In 2005, Michael O’Neill, who had been practicing yoga following a spinal surgery that had left him paralyzed in one arm, ran into Vanity Fair editor Susan White while leaving a yoga studio. He mused to her that there had never been a thoughtful photographic study of yoga. Soon, he was off to India to shoot B. K. S. Iyengar and Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. Those may not be household names to the layperson, but in the yoga world, they are legends (and are now deceased). O’Neill traveled the globe capturing masters and practitioners in a variety of bendy poses and meditative stances. These shots are collected in a new book, On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace, published by TASCHEN, and a corresponding exhibition of the same name at TASCHEN Gallery in West Hollywood.
Viewers to the exhibition wander through a categorical layout—air, fire, earth, water, and spirit—as well as several general sections of wide-ranging portraits and images of yoga masters in poses. There are cases filled with O’Neill’s rare books, letters, and other yoga ephemera, and even a platform upon which a large stone sits. Above the stone is an image of Dhuna Giri, a yogi, lifting the stone with his penis. The wall-text refers to this as the “penis lift.” On the platform, O’Neill has declared a challenge—any viewer who is able to lift the rock will win an editioned print of the Dhuna Giri.
While the show has an entertaining atmosphere, the photography is very serious, vacillating between a spiritual breed of anthropological photography, and the more mundane, but no less interesting, practice of capturing the limits (and the potential) of the human form. In that way, the images can appear like sport photography—we are left marveling at the way the body can be stretched and bent. On the other hand, yoga has been a spiritual tradition in India and other Eastern hemispheric countries for over 5,000 years.
The yogis in the images emanate with spirituality, their creased faces as twisting as the poses they make. Through his subjects and their bodies, O’Neill’s images come out peaceful, still, mindful, and overwhelmingly striking.
“Michael O’Neill: On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace” is on view at TASCHEN, Los Angeles, Nov. 7, 2015–Jan. 7, 2016.