessary to change the contrast using a curves adjustment.

Mono conversion with curves ajustment

Mono conversion with curves adjustment

I still prefer the corrected colour version, because it looks more natural but the tones in the monochrome version are both subtle, and dramatic. They are the kind of thing that may work in a book illustration.

It then occurred to me then that perhaps I might go full-circle and create a simulated Cyanotype based upon the monochrome file. This didn’t really work until I added a second colour and brushed border.

Digital Cyanotype, (split tone with brushed edges).

Digital Cyanotype, (split tone with brushed edges)


Non-duality and Suicide

When Richard Sylvester asserts as the title of a book he wrote ‘I hope You Die Soon’ he is not exhorting you to commit suicide. The ‘You’ he hopes will die soon is the small ‘you’, your ego seemingly bounded in space and time. It is born and dies, believes a story about itself including, for most, a specific gender.

Others, of course, hold different opinions about little ‘you’, based upon the opinions formed as a result their own egos.

When the certainty of your ego falls away you are left with a sense of unbounded knowing and not-knowing apparently occurring locally, surrendering itself in the people and objects that seem to manifest before you.

Richard puts it thus:

“When the sensation that I am in control of my life and must make it happen ends, then life is simply lived and relaxation takes place. There is a sense of ease with whatever is the case and an end to grasping for what might be.”

Few of us appearing as within our materialistic world think much about such a death; two hundred years ago each of us would have known siblings, if not a parent, who had physically died when we were children. Death was much more commonplace back then.

Today, dwelling upon death – particularly suicide seems the province of the insane, yet it’s simply the opposite side of what we call life. An analogy is to think of the moon. Most of us only get to see the hemisphere that faces us, yet we intuit it has another side even if we think little of it. I doubt if any of us seriously think that we live there, even in our imagination.

For some the prospect of death holds out the promise of release from the pressures of contemporary life. It may also be an escape from pain and, in the context of suicide, an ultimate act of self determination.

A number of noteworthy people have chosen to take their own lives, and arguably were of sound mind when they did so.

Donald Vaughan Sinclair (1911 – 1995), the model for Sigfreid Farnon in the books written under the pen-name James Herriott by James Alfred “Alf” Wight, OBE, FRCVS (3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), ended his life by taking an overdose of barbiturates. His wife had died just two weeks earlier and his friend and partner Alfred Wright just a few weeks prior to her death. His brother, Wallace Brian Vaughan Sinclair (27 September 1915 – 13 December 1988), the model for Tristan Farnon in the Herriot books predeceasing him by a few years.

Arthur Koestler, CBE (1905 – 1983), a Hungarian-British author and journalist. Koestler was an energetic intellectual, a talented writer, and above all a survivor. His works include: ‘The Sleepwalkers’, (1959) in which he argued that modern science is trying too hard to be rational, and that faith and reason may co-exist; ‘The Act of Creation’, (1964) a book about processes of discovery, invention, imagination and creativity in humour, science, and the arts; and my particular favourite: ‘The Ghost in the Machine, (1967) an early treatise on System Theory as related to neurology.

Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937 – 2005), the American journalist and author, died at Owl Farm, his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado, at 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Nathan Gill (1960 – 2014) was one of the pioneers in a western movement that has come to be known as Neo-Advaida. He wrote a series of books on the nature of consciousness whilst continuing to work as a gardener. These gentle books still mischievously play in a reader’s topiary of awareness. They are titled: Clarity, Already Awake, and Being: The Bottom Line.

He claimed: ‘As Consciousness You are already awake and aware. . . . ; it’s simply that this is veiled by appearances, the story of ‘me’ as an individual.’

Not all suicides may be justified as a kind of sanity.

