Six Questions For- A Photographer

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Very early in the visioning process for Beams we wanted the site to become a platform where all sorts of writers and artists could display their work, and not only people from our various networks, but also outside contributions from folks we didn't know yet. Over time this dimension of the site has begun to slowly pick up momentum. Some submissions we’ve had to kindly reject, and some have been quality offerings such as Abbie Kopf’s article Not Gay Enough, and the stellar work of Jeremy Johnson. A couple of months back a photographer named Dennis Cordell sent us a note saying he liked the site and thought we might resonate with his photography. We all thought Dennis’ work was great and fit with Beams, and we wanted to display it in some way.

I took over the role of liaison with Dennis and thought hard about what form such an introduction to his work might take. To just put a bunch of images up on the Bits & Pieces page would’ve been too easy. So I decided that an interview might work, a chance to delve deeper into the creative process of a photographer. But then it occurred to me that I should get a variety of people to ask the questions. One of the hallmarks of post-postmodern consciousness is the ability to hold and take multiple perspectives on any event, issue etc. I was curious about what would arise for each of the other questioners, and how different their interests and angles might be from mine. So I recruited five other Beams contributors and asked them to sit with Dennis' photos and see what question came up for them. The resulting interview is posted below.

I want to thank Dennis for his offerings, and his patience with the process, and I’m sure he’ll be ready to field more questions should something arise for you as you read this. You can read more about Dennis’ philosophy of photography and view more of his photos at his website, where he writes, "My favorite subject matter, either in painting or in photography, has always been portraiture. I love the human face. I also prefer doing portraits of Buddhist monks and other spiritual contemplatives in Asia. Such people aren’t concerned with whether their portraits are cosmetically appealing...Buddhist monks know that wrinkles are just part of the impermanence of the phenomenon we call life. Future lives will bring more than enough facelifts". You can also view his photos at Flickr here.




Question 1- Bergen Vermette

These days, Buddha statues pop-up everywhere from antique stores, to coffee shops, to my grandma's herb garden. So it seems that something in the image of a meditating monk has captivated many of us in Western society. Why do you think these images are obviously so intriguing, exotic, and captivating to a Western audience?




Dennis: Part of the intrigue lies in the “exotic” aspect of the Buddha image. If there were Buddha images everywhere, say like MacDonald’s Golden Arches, the appeal might not be as great. Also the West is very hectic and any semblance of tranquility, such as that found in meditation, is appealing as a natural soporific.


Question 2- Andrew Baxter

Why did you choose to pose the subjects of the photos in the way that you did? Why choose a conventional, front on center opposed to some other way?




Dennis: I was trained as a painter, in very classical tradition. I like the traditional way of centering a subject. Also the pose lends itself to the square-format of my camera where balance is very important in the composition of the image.


Question 3- Sarah Olson 

It seems that many of the expressions captured in your portraits (exemplified by this one) convey a captivating mix of fierceness and focus, and at the same time a real softness and yielding. I feel like this offers much insight into the spiritual path itself... how do you relate to these qualities in your own life of spirit or transformation?




Dennis: My photos of sadhus (religious mendicants) are sometimes a bit frightening because many of them follow a wrathful form of the Hindu god Shiva. Also, many of them smoke various forms of cannabis as part of their religious rituals and have a sometimes otherworldly glare. Despite their appearance, I have found most sadhus to be very kind and that perhaps explains the dichotomy of their wrathful/peaceful appearance.


Question 4- Chela Davison

When working with a particular subject, do you shoot knowing the qualities or essence you're looking to capture? What supports you in bringing these alive?




Dennis: I prefer to photograph contemplatives of one sort or another. The quality of contemplation, even with young monks who are very playful, naturally exudes into the image and brings itself to life without too much work on my part.


Question 5- Chris Dierkes

Do you ever find that you begin to take on the state of those photographed?  Do their facial expressions ever begin to mimic themselves in your being?  Is that even appropriate if possible?  Or rather should one hold to the position of viewer and be held in contemplation by the state and energy of the other in discrete moment to moment existence?




