A Step Away from Paradise
The True Story of a Tibetan Lama's
Journey to a Land of Immortality
City Lion Press, 2017
Work Statement, and Some Personal Notes
on the Genesis of my Books
I WAS BORN in Boston, Massachusetts and raised just outside Boston. After attending Goddard College and the University of Vermont, graduating with a degree in Comparative Religion and Literature, I was based in Vermont for many years. Apart from my numerous journeys to India and my extended times living in the Indian Himalayas, I have also lived for long periods in both Lisbon, Portugal, and in the mountains of the southern Mexican state Chiapas. More recently, together with my wife Barbara Gerke, an anthropologist, I’ve lived in the foothills of India’s Western Himalayas, Oxford, and Berlin. We are currently based in Vienna.
I have lectured widely on my books and photographs, including at Oxford University, the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, the University of California Santa Barbara, and at Humboldt University of Berlin and Phillip University of Marburg, Germany. My articles have appeared in Parabola Magazine and the journal Himalaya.
I have had solo exhibits of my photographs at the Art Center and Gallery of the Nicholas Roerich Memorial Trust in Nagar, in the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh in India’s western Himalayas, as well as at the Tibet House in Frankfurt, Germany, which was titled ‘The Tibetan World in India’ (Tibetische Welt in Indien).
WRITING AND PHOTOGRAPHY have been dual pursuits of mine for a long time. While writing has generally taken the upper hand, the scales are beginning to come towards a balance. The common element of both is to tell a human story. While two of my books—A Step Away from Paradise (Penguin, 2011; City Lion Press, 2017) and The Master Director (HarperCollins, 2014)—have each been illustrated with over 80 of my photographs, these photographs have been there to compliment the story, which was primarily told in words. My 2018 publication of Leopard in the City, continues this tradition as a fictional, semi-autobiographical piece, with over 45 photographs, mostly of lions, from the city of Vienna.
2018 saw the publication of my first two primarily photographic books, Ganges Lament and Sculpture Garden of the Gods, both featuring my photographic work in black and white.
Both photography and writing have been passions for me, avenues of expression, and crafts that I have spent years patiently developing. Although I must leave the quality of my photographs and writings for others to judge, my passion for both disciplines grows, as does my love of stories and images that both entertain and offer windows into unusual places and the people I’ve had the good fortune to come to know. My ultimate hope is to spur the reader and viewer into exploring his or her own depths.
I have often wondered whether I found the stories that I’ve told in my books, or whether the stories found me. There is an uncanny dynamic at play, which I am yet to fathom.
Personal Notes on the Genesis of Each of my Books:
The True Story of a Tibetan Lama’s Journey to a Land of Immortality
Penguin, 2011; City Lion Press, 2017; Audiobook: Audible.com, etc, 2019
forthcoming Chinese language edition with Oak Tree Publications, Taiwan, early 2020
It all began when a Tibetan friend and thangka painter in the former Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim said, “You like stories? My mother-in-law has a true story from when she was young that will stretch your sense of reality.” I had no idea the impact her story would have on me, and how many years I’d spend tracking down her story’s details and historic background. Her three-hour recounting of how she and over 300 others followed a visionary lama into the high Himalayan glaciers in 1962 in order to ‘open the way’ to a hidden land of immortality—a real-life Shangri-La—fired my imagination and set me on my course across the Himalayas to search out others, mostly now in their 70s and 80s, who were willing to give up this world for one far greater.
THE MONK AND THE SLY CHICKPEA: Travels on Corfu
INTO THE HANDS OF THE UNKNOWN: An Indian Sojourn with a Harvard Renunciant
Escape Media Publishers, 2003; Pilgrims Publishers, 2006; City Lion Press, 2019
These two books were originally published as Parts I and II of Windblown Clouds, my first book, which tells the story of a journey I took as a young man, at the age of 21.
The Monk and the Sly Chickpea tells of my time living on a mountaintop monastery in Greece with the ancient stone monastery’s one inhabitant, a fiery-eyed old Orthodox monk who had been living alone amongst the clouds and rocks for over forty years.
