Sunday, November 7, 2010

Interview with Dennis Cordell

I happened upon Dennis Cordell's photostream on Flickr by accident - I can't remember how it happened.  But I was amazed at the number of fine portraits.  However, rather than view his photostream there, I recommend viewing it at where it is accompanied by some lovely music, perfectly chosen to match the subject matter.  I knew that I wanted to learn more about this photographer, his approach to photography, and his subjects.  Dennis graciously agreed to be interviewed and I think you will find both his words and his images to be (dare I say it? Yes I do!) enlightening.

JeffDennis, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for Better in Black and White.  Your pictures are amazing.  Your profile on Flickr identifies you as photographer, Tibetan translator, potter, painter.  That is a fascinating resume for five words.  Which of these came first in your life and how do they interact in your creative endeavors?

DennisI started painting in oils back in the late 1950s when I was still a child. I was very influenced by neoclassicists like David and Ingres, many of the Netherlandish painters like Memling as well as contemporary painters like Grant Wood and Chuck Close.  The school that had the greatest influence on my painting were the Orientalists, although I think they were incredibly hegemonic and colonial. I continued painting in oils until recently when I realized that there was nothing more to say with paint that could not be better said with photography. I taught art for the NYC public schools for 25 years. I worked with special ed. students and one of the things I taught was pottery. For myself, I was always interested in the Japanese pottery aesthetics of potters like Soetsu Yanagi and "schools" like Takatori and Hagi. I occasionally translate Tibetan texts. I published the PLUVIAL NECTAR OF BLESSINGSa translation of a work by HH the 5th Dalai Lama. It was published by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India. I was fortunate that the present Dalai Lama wrote the Foreward to the text. I've also done some translations of shorter texts for Tibetan journals. As a photographer, I was probably most influenced by Richard Avedon, but there are so many other great photographers whose work I am certain had some influence on me. All of these endeavours have since around the late 1960s have a common fons et origo in the spirituality of India and the Himalayan regions, particularly the Hindu tantric schools and Buddhism, particularly the Pala-Sena school and most especially Tibetan Buddhism.

Jeff:  I find it fascinating. As someone who is not well versed in either art or eastern religion, your influences sound exotic and magical. I definitely see the Avedon influence, but your portraits often show a playful side and seem composed in a way that just flows so naturally - something I notice often among photographers with a background in painting. I get the impression that your subjects often know you - they seem so relaxed and poised in photos. How much time do you typically spend with your someone before you start photographing them?

Dennis:  I am fairly well versed in Tibetan Buddhism for a westerner. Also I know some Sanskrit to use when photographing Sadhus from the Hindu tradition (they love it if you can recite a few mantras, like the Gayatri from the Vedas. Actually, I don't like the word Hindu, as it simply describes the "ism" of India). So most of my subjects are pretty comfortable with me. Also, some of the photos were taken at Tashi Lhunpo monastery in south India. I think of Tashi Lhunpo as "my" monastery because I have spent time there and taught English to some of the young monks. It was one of the largest monasteries in Tibet before being virtually destroyed by the Chinese. It is the seat of the Panchen Lama (who was kidnapped by the Chinese and whose whereabouts unknown...for more info. do a google of Tashi Lhunpo). Now Tashi Lhunpo is one of the poorest of all the monasteries in exile in India. But despite their lack of money they still maintain a remarkable level of Buddhist scholarship. I consider the monks from there to be like my "brothers." As far as being "playful"... yes they are! During "recess" when they have an hour or so from their studies and prayers, etc., the young monks LOVE soccer and cricket. Fortunately, I am too old to join them in these sports activities because they would definitely take what little energy I have and divert it from my photographic pursuits. On the other hand, they lovingly help me with carrying camera equipment, tripods, etc. Indians, from whatever spiritual tradition, are much more open to being photographed. Unlike westerners, who want to "look good," Indians just like being recorded. One of the things that was sooo remarkable to me was when I would load film into my camera...the young monks were mesmerized! At first I thought it was because they were too poor to afford cameras, but then I realized they had NEVER seen a FILM camera. For them, much of photography, like many younger Indians, comes from a digital camera, often part of a cell phone!

But as far as knowing's REALLY easy to become good friends with Buddhist monks.

Jeff:  It would have to be refreshing to photograph people who do not expect to look like Hollywood stars in their pictures.  You have so many great portraits of these monks - how long have you been photographing them?  From their largely timeless appearances, it is hard to tell when most of the pictures were made - even if digital cameras and cell phones are on the increase.

Dennis:  I have been photographing monks (mostly) and sadhus in India since 1985. Monks (and sadhus) have been wearing pretty much the same garb for centuries. Monks are bald and sadhus rarely cut their hair, so their "fashion statement" has remained relatively unchanged...sort of like Brooks Brothers in very slow motion.

Jeff:  Dennis, this is probably an unfair question as I suspect books could be written about it and I am looking for a short answer, but could you tell some things about the monks and sadhus, and what the distinction is other than their hair?