Robin Williams (1951 – 2014), the actor, had been suffering from severe depression, as well as dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Terence Donovan (1936 – 1996), a photographer was referred to with Duffy and Bailey, nicknamed by another photographer Norman Parkinson, in the Sunday Times, as one of the ‘Black Trinity’, of innovative, if irreverent London photographers from the 1960s. Donovan was a black belt in judo and co-wrote a popular judo book, Fighting Judo, with former World Judo Gold medallist Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki. He was also a Buddhist. He took his own life in a state of depression; some say as the result of the side-effects of the powerful medication he was taking to combat a skin condition.

How do we separate sane from unsound suicide, especially in the context of non-duality?

When I was seventeen I was recruited into the Mental Health Department of the County in which I was raised.

County Hall, Dorchester

County Hall, Dorchester

As a Welfare Assistant I rapidly learned of the ways in which people suffer, both in youth and old age. To help me assist them it was arranged that I would attend some third year lectures in psychiatry offered to student nurses at the local psychiatric hospital, which in the days before ‘Care in the Community’ was the home of around six hundred souls, many of whom had lived most of their lives there.

These talks were both informative and unnerving. At the conclusion to each of them I became convinced that I suffered with Schizophrenia, Manic Depressive Psychosis, Psychopathy, or whatever the day’s topic under discussion.

Like many before me, I came to the conclusion that my symptoms came within a ‘normal’ scale of disturbance, whilst those of patients suffering mental illness were simply ‘special cases’ that occurred under specific physical, (including biological predisposition), and social conditions.

One specific condition we studied is known as disassociation, describes a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience. Sometimes disassociation can include: a sense that self or the world is unreal (depersonalization and derealization); a loss of memory (amnesia); forgetting identity or assuming a new self (fugue); and fragmentation of identity or self into separate streams of consciousness.

Disassociation is quite different from the experience of those living through the lens of non-duality, or rather the lack of any lens at all. For the non-dualist the world is not only real, but imbued with a sacred intensity. The body and the mind are no less part of this munificence; it’s simply that we don’t accord them importance above any other feature of consciousness.

Examples of work made by patients in the Art Therapy Department were shown to me, at the hospital. Many seemed remarkably well executed, and although sometimes bizarre and disturbing, most seemed in sympathy with the prevailing art of the day that command today astronomical prices.

We must be cautious when examining the lives of artists. The really good ones reveal to us the deeper facets of what it means to live with intensity. However, the likes of Van Gough, Gauguin, or even Rothko, amongst us must be seen to manage the daily aspects of living, lest they be thought crazy and incarcerated for ‘treatment’.

I survived for less than two years as a Welfare Assistant without getting myself hospitalized. Late in my second year of employment I was promoted to being a Mental Welfare Officer, with statutory powers at my disposal to compulsorily admit people to psychiatric hospitals in specific circumstances. These are laid out in The Mental Health Act of 1959.

According to this Act:

An application for admission for observation may be made in respect of a patient on the grounds:

  • (a) that he is suffering from mental disorder of a nature or degree which warrants the detention of the patient in a hospital under observation (with or without other medical treatment) for at least a limited period ; and
  • (b) that he ought to be so detained in the interests of his own health or safety or with a view to the protection of other persons.

In addition to ensuring a patient, thus committed, got safely to the hospital it was the function of Mental Welfare Officers to represent a lay-person’s opinion, so no one got admitted to mental hospital simply because medical practitioners claimed they were mentally ill.

Although we were chosen to be the eyes, ears, and voice of reason in the face of technical psychobabble, I remain unsure to what degree any of felt free to keep sane individuals who were determined to kill themselves for good reason from preservation in hospital. We certainly had no influence once people became patients following admission. They were often subjected to Electro-convulsive Therapy, which marred their intellectual capacity.

The sections of the 1959 Mental Health Act that refer to compulsory hospital admission and treatment are superseded by a new Act in 1983. Amendments in 2007 broadened the range of professionals who may apply for such admissions, once they had received suitable training.

It’s been years since, as a professional, I thought about suicide. I stopped practicing psychotherapy in 2006, and speaking personally the most overcast days always seemed preferable to self-imposed oblivion. Too much radiant joy, seemingly within, resonates with dramatic sombre, brooding clouds in the skies above. I attempted to capture something of their quality in the Trees and Sky Exhibition back in 2010, and continue to be excited by dark weather because it seems pregnant with unpredictable possibility.

