Into The Light: A Journey Through Buddhist Asia

by Matt Damsker


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By Sharon Collins. 2003.Published by W.W. Norton & Co., New York, London. ISBN #0-39305736-4. 164 pages. 74 color photographs. Information: ; . US $29.95. CAN $45.

Arresting compositions, rich color tonalities, all the mystic texture of Buddhist Asia--Sharon Collins's photographs are evocative and admirable on just about any level. When one considers that she took up the camera as a full-time pursuit in 1993, after 13 years as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., this pleasing and beautifully printed book is all the more impressive.

Still, the distance between photography as entertainment and photography as pure art is measured on nearly every page of "Into the Light," which pairs its 74 crisply reproduced images with spiritual homilies from such sources as the Upanishads, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and The Buddha. Collins has an earnest, sensitive, loving eye for the varied locales, shrines, mountain passes and Buddhist people she photographed during a year-long retreat in the remote corners of Asia. But this book is more a coffee-table tome than a serious work, while Collins's images are too often tourist-like and tamely picturesque. They lack the subversive spark, or at least some penetrating sociological vision, that might transform them into classic photography.

Thus, the richly dimensional perspectives of sky, clouds, and Tibetan mountains are the stuff of high-end postcards, while the solitary Asians seen at prayer, or at work in the fields, remind us mainly of other, stronger photographs we've seen before. Collins is, understandably, at a disadvantage, given the rich history of Far East photography and such masters of deeply felt, politically charged, postmodern imagery as Shirin Neshat or Raghubir Singh. By comparison, Collins's delicate and elegant studies are not often much more than pretty.

That said, there's no denying the sheer visual pleasure of her best work. An old Vietnamese woman, seen through barbed wire and against the gunmetal liquid undulations of a river, proves memorable. The abstract waving of fabrics hung up to dry against distant hills and looming clouds is almost Mondrian-like. A little boy floating in muddy water, his head the only visible part of him, is a deceptively simple study in everyday joy. And the sight of elephants journeying through early morning mist is subtly dreamlike.

Yes, Collins at her best is collectible. Then again, collectors may be put off by this book's less than rigorous approach to presenting her work. The titles and locales of the photos do not accompany them on their respective pages but are instead listed on two pages in the back of the book. Technical notes would also make a welcome difference, but at the end of the day, Collins's technique and her potential are at least worth our trouble.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.