Into the Hands of the Unknown begins the day I left the mountain, got on a Greek ferry, and happened to sit next to Ed Spencer, a brilliant 70-year-old ex-Harvard professor and wandering ascetic who left his life in the West for India long before I was born. Within an hour of meeting him, he said, “I think you should come with me to India.” I did, and I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if I had happened to take a different seat on that ferry.
A Journey through Politics, Doubt, and Devotion with a Himalayan Master
HarperCollins, 2014; City Lion Press, 2019
The events recounted in this book started innocently enough, when chance brought me to a Sikkimese village the very day their ‘living god,’ a Himalayan spiritual master and Tibetan lama, was arriving. For some reason he liked me and seemed as interested in how my mind worked (he’d never been around a Westerner) as I was in his. He invited me to travel with him, which I did—and continued doing on and off for the next couple of years. The book provides an open-minded skeptical and intimately close-up view of the life of the most unusual person I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend time with. All was not always easy, especially when it became clear that he was involved with the local thuggish dictator and his henchmen, and my probing questions forced me to flee the area and put off the publishing of the book for some years.
City Lion Press, 2018
In essence this book is autobiographic. It was born of the feeling I sometimes have when living in a modern Western metropolis and I turn a busy corner and suddenly feel trapped in a world entirely of human creation, a world in which nature, the wild and the free are banished. I feel at these times like a leopard who suddenly finds himself so far from his native jungle. I find myself scanning left and right up the road: where are the mountains and how do I get to them?
Finding myself with no way out of the city, at least for extended periods of time, I turned my longing and alienation into this story, of a real leopard, an actual leopard of the jungle who finds himself in the center of a modern city. He learns the ways of human beings in the hope of finding a way out, and hopes for a miracle. The book is richly illustrated with photographs from the city of Vienna, where this leopard in human clothes wandered with his camera ruminating upon the wild and the tamed.
Animated Landscape Photography from the Greek Island of Ikaria
City Lion Press, 2018
I first went to the Greek island of Ikaria in search of the Greece I knew from decades ago and feared it was gone with the advent of the Euro and the general homogenization that has overtaken so many places in the last years. Even as I went there, I feared it was but a dream I was chasing. I was looking for a photo/writing project and was ready to reflect upon whatever I encountered.
To my surprise, and delight, I found on Ikaria a vestige of the Greece I once knew (and wrote about in my first book, Windblown Clouds), and I felt immediately welcomed and at home. The place resonates with me. But my even greater surprise is that though I’ve been writing about my experience of the island and the people I encountered, the main project to date emerging from my extended stays on the island is not stories from nor portraits of the island’s inhabitants, nor my extensive research into the island’s history; what has emerged is a series of landscape photographs from a particular region of the island’s upper mountainous reaches—which I found out later was the place the ancient Greeks attributed as the birthplace of the god Dionysus.
These heights are far from human habitation, where the elements are powerful, where stone and wind produce balancing boulders with strangely animate shapes, where clouds cloak the mountains, then lift to reveal trees twisted into knots. Spending hours a day up there for weeks on end over the course of three winters, sometimes entirely alone with the mountain, revealed more to me than just the outer landscape. Maybe it was the way my eye caught the shapes of beings looking back at me from the rocks, maybe it was the intensity of the silence and the raw forces that were at play.
Black and White Photographic Portraits from the Sacred Indian City of Varanasi
City Lion Press, 2018
This series of black and white photographs were taken mostly on one short section of a road leading to the Ganges River and in the surrounding winding alleyways in the sacred Indian city of Varanasi. While photographing there, I rarely felt the need to explore other parts of the city. By standing in any one place, the vast river of humanity would pass before my lens with all its joys and sorrows.
The city is teaming with life and death, and with its burning ghats and mourners it is a reminder of the mortality we all face. Every extreme is present, from the innocence of youth to bent age, riches to extreme destitution, spiritual insight to the shadow of madness. Simply wandering the alleyways near the river or standing still and with eyes and heart wide open is enough to turn anyone towards philosophical ruminations. It certainly moved me deeply. It is my hope that at least some of this is reflected in my photographs.
The creation of this book was made possible by the generous support of a Fellowship at the Centro Incontri Umani, Ascona, Switzerland.