Suicide and Non-duality?

Rupert Spira, who is also a teacher in non-duality, once wrote a sensitive response to someone who was disturbed by the suicide of Nathan Gill. In it he explains that, “from a materialistic point of view, the body gives rise to the mind and the mind gives rise to consciousness.” In this model killing the body does away with the mind and so that is the end of suffering.

There are problems with this conclusion, however, even though it’s the way most think in western society. Difficulties arise because research into dying reveals a number of anomalies. People report being visited by dead relatives, and even angels, prior to death. Extant relatives report intuitions at the time close relatives die, even when these occur on other sides of the globe. Sometimes the dead appear in the dreams, as in the case of the man who drowned and appeared in his mother’s dream dripping wet, whilst assuring her that he was not suffering. These are not simply old wives tales, or fallacies, they are collaborated by contemporary research carried out by Dr. Robert Fenwick, a British neuroscientist with impeccable credentials.

Rupert Spira, in his response, goes on to explain: ‘from a spiritual point of view the body is an appearance in the mind, and the mind is made of pure Consciousness. Therefore, from this point of view, the death of the body is simply a cessation of an appearance in the mind; it is not the end of the mind itself.’

It follows from what Spira writes that in such a model suffering may continue after the death of a body, and that a mind may create a new body, within a new world, in which pain may continue.

The problem with Rupert Spira’s answer, even if well intentioned, is that it, ultimately, is rooted in duality. Body and mind are seen as separate, much in the same way that a single cell forms part of the make-up the body of a larger organism, rather than also being seen as an essence which also contains the organism.

To truly unify the life and death dichotomy we need to experience something like the Auguries of Innocence described poetically by William Blake.

‘To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.’

It’s difficult to describe such an experience in a scientific way, but we can say that Newton’s Laws of Motion are accurate within certain contexts, and may be regarded as examples of predictable results anticipated by of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity under specific conditions. Within Einsten’s Special Theory of Relativity, however, Space-Time is a unified concept, although, when described in Newton’s Law of Motion it appears as if Space and Time are discrete, separate, phenomena.

I think we may also claim that bodies, and the worlds they inhabit, may be considered as specific examples of mind precipitated into an apparent local awareness, with its concomitant objects, as a result of a self-reflexive process. The objects that we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, and which are seen to travel through and decay in time, are no more than specific examples of life’s possibilities.

To claim, for them, substance greater than what remains unmanifested in our perception of space-time, is a misunderstanding. Whatever is missing from the manifestation before you is simply the other side of the moon; the limitless sacrificing to awareness a background, so that what appears seems like a universe composed of separate objects, including thoughts, and other bifurcations.

In other words, unmanifest is there simultaneously with the possibility that becomes an object as a perception within Mind. Without unmanifest there is no manifest. All, ultimately, are limitless, timeless, boundlessness.

The apparent you, living within your world as a personal entity is a shadow without substance; your movement, including thoughts and feelings, are specific instances of timeless, limitless, boundlessness, expression.

Does this mean, then, that all instances of suicide are both unavoidable and acceptable?

In my view the answer to this is an emphatic ‘no’! Whilst each of us expresses the timeless, limitless, boundlessness, in specific ways – a common way is to understand ourselves as separate from that clarity which perceives and knows our true identity.

Ralph Steadman, a long, close, friend of Hunter S. Thompson sums up the quality of his expression:

“… He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don’t know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable. I think that the truth of what rings through all his writing is that he meant what he said. If that is entertainment to you, well, that’s OK. If you think that it enlightened you, well, that’s even better. If you wonder if he’s gone to Heaven or Hell, rest assured he will check out them both, find out which one Richard Milhous Nixon went to — and go there. He could never stand being bored. But there must be Football too — and Peacocks …”

Thompson lived his life on the edge of death and, in doing so, probably experienced and knew more of what it means to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ than most. He experimented with drugs, and alcohol. Ultimately, he experimented with death as if it were the next logical step in the story of his life.

