Ujjayi means “victorious breath” in Sanskrit.
I explore different cultures around the world through the lens of color. In chance encounters, the extraordinary is made visible in the ordinary—a deity is transformed into a butterfly and a stretched sari becomes a magical orange veil. Hybrids of the abstract and the real, the painterly and the documentary, these works present a reality that is a cross between my imagination and the real world.
Ujjayi’s Journey was photographed during five trips to India between 1996 and 2008. My love for India and its diversity, history, culture, humor and religious rituals increased with each visit. The spiritual aspect of Indian culture was of particular interest to me, especially the Mahadevi (Great goddess), who can manifest herself in multiple forms, and Darsan, the process of worship whereby the devotee views the deity and the deity views the devotee.
Ujjayi’s Journey is a visual poem in which I explore religious coexistence, rituals, the female world and nature. I tell the story of my search for the portrayal of the divine-as-feminine within India’s contemporary culture, linking the present to the past.
Conversation with Maxine Henryson
How did you develop your specific use of color?
Prior to moving to New York City in 1984, I was constructing temporal forms in nature and photographing them in black and white with a four-by-five view camera. In New York, the theater of the street grabbed my attention and I began shooting in color with a Leica rangefinder. The color photographs of Helen Leavitt and Saul Leiter and early work by William Eggleston were an inspiration, as were the films of Bernardo Bertolucci and Michelangelo Antonioni. I was photographing on the streets of New York City for my American Rites project. During this time, color palettes and how they relate to specific cultures became a central interest. I think my specific use of color developed gradually as I photographed and looked at films and painting and the work of my contemporaries. I learned to print color in the basement color labs of the original International Center of Photography. I was teaching there, and if you were faculty you were allowed to print during certain hours. I learned a lot about color and what combinations of film and paper would create certain kinds of color during those printing sessions.
When and how did you discover the relationship between your photography and painting? Are there painters who influenced your work?
I probably discovered the relationship between my photography and painting while I was photographing the Cirque du Soleil under Richard Avedon’s direction for The New Yorker in 1993. He had seen my American Rites portfolio, which was my first project in color. Dick gave me the assignment and said, “Shoot the Cirque du Soleil ‘your way’ with your fabulous sense of color.” Publishing color images in The New Yorker and having Avedon identify me as a colorist was a decisive moment. He definitely encouraged me to photograph in a more painterly way.
A wide range of painters has influenced my work: Éduoard Vuillard’s intimate interiors dense with pattern and color, James Ensor’s surrealism in lush reds and greens, Joan Mitchell’s abstract landscapes of brilliant yellow sunflowers, Blinky Palermo’s fabric paintings and the wonderful pinks of his Coney Island series, and Raoul de Keyser’s delicacy and fluidity with muted colors. Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans interest me because I identify with their core interest in balancing the representational and the abstract. Also, they use the beauty of soft focus to veil the sometimes harsher realities of their subject matter.
The different cultures represented in your work each have very specific palettes. Can you speak to this?
The color palette in each culture reflects the socioreligious, political, economic, and environmental constructs of the people in that very specific location. This specificity and how it is similar to or contrasts with other cultures is what I am searching for. Maybe the advantage of a childhood in a small New England town of four thousand people is that you hold the color culture of the larger world in awe. My mother’s store, Mosher’s Yarn and Fabric, brought an abundance of color and pattern into our lives. My mother is from Missouri and my father is a New England Yankee, and they often had very different tastes in color. So I was brought up aware that different regions of the United States have different color preferences. In the larger world, color palettes show how we are similar to and yet different from one another. Vermont’s predominately green palette is different than New York’s flashy reds; Russia’s moody ochers are different from India’s pinks. The traditions and dynamics of a culture determine its palette. This is endlessly fascinating to me.
Blur in an image creates a kind of secret. What is your intention with blur in your work? How did you develop this way of using the camera?
I use blur and soft focus to raise questions about how we perceive reality. Ambiguity, secrets, the unconscious, Gottfried Leibniz’s “petites perceptions” beneath the threshold of consciousness, dreams, how we remember light, and the smell of everyday experiences—these motivate me to click the shutter. The world is constantly changing, and I want that reflected in my images. The precise and the vague, the fictional and the real are in constant dialogue when I am shooting and editing. I am interested in movement, flow; it can be very quiet movement, but the static and fixed makes me uneasy. Blur helps
I use a multitude of processes to create the blur, but it is always done in the camera, and the involuntary and the intentional sometimes coincide. Certain cameras are better for one or the other of the methods; I usually have three cameras with me while shooting: some combination of rangefinder, single-lens reflex, film, and digital. Soft focus can be created by intentionally throwing the image out of focus or by manipulating the depth of field. I will use very slow shutter speeds either to overexpose the film or because the low-light situation—such as inside an Indian temple—requires it, or to create movement. I hold the camera in my hand during long exposures, as I want my breath and body movement integrated into the picture making. There is a lot of play involved.
I associate your process with the German expression “der kalkulierte Zufall,” or calculated coincidence. Does this resonate with you?
Once I see or sense a picture, I photograph from intuition. The moment is there, and, creating compositions in the viewfinder, I either “get it” or it is lost. I usually take a single shot. I want freshness, an unexpected point of view, as if I were seeing while distracted or daydreaming. Most of the calculation in my process relates to where I choose to photograph. I am interested in places that have a layered energy of the spiritual, mystical, political, and inexplicable: Russia during Perestroika; Vermont with its attitude of self-reliance and its natural beauty; New York City and its multicolored chaos; India with its puja rituals evident in everyday life; and Venice with its Madonnas, beautiful water, mystery, and incredible light. Photographing for me is a meditative process. I am attempting to create imaginary worlds, as if seen from inside a dream or from that quiet place your mind reaches while in nature or practicing yoga. My photographs often do not represent actual visual reality, yet there is no doubt that they are representing something real.
Mario Kramer is Head of the Collection at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt