Photographer Robert Sturman is beloved and highly respected in the Los Angeles yoga community, and beyond. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media and online connectedness, his art is reaching thousands of people all over the world. His gift is so inspiring, his art so compelling that it seems to proliferate all on its own.
Sturman’s work is instantly recognizable, characterized by careful composition, an eye for beauty, the elegance of the female form and empathy for his subjects. He has traveled the world photographing all kinds of subjects from sadhus in India, Tibetan monks in Nepal, to musicians in Old Havana and New Orleans, and of course, beautiful women everywhere, frequently in yoga poses. A consistent theme is finding and reflecting beauty wherever he casts his eye, even in unlikely situations, as, for example, the Prison Yoga series.
Earlier this year Sturman was invited to document the growing phenomenon of prisoners practicing yoga in California penitentiaries. The resulting photographs are profoundly moving and manage to capture the prisoner’s intrinsic dignity and grace. There’s an almost unbearable poignancy in seeing incarcerated human beings embodying poses with such presence and fullness; the images seem to pulsate with aliveness and potency. Sturman manages to convey each prisoner’s humanity and radiance, his camera bringing out the very best in whatever comes under his benevolent gaze. Devoid of judgment or commentary, the images simply bring forth beauty and truth. I’m reminded of Rumi: “out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field; I’ll meet you there.“
Sturman’s art is inherently philosophical, which is to say it functions not just as an aesthetic object (something we find beautiful), but also as a device for creating meaning in the world. He describes the role of the artist as having to “swallow the darkness of humanity and take it all in.” Of Russian Jewish descent, Sturman describes the visceral experience he had of the unspeakable agony and brutality of the holocaust when he visited Auschwitz concentration camp. “I had seen movies about the holocaust and heard a lot of stories and I knew it was tragic and I’d met people who had survived it, but I never really got it…(until) I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau where two million people were murdered. And I got it that day. It was the most haunting experience of my life and I saw barracks with thousands of pounds of women’s hair that was shaved before they were put through the gas chambers and it was endless tortures that were documented on this massive plantation that was used to murder people. I was searching within the ashes to find that one little flower that was growing and that’s what I was going to focus on, and celebrate in reference to humanity’s highest potential. “
On his return to California Sturman contacted a Hasidic rabbi friend of his who happened to surf and they went to the beach to make art. Their trip yielded the surreal Perseverance — Portrait of a Surfing Rabbi which depicts the grey-bearded rabbi in long black coat, prayer shawl and fedora carrying a surfboard, under blue skies gazing out to sea.
It’s a beautiful image, transcendent and thought provoking. Sturman says: “when I create I don’t think. I work on faith. It was a blind creation. But after I looked at it, I saw that it was a piece that was so much more than anything I could have done by focusing on Auschwitz and all the genocide because I’m just not skilled enough as an artist to put 2 million haunted souls that have been tortured into a piece of art. So I made a piece about perseverance. What I love about it so much is that it’s a piece which I believe would have been Hitler’s absolute worst nightmare, to have our rabbis, who survived the holocaust, surfing in sunny Southern California, married to gorgeous women, and making lots of Jewish babies at night.”
Quintessential Sturman. The ability to create meaning where others simply see the void. German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ but Sturman has created poetry in both the prison series and the rabbi image, visual poetry wherein beauty and the resilience of the human spirit triumph over the banality of evil, incarceration, and the loss of life.
And then there’s the poetry of the body. His stunning images of yogis practicing asana have an immediacy, an aliveness, to them that summons the potency of the life force, the shimmering field of shakti (energy) animating all things. That he does all his shoots outdoors, usually in gorgeous surroundings, adds to the sense of his art as a dance with shakti. Many of his most striking portraits are shot at the ocean and hint at a majesty that goes beyond the moment. There’s a transcendence, a promise of the infinite. Philosophers and sages throughout the ages have counseled us that beauty and truth lie in what is eternal and that true happiness is to be found in loving that which is permanent and transcends the particular. And it’s this gesture beyond the particular towards that which is timeless that elevates Sturman’s photography to the status of great art.
But back to the dance with shakti. In Tantric philosophy all of life can be understood as a lila, or dance, between Shiva (the archetypical male who is consciousness itself, one-pointed, resolute, unflinching) and Shakti (the female energy of movement and potency, ever-changing, dynamic). Without Shakti, Shiva is impotent; as soon as he starts to move, to make consciousness manifest, he becomes Shakti in a merging of polarities transcending isolation and stasis. This primal dance is happening all the time in the throbbing pulse of the cosmic creative rhythm.
Shakti brings Shiva’s vision to life and gives it meaning and purpose. Wherever there is art, beauty, creativity –music, poetry, ballet, scientific breakthroughs – Shakti is weaving her magic. And how she pulses in Sturman’s portraits of highly skilled yoginis! A dedicated yoga practitioner himself, Sturman’s work has increasingly focused on capturing the timeless grace and embodied mindfulness of asana. His portraits, whether set in the lively streets of Manhattan, the expansiveness of Malibu’s beaches and canyons, the timeless elegance of Walden’s New England, or the bleakness of San Quentin penitentiary, remind us that there is beauty everywhere. In Sturman’s own words “I often think of Rumi: ‘I can’t stop pointing to the beauty.’ That feels right to me.”