Dennis:  The monks that I have photographed are Buddhist. Most of them are Tibetan Buddhist monks. There are many schools of Buddhism and they wear different kinds of robes. I do have several photos of monks from other traditions such as Thai, Chinese, Burmese, Bangladeshi, etc. If the robes are dark and have a short "sleeve" on the right shoulder, then for sure they are Tibetan monks. Sadhus are Hindu, which is a different religion than Buddhism. The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Shakyamuni, was himself a prince within the Hindu tradition before he gained enlightenment and his followers started Buddhism. Buddhism is often called a religion by many non-Buddhists. However, there is no God in Buddhism, so a practitioner can be a Hindu, Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. and still "practice" Buddhism. Sadhus are Hindu followers of a specific deity or God such as Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu), the various Shaktis (goddesses) etc. They are usually wandering mendicants, living on the fringes of Indian society often in ashrams devoted to their particular deity. Many of the Shaivites are heavy smokers of ganga (marijuana or hashish) and are frowned upon by the more orthodox Hindus. I photograph them because they are often very photogenic. Although I have visited some of the ashrams, I am not a Hindu and sometimes the sadhus can even be a bit frightening, wandering often naked and stoned through places such as the holy city of Varanasi (Banares) and elsewhere. Buddhist monks, on the other hand take vows of celibacy and avoid all intoxicants. There are some photos of long-haired monks in my series. These are called nak-pas (spelled sngags pa, meaning "a reciter of mantras). They usually do not live in monasteries and are married to nak-mas (female mantra reciters) and often raise their children within this tradition. Often they live lives similar to monks but they are not celibate and are not fully ordained as monks. For the sake of brevity, with the exception of the nak-pa/mas, short hair = monk, long hair = sadhu.
I hope this helps clarify. There are exceptions to these rules so I am hesitant to make any extremely specific descriptions about sadhus or monks.

Jeff:  Thanks Dennis, I think that explanation does help a lot.

I don't want to dwell too much on the equipment you use, but I gather you shoot with a Hasselblad - do you generally travel light on your photo expeditions?  And what is your workflow for processing the pictures - a wet darkroom or a hybrid system with scanning the film and digital finishing?

Dennis:  I travel with a Hasselblad 501C with a 45 degree prism viewfinder attached, a 100mm lens, a 903SWC lens (that I rarely use because of its rangefinder quality, I prefer SLR but when I need a wide angle a 903 is what I use), a light meter and extra battery just in case, an extra 120 film back, a tripod and cable release. I always travel with at least 70 rolls of BW film (usually Tri-X). I develop the film myself, scan the negs with an Epson 4990 Perfection scanner, then do as little Photoshopping as possible, usually blurring the outer edges of the negative and printing in quadtone. My philosophy is keep it easy as possible.

Jeff:  A very good philosophy I think, and it has served you well. You have an incredible number of beautiful pictures. If someone reading this wanted to buy a print of one of your pictures, how should they go about doing that?

Dennis:  My site is not really a commercial one. I  don't do photography to sell it. I sold some stuff to a photographer here in NYC who had seen my pictures on Flickr and was REALLY wanting to buy 6 pieces so I printed the ones he wanted and sold them. It was an easy sell because essentially I just got on the subway and delivered them to him, but I don't want to have to pack the photos up and take them to the post office or UPS, so basically my work is not for sale. If a gallery were to offer me a show and THEY wanted to sell the photos that would probably be okay. I'm not terribly ambitious when it comes to finances. I have a pension which is enough for me to live on and buy film and take trips to India. So I am lucky that I don't have to be looking for buyers to support my photography "habit." I put up my website as both a gallery and meditational piece. Mainly I just want viewers to sit back with a nice cup of tea and watch the slideshow and listen to the music. I like discussing photography, especially technical stuff, with other photographers. I also like just discussing the photos with non-photographers who like my work. I think photography is one of most proletarian of the's just a piece of paper with an image. I think it's okay to recover your costs and make a little $$, but I am appalled when I hear of photos selling at auction for millions of dollars. There are so many people in the world who don't even have enough to eat, and to pay that kind of $$ for something to hang on your wall or put in an album is just, for me, crazy! Don't get me wrong, I like $$ as much as anyone because it puts bread on the table and helps me support friends in India who don't have much. I just think that the whole financial thing, throughout the world, is really out of control. I don't think photography, or any other art, should be consumed the way people consume McMansions with mortgages and such. 

Jeff:  Excellent answer!  Thanks for doing this - I have learned a lot and found your information and thoughts as intriguing as your wonderful pictures.

Dennis:  Thanks Jeff, I look forward to reading it all on your blog.

You can learn more about the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, and help support it financially by purchasing merchandise if you would like, here.


  1. Such excellent subject matter in Dennis's photography. Great post!

  2. Wonderful interview with a distinguished artist -- thank you!

  3. Excellent interview and beautiful photography. Thank you for posting it!

  4. Thanks Jeff and Dennis. Great interview and photos.


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