Sunday, September 26, 2010

Into the Slipstream, The Yoga of Chance in the Photography of Robert Mahon

(John Cage Portrait, Series 3, #22, Robert Mahon, 1980)
“Through chance the possibilities of photography are expanded beyond the limits of individual bias.  The work is experimental; the resulting images become a discovery.  Any moment and any place is as good as another for the making of a photograph.” 
     (Robert Mahon on his work, John Cage: A Portrait Series)

(Embrace, from Yoga and Trees: Glimpses of Satya Yuga, Robert Mahon 2001)

("Malasana" from Yoga and Trees: Glimpses of Satya Yuga, Robert Mahon 2001)
If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where mobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop
Could you find me?
..To lay me down in silence easy
To be born again, to be born again
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks)

It requires a fair stock of bravery; to participate in the play of light and dark, to venture into the slipstream; to trust in the processes of chance, as life dispenses and assigns its cargo without preference. But this is exactly what we do with yoga practice.

I think many of us would agree that those conversations about yoga that circumscribe our experience to bodily practice, as if it were a kind of 20-minute workout, narrow our vision. Some would say those discussions about yoga miss the point altogether. Because, for many of us, yoga has changed our lives. And once our lives have changed, we notice that yoga is not about falling in love with the medium, of growing ever more fond of the body; but a way of seeing the world, and a means of perceiving ourselves. This yoga, this path, has a far deeper reach; one that perforates the boundaries between the practices of the body, and the practices of other instruments of vision, such as the camera, until it finally moves beyond the instrument altogether.

"Chance-process" has defined, mapped and shaped New Jersey based photographer Robert Mahon's lens on the world for several decades; ever since he came under the influence of both Buddhism and yoga philosophy in the late 70's through his close mentorship with composer John Cage. A practicing yogi, whose work resides in the permanent collections of the MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, amongst others, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mahon talks to us about how his yoga practice began to influence his willingness to play with the even, cool-handed, allocations of "chance"; so much so, that the theme of chance would dominate his work.

I first came across Robert Mahon's yoga photographs in an article by Anne Cushman entitled, The Yoga of Creativity in Tricycle, The Buddhist Review. That's when I decided to contact Robert Mahon about his series, Yoga and Trees: Glimpses into Satya Yuga.
The wispy bodies in familiar yoga poses, are but amorphous orbs bathed in diffuse light, interlaced with textual fragments; and then, juxtaposed are vertical strokes, lithe trees, that look like they've swallowed glowing halos. They evoke a sense of both observation and process that are reflective of yoga itself. Furthermore, there was a silence, an internal process to the images that caught my eye. This certainly wasn't photography that intended to document the correct aligment of an asana. What it was doing was evoking an inner space; alluding to a process or a practice; and creating intimate relationships between forms that seem otherwise unrelated.

(Merce Cunningham, Wesbeth Studio, Robert Mahon, 2007)
And this, to me, seemed to be the essence of yoga practice itself. The process of coming to know, through attending to each moment without attachment, was so central to my experience and understanding of yoga, that I had to ask Robert Mahon about his work and find out what was motivating this kind of process in his work. Through several emails and many transfers of biographical background back and forth, I came to understand that the decision to participate openly with "chance" was a means of interrupting the preferential choosings of the eye that is hungry for the object, and possessed by the outcome of practice.

All of our instruments rely on the inner eye and its conditioned perception. So what happens to the inner-eye when you remove your own preferences, your likes/dislikes, your attractions/aversions from this equation of perceiving? What if you choose not to cling, to or control the outcome of your observations?

These questions are the spinal column, the backbone of research into "chance processes" in art; as well as, the exploration of chance and possibility in yoga and meditation. Tapping into chance is the ability to slip into the slipstream, wade into the unknown, the potential and unmanifest, by attending to the present moment.
     “The question of how a photographer can profitably
      collaborate with chance - how to preserve its surprising
      felicities within an order of structure and stability -
      has been a major preoccupation of photography this
      century, I think Mr. Mahon’s work is among the most
      interesting and potentially rewarding of current
      explorations in this direction." 

