Photographer Lynn Davis’ contemplative approach uniquely captures the power, mystery, and sacredness of the world’s ancient monuments. David Swick talks with Davis about her personal, spiritual, and artistic journey.
How can we, as modern people, make a genuine connection with the beauty of the ancient world? Lynn Davis faces that challenge each time she visits one of the world’s most sacred sites, revered monuments, or inspiring landscapes. Her life work is to take their photographs, so that those of us who will never go to Egypt or India or Angkor Wat can know their majesty, energy, and decay.
Just getting there can be a challenge: day after day of travel by plane and car and train, sometimes by horseback or camel. When she finally arrives, Davis’ experience and Buddhist training help her to connect with these places of mystery and power. She wanders by herself, seeing how the sky and land and structures meet, perceiving the site from every angle, watching how the light touches all. She does not speak. Focusing hard, she slips into the silent rhythms of the place. Then a connection may come, and she reaches for her camera.
“When I get to a site there is literally a charge in me, like an electrical charge,” Davis says. “Circling the site, I can see weather coming and going. All the elements come together: the sky, the land, the light, the surface or raw material of the structure, and the water or mountains or clouds. It’s a wonderful thing.
“Often I have energy from a site for six months. It’s like plugging yourself into a bigger concept of man, decay, etcetera.”
This is not easy work; it is emotional and intense. Afterward she is exhausted. And soon it will be time to go to a gallery or museum and show her work.
New York’s Rubin Museum of Art is a spacious, six-storey building in fashionable Chelsea dedicated to Buddhist and Himalayan art. While the exhibit “Artists Interpret the Dalai Lama” occupies the fourth and fifth floors, a show of Davis’ photos, entitled “Illumination,” is upstairs on the sixth. On this rainy Tuesday morning the museum is almost empty, and I am left to ponder her pictures in silence.
News of the show came in the New York Times, and its report included a web address with several photos. One in particular, of an iceberg, stayed with me. Rather than a mere mountain of ice, it appeared to be full of character, meaningful, alive. This photo shook my assumption that I knew what the world’s great monuments—made by people or nature—are like. A closer look was needed, prompting my visit to the Rubin.
Davis’ photos are printed large, usually in black and white, and only rarely do you see a human being. A stupa in Nepal. Pyramids in Egypt. The ocean off Nova Scotia. Architectural detail in a mosque in Iran. Rock etched with waves in the Australian desert. A Buddhist temple on a Chinese oasis. Sand drifting on cemetery steps.
Davis has visited more than seventy countries; her last passport needed two sets of additional pages. She has completed almost thirty bodies of work, shown in museums and galleries around the world. Her work is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and many private collections. As the world gets smaller and its monuments more threatened, Davis’ photos receive more and more attention.
Her photos can be shocking or playful, somber or inspiring. They have a power to reveal the unexpected. Some natural monuments appear as if manufactured, while some manmade monuments look organic. Gazing up from the inside of a cave in Utah, it takes some time to realize that the hole overhead is not the solid, and the walls are not the space.
Needing a break from all this power and beauty, I head to the museum’s café and then the gift store. In it is the book that documents the exhibition. In the foreword, Pico Iyer contemplates Davis’ interplay of form and substance, and structures natural and manmade.
“The back of a Zen master’s head looks as sculptural, as out of time, as a boulder, and as far from personality, or our ideas,” Iyer says. “And that boulder looks like a mound in Burma, as if both came from some inner universal patterning that has nothing to do with time or place or anything.” Her photos, he says, “are works to teach us stillness and attention… You see some larger pattern, and something that stands beyond your theories or designs.”
Form and emptiness have long interested Davis; it’s a recurring theme in her work. While some people grasp the Heart Sutra’s “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” intellectually, and some serious meditators report its experience, Davis presents it framed.
Davis studied photography under Berenice Abbott, who was known for her photographs of New York City architecture of the 1930s and, like Davis, worked in black and white. She was very close to the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and was a member of New York’s vibrant avant garde arts scene in the 1970s and ’80s. Singer and poet Patti Smith, another luminary of the era, remains one of her best friends. Early in her career Davis concentrated on studio work, especially nudes—dancers, acrobats, gymnasts. Then AIDS struck the city. As the artistic community reeled from sorrow and death, she knew it was the end of an era, and time for a change.
Inspiration came from an unexpected direction: the north. Her husband, the novelist and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, returned from a trip to the North Atlantic and offered an unusual insight. “I saw an iceberg,” he said, “that looked just like one of your nudes.”
In her mind, Davis says, “a little bell went off.” Somehow, an iceberg-nude connection had the ring of truth. She looked at her husband.
“Rudy,” she said, “I have to go to Greenland.”
Within weeks she was in the island capital, Nuuk. Her first boat ride in search of icebergs earned her a nasty experience unknown in Manhattan: she was seasick. Climbing aboard a second ship she was rewarded with one of the greatest nights of her life.
“The beauty, the water, the colors in the ice, the impermanence of it,” she says. “The light was changing, the ice was changing. The ice was floating, I was floating. You couldn’t hold on to anything for one minute. It’s like what’s supposed to happen to you if you’re a great meditator. It hit me like a thunderbolt.”
Out on the ocean through a night of bright sunshine, surrounded by floating mountains of ice, Davis felt engaged, in place, alive. After printing the photos, she realized she was compelled to travel again.
“There was this one picture of a big mountain, and etched within the iceberg there was almost a perfect triangle. Right in the ice. And I thought, ‘I need to go to Egypt.’ That was the image that led me to the pyramids.”
This is how Lynn Davis travels: one trip leads to the next. Walking one sacred site sparks an interest in another monument somewhere else. The goal is not to travel the world experiencing monument after monument. The path is more organic than that; the monuments are discovered step by step.
Hudson, New York, is tiny, quaint, and a little bit funky. The main street features both an antique shop called Historical Materialism and a few Buddhist prayer flags. Behind her house on a leafy side street, Davis has converted an old horse barn into a modern studio. There are skylights in the ceiling, a Tibetan rug on the floor, and French bulldogs Coco and Homer snoozing on the couch. Here Davis, with the help of two assistants, arranges upcoming trips and prints her photographs.
Hanging above the couch in the living room is a huge portrait of an iceberg. That early enchantment continues to inspire. “My nude pictures were never very sexy,” she says. “They were about form, structure, and space—like icebergs.”
Over tea Davis tells of a harrowing experience the day before in Manhattan. On her way to the train station to come home, she felt a pain in her eye, and then her eye began to bleed. Fearing the worst, she took her seat and worked on calming herself. Later a doctor confirmed there was no danger; perhaps dust or grit had caused the irritation.
Buddhism has been part of Davis’ life since the early 1970s, but she makes no claim to being a consistent meditator. “Even though a lot of Buddhist teachings are about enlightenment, my fascination is about its teachings on daily life,” she says. “Concentration. Focus. Discipline. The training of your mind. Getting your mind off yourself. I’m not a great student or meditator; I’m kind of a student of action. And quiet. Rudy and my lives are basically about work and quiet.
“Visual contemplation, for me, is more exciting than abstract contemplation. It delivers a physical charge, which I’ve never been able to get from meditation. I’ve achieved higher states contemplating things. You could say it’s a weakness of mine. It is. But it’s the way I relate to the earth and the whole arrangement of things. And I present that to people with my pictures.”
The teachings and transmissions she has received, she says, make a positive difference her life. They have brought her to an understanding of how the many parts fit. “Every year the distractions lessen, and the focus and concentration are greater. Mindfulness, compassion for others, the emphasis on offering things to other people—to me, the whole of life is a kind of meditation in action.”
Wurlitzer speaks up to call his wife’s photos “monuments of decay,” a description she likes. Some of the sites she has visited have powerful energy and some have none; some are beautiful and others are not. But one characteristic they all share is decay.
“At the start,” she says, “the majesty was harder to see than the decay. Majesty was the surprise. The majesty, the beauty, the relation of the manmade to the earth around it. I was working a lot with geometric forms, and to look at them is like a meditation. If you look at a pyramid long enough you can almost invert it, so that it is empty and the sand and sky around it are the solids. The ability to contemplate amazing forms—and the ancients were very keyed into all these things—is to contemplate the magnificent.”
Before every shoot Davis familiarizes herself with the coming site through research. This led to an interest in the numbers inherent in many of the world’s monuments, and eventually she sought out a mathematician who has written about sacred geometry and harmonic proportions. Her photographs are now sized according to some of these ancient ideas. She declines to elaborate, except to say that she doesn’t follow a rigid system and she tweaks the sizes by instinct. “The more one knows specifically, and looks to analyze the photos, the more that takes away when viewing them,” she says. “But anyone with knowledge of ancient numerology could figure out a few things.”
When Davis is on-site, looking through her lens, she says she’s aiming for “completion in my camera.” By this she means that what she is looking for is already there—it’s just hard to see. The truth of a place may need some time to be revealed. “I feel it is there, but I have to put myself in the right position. If you walk 360 degrees, in different light, there are different things you see.”
Davis is sixty-three now, and knows her longest, hardest journeys are behind her. After a grueling month-long trip to China, “I decided, at a party for myself, that’s it for this kind of thing.”
Her most demanding trip was in 1991, when she and Rudy went to Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma. She was grieving the sudden death of her son, Ayrev, killed in an accident when just twenty-one. In Wurlitzer’s moving memoir of that trip, Hard Travel in Sacred Places, she is adrift on grief and fever—and every time they reach a sacred site she forges a deeper connection with the citizens of civilizations destroyed centuries ago.
“Going to these ancient sites, you feel more in the continuum of things,” Davis says. “You can take that past into you. When you lose somebody like that, you join all the other people in the world who have lost people, so you merge with all those other beings.
“These places are informed by death and decay, and they have allowed me to see time differently. When you’re younger you think it all moves forward. When I lost him, everything started to move sideways.”
Her remaining travel, she says, will be to fill in pieces missing from past efforts. She’ll go to Iguazu Falls, on the Brazilian-Argentinean border, because it’s the only major waterfall she has never visited. India, with its vast collection of ancient monuments, intrigues her especially, so she’s planning to return there. And she may travel to assist the growing movement to protect the world’s heritage monuments. Having seen them ravaged by war, global warming, and thievery, Davis wants the monuments to be saved—not by turning them into theme parks, but by preserving them as the ancient, slowly disintegrating, beautiful places they are.
Trips will now be shorter and more focused. The drive to go, go, go is gone. Still, Davis says she has more perspective now as she gets older, and more patience.
“Before, photography was kind of the driving force of my life; everything else was after that. Now I just try to do whatever it is that I’m doing, to focus on it and pay attention. That’s not to say I like all the things I’m doing, but I focus on everything now. It’s like if you’re cooking and you’re paying attention, then it’s usually a better meal. I just try to pay attention now, instead of trying to get over this to get back to that.”
In the long run her photos, she hopes, will help people “expand their world to incorporate the other: the other people in the world, the other religions, the other sites. To contemplate in quiet and peace, to take pleasure from the beauty of our world. Maybe they will make some connection, to geometry or water. Maybe they will start looking a little more closely.
“Or maybe it will be a momentary distraction from a bad day. That would be OK, too.”