Leafing through the pages of Yoga: The Secret of Life, you get the impression you’re seeing faces of ancient wisdom. But some of them are familiar; they’re recognizable contemporaries, staged in the ethereal outdoors of the Hudson Valley. Rhinebeck photographer Francesco Mastalia’s ongoing experimentation with the wet-collodion process of making portraits, a labor-intensive craft from the mid-19th century, is both science and ceremony, a decidedly Old Masters approach to glorifying the human form.
Mastalia mastered the wet-collodion process in another art book featuring Hudson Valley farmers and chefs. Organic, also produced on museum-quality paper with a single embossed ambrotype on the cover, brings the mysteries of food production into sepia-toned light. You can almost smell the dirt, sweat and delicious aromas coaxed out of the ground by these vanguards of the farm-to-table movement.
In the introduction for Yoga, he describes the steps: hand-pouring an emulsion of collodion onto a plate of black glass, which is then bathed in a solution of silver nitrate to render it sensitive to light; removing the cap from the antique brass lens and counting the seconds of exposure. “Mysterious, alluring and elusive, the charismatic force of the collodion process propels us into the union of a known and unknown world.”
Mastalia wanted to capture yogis in various poses. What he didn’t expect was that engaging in the divine form with 108 adept practitioners would inspire him to such intimacy and self-reflection. He mentions “absorbing the power of the Sun, the breadth of world where art and alchemy embrace, and this union of synergy between the yogi, photographer and flow of the universe.” The distinctions between his craft and the spiritual elements of yoga began to blur. I ask if he practices yoga.
I do now! Once you start a yoga practice, everyone says the same thing: I wish I would have started sooner.
You mention the camera being a magical tool with its transference of light into images, and how channeling the presence of inner light is the essence of yoga.
The yogis talk about trying to find that inner light of the soul. They see the energy from the light of the Sun – there’s something sacred about the Sun – and how it affects us being very powerful… I don’t see it as a physical thing, but as a force of energy that ends up inside of us, within our soul. That’s what I really wanted to capture: something that is on the inside of these yogis.
Also, I don’t freeze time. I use time to take a photograph. Time does not sit still. It’s constantly moving… The movement of light appears in the background of the photographs. I think nature plays a big role in the essence of the photograph.
Was it difficult to have your subjects remain still enough for that length of time?
I told them: What will appear on this glass plate is the interaction between you and I and what the Universe decides to give us. For me, if an image is not perfectly sharp, it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s what happened in that moment, and I find it more truthful that way. If you look at the great photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, she got criticized very heavily because, in photography’s beginnings, they saw it as a science. And they wanted everything to be sharp and clear. She said that when she focused the camera, she didn’t like it when it was sharp. She actually liked it a bit out of focus. She was probably one of the people who defined art photography.
I tend to embrace whatever I’m given. It’s not a matter of trying to do a perfect photograph. I want to create a photograph based on the truth of that moment.
How did you track down all these yogis?
It started at the Omega Institute. I contacted them and was allowed to photograph on their campus and have access to the world-renowned yogis who come to teach there. I just went through their catalogue and made a list of people I wanted to meet. One person led me to the next.
Why 108 of them?
The significance of the number 108 is that it’s a sacred number in Eastern religious traditions… One stands for God or higher truth, zero stands for emptiness or completeness in spiritual practice, eight stands for infinity or eternity. The Shiva mala (and rosaries) are composed of 108 beads. There are 108 energy lines or nadis converging to form the heart chakra. There are 108 points that define the human body. There are 108 feelings with 36 related to the past, 36 to the present and 36 to the future. There are said to be 108 types of meditation. Some say there are 108 paths to God.
Did your subjects write their own texts for the book?
Yes, I videotaped each interview and transcribed them, so the stories were written in their own words. I basically just edited the piece. People from different parts of the country or the world have different ways of speaking and telling their stories. I want the reader to have that same feeling of me sitting in front of [the subjects] and us talking to each other. It is more intimate that way.
The introduction is your journey, what you got out of the whole project.
When I started photographing these people, I was not a yoga practitioner… The beauty of the human body and the physical practice drew me to want to photograph it. Then it transformed very quickly into something very different: answering those big questions of life. Why are we here? What is our purpose?
Have you surprised yourself in pushing your boundaries and discovering what you can do or don’t think you can do?
I’ve always taken care of myself physically, but one thing I’ve never done is really stretch. Within a short period of time, just seeing how much I’ve improved and increased my flexibility has amazed me. The body is so responsive.