Steadman, and Thompson had designed the cannon that would shoot his ashes into the heavens at Woody Creek some time before his suicide. He once remarked: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

Hari Kunzru wrote, of Thompson whilst reviewing his novel ‘The Rum Diary’, that, “the true voice of Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist … one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”

He died as he lived, a martyr to his cause.

George Mikes, in ‘Arthur Koestler: The Story of a Friendship’, wrote that Koestler more than once said ‘that he was not afraid of being dead but was afraid of the process of dying. He did not wish to suffer the indignity of losing control over his body or mind. His suicide was not unexpected among close friends.’ Shortly before his suicide, his doctor had discovered a swelling in the groin which indicated a metastasis of the cancer.

It seems, then, that Koestler chose to manage the form of the death of his physical body, and that somehow he had premonitions that he may have to face such a decision.

Koestler was someone of considerable intellectual prowess, who possessed considerable survival skill. He recognised, in his concept of ‘a holon’, what Blake had articulated in the Auguries of Innocence. No doubt he experienced his death as an expression of the survival of something essential to what had been his life.

Donald Vaughan Sinclair spent his life relieving animals of their suffering, either by helping them to heal or, where this became impossible, by killing them with an overdose of anaesthetic.

It was by this method that he chose to end his own life when those closest to him had all ceased to live. No doubt, he felt that it had been a good party but with the departure of the last guest it had come to an end.

All three of these men chose to die in the spirit that they had lived.

The same conclusion must be made for Nathan Gill, who saw clearly that his true identity was timeless, limitless, and boundless. As his body fell away he cooperated with the process drawing what had been his earthly identity back into the light of consciousness from which it had emerged.

Depression is a completely different way of being than that experienced by those preparing for sane suicide. It can only exist when experiencing separation, and in which both the world and the body are felt as unbearable burdens. Suicide, in this context, is never the end of the party or a celebration of life, but an attempt to escape living and, as Rupert Spira intuits, must ultimately be doomed to failure.

Psychosis also has its roots in separation. Those suffering delusions, and hallucinations, by definition feel themselves to be separated from any sense of completeness. They believe themselves to be ‘evil’, or ‘sent by a divinity’. Some hear disembodied feelings, or experience unexplained bodily sensations.

Depression and psychosis are expressions of timeless, limitless, boundlessness, but they do not occur in isolation from those witnessing them. They arise in the lives of therapists, welfare officers, nurses, and others, as well as those suffering directly. Working with such symptoms gives many a raison d’être, and may ultimately liberate therapist and patient alike.

In memory of Nathan Gill


Tony Parsons, Neo-Advaita, and Non-Duality

It’s years since I last saw Tony Parsons. He was about to board a flight to Amsterdam with his wife Claire. I hadn’t noticed him in the throngs of people. With a broad smile, he suddenly seemed to manifest directly in front of me from the back of a stranger exclaiming: ‘Hey, I know you!’

Indeed he did, years before, I was thinking of purchasing a publication called ‘The South West Connection’. It was a guide to alternative therapies published quarterly, not unlike ‘Cahoots’ a magazine created by a co-operative in Manchester, and to which I had been part of the editorial team.

Of course, this wasn’t entirely what he meant.

At the time I was without funds, but Tony had the necessary finances to make the purchase. Even though he had no experience in publishing he, and Claire, had settled on a deal with the owner and they invited me up a cottage they rented in the south of Wiltshire. We exchanged stories, and other information. I gave him some advice about publishing, although I’m unsure to what extent he took any of it. Soon we seemed firm friends.

As time passed, Tony and Claire moved to a smaller property in North Dorset. As someone pretty much rooted in a materialistic world-view I thought this a step backward, even though Tony and Claire had purchased the new cottage. The day they moved in their nearest neighbour brought them a bottle Premier Cru as a housewarming gift. Tony told me, with a twinkle in his eye: ‘He told me to open the bottle and let it breathe for a while before consuming it – as if we might be peasants and know nothing of wine’.