Dennis: I have been meditating and studying Eastern “mysticism” since the 1960s. Many of the monks have been my students at Tashi Lhunpo monastery in south India where I have taught English. Many of the monks are very close friends, so yes when they smile, they are often smiling at me as opposed to the “say cheese” smile a photographer would get from a stranger. I am not aware of my having any facial expressions that would mimic that of my subjects. Each subject is unique as an individual monk, just as each photographer is unique as an individual photographer. So, yes there is an “energy” that happens, although, because I am very familiar with my camera, I don’t think it is necessarily contemplative in the way that contemplation has molded my subjects.


Question 6- Trevor Malkinson

I had a photographer friend in university, and we used to talk a lot about what we called “the poet’s eye”, the ability- shared by poet and photographer- to recognize the sparkle, the wonder, the magic in creation that can often allude us if we’re not paying attention. You seem to have such a ‘poet’s eye’. Does this notion resonate for you at all, and if so, is it something we’re born with or can it be developed?




Dennis: I don’t know if I was born with a “poet’s eye.” I have always liked making images and I think that over time an image-maker becomes very adept at capturing the “poetry” of his/her subject. This poetry is what Henri Cartier Bresson referred to as the “decisive moment.” The photographer intuits when the subject will move, or smile, or frown and knows that moment is the poetic muse who pushes the shutter.

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  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Tuesday, 07 June 2011 02:12 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Hi Dennis,

    Thanks for showcasing your work here on Beams. It's easy to return to the images again and again, they don't get old.

    Maybe part of the reason that they're such a pleasure to view has to do with what you responded to in my initial question.

    I asked what you thought was so appealing about the image of a meditating monk, and you replied that it may serve as a sort of soporific for the busy western mind.

    I'd say that's true in my experience of viewing the photos. There's a sense of peace, and openness that comes when sitting with them for a bit. The starkness of the black and white may help with that too.

    Do you feel that way when shooting these characters, or is it more of an after effect of the image?

    Thanks again for coming on and for fielding all these questions!

  • Comment Link Dennis Cordell Tuesday, 07 June 2011 04:17 posted by Dennis Cordell

    Hi Bergen,
    Yes, I think BW photos are both stark and peaceful. Colors can be too stimulating at times. BW is like tea, whereas color is more like strong coffee. When I shoot I am in an intense concentration. It's not like meditation or reciting mantras, which always has a rehearsed quality about it. Focussing, checking light exposures, pushing the shutter etc. are all very spontaneous and impromptu. There is no guru except yourself to guide you. Each shot is like a small bardo space where I am sort of waiting to exhale. I don't follow my breath, or even think about it. I wait for that proverbial "decisive moment." Once I push the shutter I can follow my breath until the film is developed and I see what kind of photographic "karma" has been created.

  • Comment Link Sarah Ol Monday, 13 June 2011 21:11 posted by Sarah Ol

    I'd like to echo Bergen's appreciation.

    It was such a pleasure to go through your images in preparation for contributing a question to this piece. I got a reminder of their power when reviewing them again this morning.

    I really enjoyed your description of the creative moment, or the decisive moment, you experience when taking photos, it's really lovely actually. It's interesting that you say there's no guru but yourself to guide you... Do you feel it is your 'self' that's in charge in that moment? In the last part of your comment, I got the sense that 'you' were kind of getting out of the way, and letting something else take over... Which is the self that is operating there, do you think?

  • Comment Link Dennis Cordell Monday, 13 June 2011 22:00 posted by Dennis Cordell

    Hi Sarah,
    What I mean is that the "no guru" is that split second of feeling totally isolated when the exact decisive moment comes. I always feel very brave when I push the shutter. If the photo doesn't come out the way I want then I realize that it wasn't bravery but a sort of fool heartiness on my part.

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