(- John Szarkowski, Director, Department of Photography, 1962 - 1999, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City)
("Standing Firm" from Yoga and Trees: Glimpses of Satya Yuga, Robert Mahon 2001)

It wasn't long before I realized that I had accidentally bumped into an artist of enormous significance, both in terms of the work he has produced; but also in terms of the strides made in the methods by which he explored chance process. The body of his work is broad, and spans many years; as such, the interview I had with him only considers a few of his photos as a starting point. Namely, Yoga and Trees: Glimpses into Satya Yuga, first exhibited in 2004 at PhilosophyBox in New York City; his 216-image portrait of John Cage, which is now part of the permanent collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and, his work entitled Two Children, a large scale work of 80 photographs made from a single inherited negative, which was exhibited in 1993 at The Museum of Modern Art. Two Children was purchased by MOMA for its permanent collection in 1983.

What follows is our interview about working with the yogic process and the use of chance processes in the body of his work. He talks about his long mentorship with John Cage, and the history of Cage's transition into chance processes, through contact with yoga philosophy and Buddhism. In his agile responses, Mahon proves that yoga is best when it's kept close to us; when we dare to travel with it in our carry-on luggage; when it comes with us to the baseball game, and when it lives on and off-the-mat...
“I seek to understand the moment that has been captured by the camera.  I explore the potential of the negative and observe its limitless variety.  Chance in conjunction with photography is a way to free my visual perceptions from habit.  The work is experimental: it becomes a way to discover something I had not seen before.”
(Robert Mahon)
(John Cage Portrait Series One, #8, Robert Mahon 1980)
("In These Hands" from Yoga and Trees: Glimpses of Satya Yuga, Robert Mahon 2001)
Priya Thomas Interview with Robert Mahon – September, 2010

PT: Describe how you met John Cage and how you started mentoring with him.

Robert Mahon: In 1979 I was living in New York City making photographic portraits of poets.  I had photographed John Giorno, W.D. Snodgrass, John Ashbery, Denise Levertov, among others.  I sent John Cage a letter asking if I could photograph him as part of the poet’s series, having read his book Silence.  Cage, who was much better known as a musician and composer, called me on the telephone and said he was curious that I considered him a poet.  Cage later mentioned that he became interested in the project when I asked to read his books before starting because I wanted to relate his writings in some way to the photography.  He said he had been photographed many times, but no photographer ever asked about his work, especially his writings.  What I thought would take a couple hours became a 216-image portrait which I worked on for more than a year.  Every photographic work I have made since then has incorporated chance processes.  I have discovered that even a single element of chance can take art into an unexpected direction.  Over the next five years I visited with Cage often.  His door was always open to me.  We met less often after I moved from New York City in 1985, but I continued to remain as close as I could in spirit if not physical presence until his death in 1992.  Cage’s partner in life Merce Cunnigham once compared my photographs to Cage’s 4’33”. The silent piece, by saying that “absence allows for presence.”

PT: Had Cage's work already been influenced by Buddhist ideas or yogic ideas of non-grasping? Had he already been working with chance processes?

Mahon: In the late 1940’s John Cage had a student Gita Sarabhai, an Indian musician.  In exchange for teaching her about Western music, Cage asked her to teach him about Indian philosophy.  Cage read Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Some of Cage’s early music compositions were a direct response to these teachings.  Cage discovered an idea in Indian philosophy that the purpose of music was to “quiet and sober the mind, and thus open one to divine influences.”   His String Quartet in Four Parts was based on Indian themes of the four seasons. Cage read Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. To illustrate John Cage’s book I-VI, the Norton Lectures at Harvard University, Cage asked me to photograph the manuscript for Sixteen Dances from 1951, which he told me was his first chance determined composition, though I have read, subsequently, that his use of chance was limited.  Music for Changes, 1951, is the first chance composition using the mechanism of the I Ching.  By 1951 Cage had met D.T. Suzuki.  He met Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, who became lifelong friends, and with whom he shared a similar attitude towards experimental music.  It was Wolff who gave Cage a copy of the I Ching.  Most people who hear this think that Cage made music based on the I Ching philosophy, or explored the Chinese text for subject matter, but that’s not quite the case.  Cage used the I Ching method for generating random numbers through the coin tossing.   

