Land of Pure Vision: The Sacred Geography of Tibet and The Himalaya
By David Zurick.
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 136 pp., $55.00
87 black & white photographs.
Review by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Entire contents are copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. All rights reserved.
In the land of the Himalaya, sometimes called the rooftop of the world, the ancient lines of geography and faith are inextricably entwined. Buddhist, Hindu, Bon and Shamanic cultures have thrived in the rugged terrain, lush forests and austere mountains of the Himalaya and their environs for countless centuries. The landscape is infused with the sacred, the lakes and mountains themselves containing deities, demons, and points of power. Here to simply traverse the land can be an act of immense hardship and profound devotion – an ethereal sacrament of time and space impossible to render in words. In Land of Pure Vision, David Zurick records a visual pilgrimage of heart-stopping photographs over ten years in the making.
Traveling through Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and India, Zurick captures images of humans, of man-made structures, and of spacious open vistas, each in its own way steeped in ritual and intact despite the ravages of time. Every photograph tells a silent story. A white haired monk squints at the camera, his face wizened and his expression inscrutable as he leans against the cracked wooden jamb of a monastery door, the mala beads on his wrist looping over a wristwatch in a concession to the necessity of time. The cliff face of the ancient meditation caves and temple of Drak Yerpa lie before a mountain devoid of structure looming sentry-like in the background, topped by a rising moon. The stone edifice of a Hindu chaitrya, or prayer chapel, frames the tantalizingly dark portal of a doorway, as sunlight slants through the treetops illuminating the small figure of a passing pilgrim.
It is through the lens of juxtaposition, both incidental and orchestrated, that the photographs convey the effect of time on each subject. As Zurick writes in the book’s introduction: “In pictorial isolation, the sacred places of Tibet and the Himalaya would appear as pristine and unadulterated landscapes. I came to understand, though, that such a highly edited portrait, however romantic, was not at all what I had in mind. I was interested in visual confliction as much as equanimity in the landscape.” The 700 year old Bodnath Stupa in Nepal, the most sacred of Buddhist temples outside of Tibet, is pictured as a backdrop to locals and tourists enjoying Coca-Cola in a neatly appointed outdoor cafe. A photograph shows seven young monks sitting in front of a wall of mani stones and prayer flags, their expressions ranging from somber to mischievous: on the facing page, Zurick’s lens captures seven young Nepalese men wearing jeans and Converse sneakers, most with carefully styled and highlighted hair, one of them gazing somewhere in the space between the cell phone in his hand and the photographer. In the foreground of a photograph of the holy Tibetan lake Yilhun Lhatso, an old mani mantra carved into a rock is wind-worn and mottled with lichen and ice but still legible – the only evidence of human presence visible in a pristine setting.
The book is divided into four gallery sections, each of which opens with an essay. Zurick is also a geographer and accomplished author, well-traveled and well-versed in the landscape and culture of the region. As such, he presents a unique and contemplative ekphrasis in which the writer observes the photographer observing the subject. In the Gallery Two, he writes of the powerful connection between human and place as an experience of faith occurring in the liminal world: “…a sacred geography can be realized only through faith and devotion. Even then, though, most sacred sites require some kind of demarcation on the ground to be recognizable, a wall of stacked scriptural rock tablets along a path, a stupa in a forest grove or a cairn placed atop a mountain pass, or a carved statue or painted mandala set inside a temple. These sacred intaglios create places that people rely upon to navigate a mysterious world of deities and demons, hope and despair, and – always- the unfolding human consciousness.”
Hope and despair are both found in abundance in these photographs. There is a bitter beauty in the ruins of a Hindu temple being reclaimed by earth and forest. There is a dogged optimism in the outposts of Tibetan Buddhism photographed in India, Nepal, and Ladakh, now the main strongholds of the various lineages, thousands of their Tibetan counterparts having been reduced to rubble in the wake of the Chinese invasion in 1949. There is awe in the image of rushing headwaters of the Ganges backed by towering Himalayan mountains from which the river emerges.
Above all, Land of Pure Vision is clearly a labor of love. All but the final photograph in this collection are silver gelatin prints created from four by five negatives, requiring Zurick to carry a large format camera and sheet film to remote places and through often extreme weather conditions. Every photograph is rendered with exquisite detail, and infused with an obvious respect and love for the land and its people. Zurick gives equal attention to the timeless and the ephemeral, the pristine and the rudely altered, capturing the conflation of geography, culture, human encroachment, and the inevitable mark of time. As he notes in his Introduction, the subjects of these photographs – and hence the pictures themselves – help us to make sense of the world. Zurick writes: “This transposition of religious thought to the landscape extends the planet’s surface to the empyrean. It engages the natural elements, a sense of place, and networks of movement and circulation that assemble the sacred sites into a comprehensive worldview. In such ways, and for some people, the world is made holy and the landscape becomes a touchstone for a reverent calculation of life on Earth.”
[box_light]Elizabeth Cody Kimmel was born in New York City, and grew up in Westchester County, and later Brussels, Belgium. She has published numerous books for young readers such as Lilly B. in Paris and the Supernatural series. From a very early age she was a zealous reader, buyer, and admirer of books. She attended the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York and Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. She lives with her family in New York’s Hudson Valley.[/box_light]