It was at that moment that I realized that, like his condescending neighbour, I really knew very little about Tony at all. He had apparently been a builder, but that could mean anything from a property developer to a plumber. Apparently he had done time in Poona in the orange fatigues of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, but that too wasn’t unusual for people showing up around me back then. I was practicing as a psychotherapist and many members of extant, or past, sects seemed to come through my door seeking ways out of, what seemed to me like, self-imposed misery.

Tony told me that the Bhagwan was a great guy, intelligent, but nothing more. Like so many of his words this sentence has come to have different meanings with the passage of time.

In the autumn, hay was harvested in the field beyond Tony and Claire’s garden wall. Tony seemed to relish in describing the round bales, which a machine had wrapped in black polythene, as ‘huge black condoms’. I loved the way he could be so irreverent about everything.

Huge Black Condoms

Huge Black Condoms – image Jeremy Atkinson

I continued to advertise my practice in ‘The South West Connection’, which after a while was expanded into another version for the south East of England and the Home Counties. This was the ‘The South East Connection’, and together both were referred to as simply ‘The Connections’.

Usually, I delivered my advertisement in person to Tony and Claire’s home. It was not simply an excuse to see them, Claire would sort out all the dyslexic mistakes in my copy.

After a while it became clear that Tony was absent more times when I called than previously. I asked Claire about this and she told me that he was ‘playing golf’. Tony played a lot of golf that year.

I missed him, but more than that I fretted because I felt he knew something that I had yet to learn and hoped that a book he was supposed to be working on would reveal it to me.
One day I called, because I was in the vicinity, and Tony and Claire were both at home. The ambiance was energetically relaxed, as it can be on the start of a journey when the suitcases are packed yet there are several minutes in hand before the boat departs. Cake and tea were available in abundance and Tony happily informed me that he had abandoned ‘the book’.

Life, for me, had not been going as I had expected. After some glorious years playing impecuniously I was now more than stony broke and in danger of going to the dogs. I discovered that I might earn some much-needed cash by working for a London agency as social-worker. The prospect didn’t appeal to me, because I had just spent several years attempting to leave the social work profession and in the process had forfeited some pension rights, and other security. To return to such work seemed like a step backward.

The_Open_secret_When I told Tony about this he responded enthusiastically ‘That’s all right’, disappeared upstairs and upon coming down presented me with a copy of his book ‘The Open Secret’.

It was a thin self-published edition, nevertheless I held it preciously, and indeed I could hardly wait to get away so that I could read it. When I did so it was neither what I expected, nor what I thought I needed, yet something within its covers, together with Tony’s optimistic words about working in London, provided me with reassurance.

London proved to be a great adventure. While I was working there Tony and Claire moved to Cornwall, and although they continued to produce The Connections I no longer saw them.

I spent half of the week in London and the remainder of my time in Dorset attending to my practice, recovered from my debts. After some relationships with extraordinary women I was discovered in a lecture theatre at The Institute of Psychiatry by the psychologist whom I was to marry.

One day, whilst my wife was visiting her parents abroad, I went to one of Tony’s presentations at The Friend’s Meeting House in Hampstead, which wasn’t far from where I was based.

He met me warmly at the door and kissed me gently upon the cheek. He did this with everyone back then. The room was packed. At the start of the meeting he announced, to my delight, ‘I am known as Tony Parsons and I am not enlightened’. The room filled with laughter, mine included.

Tony had come up from Cornwall. He insisted, however that he was ‘not a person’ and ‘Tony Parsons did not exist’. Everything within the room was a magnificent, ‘hypnotic dream’, he claimed.


You came here on a train . . . ?

When a woman challenged him about this, asserting: ‘Come now Tony, you came here today on a train’, he retorted, ‘Did I? I did not’.