(John Giorno Portrait, Robert Mahon, 1978)
PT:  How did his work with chance affect your own process?

Mahon: When I told Cage I wanted to use chance processes to photograph him, he was enthusiastic and showed me several of his original manuscripts, which are now housed in the New York Public Library’s Music Collection.  Cage described how he used the I Ching to get random numbers from 1-64.  The questions you ask as an artist become important when using chance.  Weeks went by before I could actually photograph him because the numbers are arrived at by tossing 3 coins six times.  There were a lot of coins to be tossed before I arrived at a chart of variables to make the first 36 photographs, which is equal to the number of exposures on a roll of 35mm film.  I used chance processes again, hundreds of more coins tossed, to print the first set of 36 images by subjecting various steps in the printing process to chance like cropping, type of paper, print exposure time.  After I demonstrated much diligence and devotion to the process, Cage shared with me a computer program he had made that simulated the coin tossing, and made my life as an artist working with chance much easier.  We lived 5 blocks from each other and I started visiting Cage often, showing him new photographs, but mainly just to be around him.  Cage was very kind and supportive of my photography.  He introduced me to many people in the art world, and arranged to have my photographs included in an exhibition of his scores and prints at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1982.  He invited Michael Hoffman from Aperture to his loft to discuss what I was doing with chance and photography. The meeting resulted in the first publication of my photographs.  He introduced me to a collector who purchased one of my chance-determined photographs, and later donated an entire series of 36 John Cage portraits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  

PT: What was your own personal relationship with the ideas that Cage explored through the writings of say, DT Suzuki?

When I was with John Cage I asked many questions.  I was 29 when I met him and full of uncertainty.  During one visit with him, Cage drew a small circle inside a larger circle on a piece of paper for me. He said D. T. Suzuki, the Japanese Zen scholar, taught him that the small circle represented the ego (little mind) and that the large circle represented awareness (big mind). Because of bias, habits, prejudice, taste, and ideas, the ego's experience of the world is limited and restricted; an ego-centered view only reveals a small part of what is possible. Chance, like meditation, is a way to flow with all creation, be surprised, and open to all possibilities.

PT: Was it difficult to translate your ideas re. photography to an audience that may or may not have been familiar with the philosophical underpinnings of "chance process" in your early career? Or did people readily receive these ideas in the medium of photography?

Anyone looking at the photographs doesn’t need to know the ideas or processes involved in making them.  The first time I exhibited the 216-image, John Cage: A Portrait Series, at the Whitney Museum in 1982, I included all the charts and diagrams used to make the work as a way of describing the creative process.  With later works I discontinued this practice. Photography is a visual art, and explanations are superfluous to the viewer’s direct experience of the art: seeing, experiencing, and being aware of something you had not seen before.

(Two Children, Robert Mahon, 1982)
PT: I want to talk about the idea of working with reconstituting memory - taken from "Two Children". How is memory affected by looking at moments in time without attachment/aversion? How does this play out in the piece?

With “Two Children” I wanted to make something new from what already existed, an idea related to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades.  Two Children, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, consists of 70 photographs, made from a single inherited negative.  Each image is a fragment, and no image reveals the entire scene in the negative.  There is a quality of appearing and disappearing.  For the viewer there is the effort to reconstitute the events and make sense of it.  But there is only what’s there before you to see, the experience of the art in the present moment.