There were mixed reactions to this, even though the room was silent. I understood something of what Tony claimed because since working in London I had spent considerable time travelling in trains. Frequently, whilst waiting in a carriage, an adjacent train would begin to move – yet in my perception, including my feelings, it would be my carriage that seemed to move. Suddenly the illusion would collapse, and it became obvious that I was sitting still and the movement seemingly external.

Later, when I began commuting between London and Istanbul, something similar occurred for me in the sky. Even in turbulence, it seemed as if I were sitting completely still as both land and clouds ambled slowly by.

At such moments it was impossible to limit myself to a specific identity, with a name, destination and personal history. This huge magnificent world simply surrendered itself within the infinite vastness without personality that absorbed any sense of a separate me.

So Tony had been right when he told me a few years before that going to work in London would be all right. My experience reminded me of the Zen parable about the farmer whose son was conscripted into the military.

This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbours came to condole over his loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?”

A month later, the horse came home–this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbours became excited at the farmer’s good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?”

The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbours were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad?”

A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbours congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” said the farmer.

It is one thing, however, to read such a story, and quite another to live out of unbounded possibility. You cannot simply as an act of faith, indeed to do so, whilst living out of a relative perspective is foolhardy because, it seems to lead to unnecessary suffering.

This reminds me, somewhat, of the woman from a sect who went to a Neuro-linguistic Programming, (NLP) workshop. In an exercise she attempted to program lots of illness and other disasters into her life because she believed that if she could go through all this suffering in one lifetime, then she would not need to be reincarnated in the future.

Tony, of course,tolerates nothing of the relative in his meetings, (although I have only ever attended the one). His words are like an eraser that removes the dichotomies of, both written and spoken, language through which we are wont to filter Beingness.

Critics pillory him for this, claiming his message to be nihilistic. From my reading of Tony, however, what he claims isn’t that life is, or isn’t, without meaning, but rather that what ‘Is’ arises regardless of any values, or meanings we may choose to ascribe to our experience, as such. Sometimes he errs on the side of ‘meaninglessness’, no doubt because he is keen to discourage people from turning his words into a prescribed path to liberation.

My own contribution to that meeting, so many years ago, was to ask Tony: ‘If everything arises ‘As It Is’, then why do we need ‘Intensives’ to help us get there?’

‘Intensive’ was the word used to describe the residential events Tony had begun to offer in Wales. He replied that perhaps ‘Intensive’ was not a good description, and perhaps ‘Residential’ might be more appropriate.

Tony was on his way to a ‘Residential’ when I last met him. His presence, like his books, has spread across the globe. Frequently criticised, for proscribing meditation practices lasting years, as well as ritual purification, his message isn’t without precedent.

‘An athlete … sometimes awakens suddenly to an understanding of the fine points of the game and to a real enjoyment of it, just as the convert awakens to an appreciation of religion. If he keeps on engaging in the sport, there may come a day when all at once the game plays itself through him—when he loses himself in some great contest. In the same way, a musician may suddenly reach a point at which pleasure in the technique of the art entirely falls away, and in some moment of inspiration he becomes the instrument through which music flows. The writer has chanced to hear two different married persons, both of whose wedded lives had been beautiful from the beginning, relate that not until a year or more after marriage did they awake to the full blessedness of married life. So it is with the religious experience of these persons we are studying.’

E.D. Starbuck. An Empirical Study of the Growth of Religious Consciousness, 1911

My own experience shares something of Starbuck’s description. Prior to ‘simply being’ I experienced life, mostly, as ‘a person’. Intellectually I understood the parable to the Taoist farmer, the horse, and his son. Sometimes, I could make sense of the story of my life as a result of knowing about the farmer’s story.

I think of this today as psychological understanding.

One day, however, I was standing in the kitchen drying dishes when I became underwhelmed with a euphoric knowing that nothing could be different from how it is. The doer, acting upon the world, dropped away. I continued to dry the dishes, of course, and continue to answer to my name, recognize my wife and others when they appear before me, and act upon what needs to be done. I may appear to others to make choices about the colour of my new shoes, and when to replace my wallet – yet for me there is no doer choosing but simply preferences arising.

I cannot explain this change as being a result of meeting Tony Parsons, in isolation to arrays of many other experiences. To do so would be like him claiming that ‘The Open Secret’ had nothing to do with his throwing away the original book he was attempting to write and going to play golf for a year. These events, like my realization, simply occurred without any reason.

N.B. This is simply a story appearing before you. It claims neither substance, nor intent. Tony and Claire have not endorsed it. If it connects where you read it then well and good. If not, it can’t be helped!


Can Photography Foresee the Future?

Photography has come a long way since Nicéphore Niépce made the first photogravure etching in 1822 and thus created an industry.

When I last visited his birthplace and the Musée de Châlon Sur Saone nearly forty years ago it was possible to take a sheet of sensitized paper from a drawer, and develop it into a replica of that first ‘magical’ image.

The First Successful Photographic Image via Wikipedia

The First Successful Photographic Image

Fashions wax and wane in photography, but I fancy that first image  was never deliberately composed yet, stylistically, it resembles something from the Cubist method for representing a mechanistic fragmented world that would soon unfold.

I don’t propose to dwell on how photographic processes developed here, research into Louis Daguerre, William Fox-Talbot and George Eastman are readily available elsewhere.

Instead I want to look at how some images have the ‘creepy’ ability to foretell the future.


Bichonnade Leaping © Jacques-Henri Lartigue Foundation

Who could doubt that the image, (above), by Jaques Henri-Lartique must have been taken by a mischievous eight year old?

But look closer, and it becomes apparent that there is something absurd about the bourgeois life depicted with its restrictive long skirts, peacock feathers, and whalebone corsets. In a very few years they disappeared from fashion forever.

Lartique caught this, (below), when he was just a few years older. Taken in 1912 it is emblematic of the twenties and thirties, because it celebrates the power of that forthcoming benzene driven age.


Papa at 80 kilometers an hour © Jacques-Henri Lartigue Foundation

Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote in 1952:

“Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression”.

His words were inspired by the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, which he discovered as he read ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’ by Eugen Herrigel. But there’s more to it than that.

Even before knowing anything of Zen Cartier-Bresson was working from another philosophy, and one that was augmented, rather than diminished, by Zen.

He was a surrealist.

The surrealists believe that just beyond our range of common perception life is pregnant with a far richer depth of meaning. Sometimes we catch glimpses of this. Psychoanalysts claim that dreams reveal such alternate worlds. Physicists, such as David Bohm, claim that there is an implicate order – a potential – beyond the explicable that is revealed to us.

Artists attempt to convey something of this by creating works that arrest the mind causing it to refocus and momentarily bring forth an alternate reality.

Sometimes a photograph has the power to do so.

Behind the Gare St. Lazare © Cartier-Bresson Foundation

Behind the Gare St. Lazare © Cartier-Bresson Foundation

In 1933 at the Gare Saint-Lazarre station, in Paris, Cartier Bresson saw that something remarkable was about to happen and pointed his Leica through the wire fence surrounding the station. Then he snapped this.

Some photographers consider this to be the greatest photograph of the twentieth century, not simply because it shows something of what we’ve all done at some time in our lives, but because of what else is in the frame. It is a portent of a global disaster.

The man of course, somewhat, resembles the Joker in a card deck – more specifically ‘The Fool’ from the mysterious Tarot Pack.

The Fool is considered to be the spirit in search of experience. He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us. In recent decks he is depicted as someone about to walk off the edge of a cliff.

Now lest you think that suggesting a man puddle-jumping is a far cry from the Joker about to jump a cliff into an abyss that is the future I must warn you that many consider ‘Behind Gare Saint-Lazarre’ to contain even more than this.

In the background a poster reads: ‘Railowski’, an almost generic name that could be invented to describe a Jewish rail transportee. On the foreground there is a broken hoop, perhaps symbolising the greatest calamity that may befall what was for centuries the world’s most useful mechanical object, the wheel.