"When I work in the darkroom, I keep in mind Robert Frost’s remarks about making poetry.  If there is  “no surprise for the writer, then there’s no surprise for the reader.”  After many years of experimenting with chance processes in photography I have discovered that even a single element of chance can render unforeseen results, and transform an apparently ordinary image into a something surprising."
(Robert Mahon, July 2007)
PT: Your photographs of Merce Cunningham as well as your portraits of Cage attempt to extend the meaning of the work beyond individual bias through the use of chance. Has this decision to work without "preference" re. the product, and thereby accept the accident or chance of process, changed your daily life at all?
What are the repercussions of living this way?

Mahon: Through my art I have gained a much greater appreciation for coincidence, those unexpected circumstances where different sounds and sights, or people and events, come together in our presence. 

PT: I'd like to talk a little bit about existing in all 4 yugas at once, as well as your interest in Satya Yuga.

Mahon: From my conversations with John Cage, I learned about the four ways of living in Indian philosophy.  Artha: having a goal.  Kama: having and giving pleasure.  Dharma: following the good.  And Moksha: freedom from all the other ways of living.  Cage suggested that these four paths are not a hierarchy where you move from one to the other until you reach the goal, Moksha.  Going back to what you asked about our day to day lives, instead we move in and out of these experiences all the time.  Later when I was working on the photographic project Glimpses of Satya Yuga, photographs of Yoga asanas and ancient trees, I made the association with the four yugas or ages from Hindu teaching: Satya, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali.  The idea that our lives are characterized by moments, and that we exist in all four of the yugas all the time. 

PT: Talk to me about Yoga and Trees: Glimpses of Satya Yuga. Why were you interested in photos of yoga; or photos of trees....and what is your interest in stillness?

Mahon: I was already practicing Yoga when I made a trip to California to an ancient bristlecone pine forest.  While photographing I felt many different emotions: the highs and lows of the yugas.  I found myself aware of those same emotions when practicing asanas. What was hidden came to the surface.  Juxtaposing images of the ancient trees with yoga poses came from the similar emotional responses.  When I looked for a text to include with the images, I found the Rig Veda, and in particular, fragments from the creation myths.  Stillness as a theme came from my experiences with meditation.

PT: Am I correct in understanding that in living with full attention to each moment you are suggesting we can live in the golden age of satya yuga?

Mahon: It’s not me saying this, but my understanding of the message of all great teachers throughout the ages.  At certain times there are ideas in the air, and more than one person discovers them or rediscovers them.  I am currently reading a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn titled Wherever You Go There You Are, which was published in 1994, three years before Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now.  Kabat-Zinn uses the term “mindfulness” to refer to present moment awareness. And he references Buddha, Kabir, Thoreau, Chuang Tzu, Lao-Tzu, Walt Whitman, Li Po, The Dalai Lama. 

PT: Are you interested in doing more photographs of yoga?

("Becoming" from Yoga and Trees: Glimpses of Satya Yuga, Robert Mahon 2001)
Mahon: Once you start a Yoga practice you continue to practice Yoga.  Yoga is your life energy.  The asanas are that life energy in form.  Yoga is everywhere.  I was at a baseball game recently in Philadelphia.  From my seat between third and home plate I took several photographs of the pitcher in his windup.  Later when I looked at these images more closely, I realized that the pitcher’s motions were asanas.  The pitcher begins his stretch in Mountain pose.  Then with the glove and the ball in his hands he pauses in Prayer.  He steps forward into Warrior II, and then lifts one leg into Warrior III, finishing the pitch in a Forward Bend.  

PT: Do you think the practice of yoga is similar to photography in its documentation of moments? In its catalog of memory? 