The wheel also appears in the Tarot deck. It symbolises fortune, and appears exactly half way through the court cards at the point where Psyche, symbolised by ‘The Fool’ begins to experience the vagaries, and seasons of fortune.

It is written of ‘The Wheel’: ‘A common aspect to most interpretations of this card within a reading is to introduce an element of change in the querent’s life, such change being in station, position or fortune: such as the rich becoming poor, or the poor becoming rich.’

The open hoop protrudes above the water, symbolising the unconscious potentia and points to the reflection to the man’s reflection on its surface.

Could this really be a portent of changes of fortune things to come? The image was taken the year in which Hitler came to power.

Fanciful? Maybe . . . but Cartier-Bresson had a remarkable facility with fortune. As a boy a gypsy predicted many events that were to become true in his life. She predicted his marriages; their outcomes; the birth of his daughter as well as other significant matters that were to befall him.

Generations of photographers have been influenced by Cartier-Bresson. I’ve written about him elsewhere and, when he read my words, he was gracious enough to send me a message, which I found not simply helpful but also portentous.

One such individual is the mysterious Mr. William Eggleston of Houston, Texas. Perhaps more than any other photographer he has the ability to see through the American Dream, whilst still preserving a reverence for beauty.

It’s not that he’s an aesthete, far from it. But I do believe him to also be a surrealist. His pictures illuminate something beyond what is obvious, and indeed in photographing everyday scenes and objects, as they appear before him, he claims to take pictures ‘democratically’ and to be ‘at war with the obvious’.

You can see something of Eggleston’s democratic eye in this image of his uncle and a manservant. A black man in a white jacket strikes an identical posture to that of a white man in a black jacket.

‘Adyn And Jasper’ © William Eggleston Trust

‘Adyn And Jasper’ © William Eggleston Trust

This was taken at a time when the South was segregated, and so says something beyond the fact that these two men shared access to similar objects in their day to day lives. It’s not just that they’re in rapport – it simultaneously indicates a difference in station whilst pointing to a, soon to be, equality in rights unprecedented in modern American, and recent South African, history.

It was taken at a funeral. Could it be the funeral of male white dominance?

Perhaps the creepiest of Eggleston’s prophetic images is this one.

Greenwood, Mississippi © William Eggleston Trust

Greenwood, Mississippi © William Eggleston Trust

In it we see a blood red ceiling savagely cut by the white electric cables. In the centre is an electrical fitting, once ornate it now lacks a shade.

The only other features of the room are the top of a door, and some pop art poster renditions of the Karma Sutra. There is something beautiful about the depth of colour in it, yet few would want to hang it on a wall in their front room.

It could be the kind of room where a murder has taken place – a crime scene?

Eggleston took it whilst laying on a bed with the room’s incumbents a couple who were his friends. He just saw something, pointed the camera at the ceiling and . . .

The house is no longer there. It was burned down with his friend in it. He had first been murdered with an axe.

A note on the copyright images included from the Cartier-Bresson Foundation; the Jacques-Henri Lartigue Foundation; and the Willian Eggleston Trust.

Fair Use Rational:

1. Used in an scholarly article about the artist. 2. Is a historically significant work that could not be conveyed in words. 3. Inclusion is for information, education and analysis only. 4. Its inclusion in the article adds significantly to the article because it shows the subject, or the work of the subject, of the article.5. The image is a low resolution copy of the original work and would be unlikely to impact sales of prints or be usable as a desktop backdrop. 6. An equivalent free image is not available and cannot be made.

This article was first published on ‘Blokes on the Blog’, as ‘For Grown Up Photographers Only’, February 13, 2012. The topics expressed here were subsequently expanded into two volumes: Photography and Psychoanalysis: The Development of Emotional Persuasion in Image Making, and Photography and Zen: Discovering your true nature through photography.  These are available paper bound and as Kindle publications.