("Mata Durga, Robert Mahon, 2001)
(Merce Cunningham, Wesbeth Studio, Robert Mahon 2007)
Mahon: When Marcel Duchamp appeared to have stopped making art, he was often asked what he was doing with himself if not making art.   He answered by referring to himself as a “breather.” Isn’t this the answer of a Yogi?  What is more fundamental to our lives, moment to moment, than breathing?  The history of photography has mostly been about the “decisive moment,” an idea first expressed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photojournalist.  This approach to photography is mainly about a controlled response.  Other photographers like Ansel Adams expanded on this notion of capturing a particular image based upon a preconceived idea.  Working with chance is different.  I don’t know what the photograph will look like until it is made.  Cage wrote in his book X, “ Robert Mahon’s found a way to let each photograph photograph itself.”  When making the Cage portrait, the first seven photographs I printed using chance processes were either all white or all black.  Still steeped in the mindset of the decisive moment I wondered whether anything at all would result from photographs made using chance.  Then the eighth photograph I printed resulted in a classic portrait, one which might have been produced following a great effort to control the process.  Soon thereafter I was surprised by images that I never would have conceived had I been working in a conventional way. Photography became a process of discovery and opened me to the unexpected, the unimagined image.  I was able to replace the decisive moment with the recognition that any place and any time is as good as another for the making of a photograph. 

PT: Tell me a little bit about where and how you grew up; how did you develop an interest in art? What are your own personal religious/spiritual beliefs? What beliefs did you grow up with?

I was born in Wilmington, Delaware, where I lived until moving to New York City in 1975.  My parents met in a factory in Wilmington where they both worked during Word War II, and continued to work until the plant closed in the 1970’s.  My mother was born in Beaver Meadows, Pennsylvania; she was the daughter of a coal miner, who came from Poland when he was a teenager.  Her mother’s parents were from Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine, and they attended a Greek Orthodox Church.  I remember vividly a picture of the Black Madonna hanging in my grandparents’ bedroom.  My mother is 85 years old now and has faithfully practiced her religion her entire life, attending Mass and the sacraments.

My father was raised Methodist in Mississippi, but converted to Catholicism when he married.  His father was an Irish sharecropper; his mother was Dutch.  My father died in 1993 shortly after the two of us took a trip together to Mississippi to visit the places where he grew up. That time I spent travelling with him seeing the farm where he sharecropped as a boy, seeing a three room shack like the one he shared with his 13 brothers and sisters, was spiritual and awakening.  I am not unique as an artist to have poor and working class roots.  I believe this background fosters inventiveness. 

I was brought up Catholic and attended Catholic school for 12 years.  In sixth grade during a St. Dominic Savio meeting, I announced that I didn’t believe in God.  The nun punished me in front of class by hitting my knuckles with a metal ruler.  I ran from the classroom with my hands bleeding, and didn’t return until my father brought me back.  Today I might agree with her that I didn’t know what I was saying.  I am no longer a practicing Catholic, but still consider among my most formative experiences a retreat after college to the monastery where Thomas Merton resided. 

My interest in photography began as a boy looking at photographs.  My parents kept family photographs in a box, not in albums, but loose individual snapshots.  My cousin and I would spend hours looking at them together, examining every image closely, identifying family members at different ages in their lives, laughing at pictures of ourselves, making up stories about people we didn’t recognize.   

In high school I wanted to take art class, but was told by the art teacher that art was only for girls.  In college I wanted to take photography classes, but was told that photography was only for art majors.  The first time I ever photographed happened while backpacking in the wilderness area of Glacier National Park in 1969 with a friend who was a Catholic priest.  Just before the trip my friend had purchased a new Honeywell-Pentax camera, and we took turns photographing with different lenses, something I had never done before.  I was fascinated with the close up lens, and spent a lot of time close to the ground photographing.  After the trip and after hundreds of pictures later, my friend discovered that he was loading the film into the camera incorrectly and not one frame was exposed.   

Through these experiences  I am aware that there is something, really no thing, which moves through all of us and connects us to each other, and connects us to the universe.  I find myself surrounded by this nothing which we have named spirit or God.  My brother-in-law is a Zen Buddhist priest and I visit him about once a week.  We discuss just about everything under the sun, except religion.

Among the many insights offered by Mahon in his exploration of his work as a photographer, is the realization that self-study, in any field, undertaken with painstaking care, can result in a yogic way of life. We are all more than bodies; and we are all more than yogis. And, Robert Mahon is more than a photographer.

It occurs to me that Robert Mahon has made a risky choice in being committed to chance-based work; but that this dicey proposition offers itself up as a richer, more rewarding way of life. His work embodies the decision to live in keeping with the "way things actually are" the arising, dissipating, and continually transient qualities of life itself.

Mahon would perhaps say that his lens, over years of tapping into the unknown, became flexible, opening ever more by the moment, to a wider vision. Mahon's yoga, like anyone's, is an attempt to "notice" and "attend without judgement";  it is process-driven, where the ego or "i-maker" is silenced, so that what is really happening can emerge organically from moment to moment. The key seems to be a recognition that the medium is simply a conduit; as in, Robert Mahon could have been transmitting the same signals via another channel such as painting or installation work. Similarly, contemporary yogis could afford to more readily acknowledge that the body is just a conduit...where breath is a channel; and a means of transmission.

What is transmitted then, becomes the area of our question marks....the slipstream of silence where we are "born again". And, in Robert's case, the space where "chance" can play itself out fully, to grow into a self more realized.  If we did need proof that yoga practice, or intimacy with the self, can find expression through so many different bodies, through different media, then surely Robert Mahon serves a fitting example.

Photographer Robert Mahon, 1996
Biographical Material:
Robert Mahon was born in Wilmington, Delaware, December 28, 1949.  He received a BA in American Studies from the University of Delaware in 1971. In 1978 he began working as a photographer by making portraits of poets, John Ashbery, Howard Moss, Paul Zweig, William Logan, John Giorno, Richard Howard, Denise Levertov, among others. Then, in 1981, a book of photographs of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, W. D. Snodgrass entitled These Trees Stand, was published; and, as part of his poet project Mahon photographed the composer and writer, John Cage, through the use of chance processes.

This 216-image portrait of John Cage was acquired by The Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1987, and the New York Public Library in 1998; and was exhibited at The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the American Center in Paris, and the Kolnischer Kunstverein, Colgne.  John Cage in his book, X Writings ‘79 - ‘82, has said, “Using chance operations Robert Mahon’s found a way to let each photograph photograph itself.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired 36 photographs from this series in 1982.

A recipient of the Guggenheim fellowship, he has contributed to the dialogue on chance process as well as "memory documentation" through photography with many significant projects such as the Liberty Series; three panel, sixty-image portrayal of the Statue of Liberty, which was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art in New York for its Permanent Collection in 1987. Merce Cunnigham at 88, a series of 18 photographs and photocollages, was exhibited in a one-person exhibit at the Schotland Gallery in Flemington, New Jersey, in September 2007, and Witherspoon Gallery, Princeton, New Jersey, in 2008. 

• Robert Mahon’s photographs are in many private and public collections, and have been exhibited widely.  The following is a selected list.

            Fogg Museum, Harvard University Art Museums
            John Cage Trust
            New Jersey State Museum
            Princeton University Art Museum
            The Metropolitan Museum of Art
            The Museum of Modern Art, New York
            The Philadelphia Museum of Art
            The N. Y. Public Library, Photograph Collection
Exhibited by:      
           The American Center in Paris
            The Art Institute of Chicago
            Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
            Guggenheim Museum Soho, New York
            Kolnischer Kunstverein, Koln
            The Museum of Modern Art, New York
            The Philadelphia Museum of Art
            The Whitney Museum of American Art

1 comment:

  1. One of the best balance poses is Warrior III. Yoga guru Leeann Carey says that it’s also a great strength pose for the core. She has a free yoga video that shows some great prep poses for it that I thought your readers would like: