Being the Flow – Claudio Basso: Zen Photographer
Claudio Basso and his book collaboration with Bodhipaksa, “Being the Flow” The mind. The memory. The soul. The body. The passion in Claudio Basso’s fine art captivates all of our senses, inviting us to linger awhile. As Jennifer Stockman, President of the Guggenheim Foundation, reflects, “Claudio Basso is a masterful artist adept at capturing the spirit and soul of any subject matter…. In his first landscape series, he was able to make even trees look like sensual and organic creatures. Claudio is truly a gifted artist who has the ability to change the way in which we perceive the world around us.”
Born in Paris in 1959, Claudio received his first camera and an enlarger for his fourteenth birthday. He set up his own dark room and was off shooting everything he possibly could. Soon thereafter he began dreaming of traveling the world and making a name for himself as a professional fashion photographer. At the age of twenty-one, he recalls saying to his father, “Dad, one day I want to be able to spin the globe and wherever my finger lands, go work there.” With that, Basso relocated to Milan to seek out possibilities for work and learned that Alberto Nodolini, a well-known art director credited for re-crafting Italian Vogue and Vanity magazines, was meeting with up-and-coming talent. Basso contacted Nodolini and arranged for an appointment. He was chosen as one of the few young photographers to work for Nodolini as an apprentice and it was through this valuable experience that Basso would begin to develop his own style. Basso witnessed and absorbed the unconventional techniques of style and lighting, poring over films shot by fashion industry pioneers like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Art Kane, and Bill King. Back in the studio, Basso would attempt to replicate and reinvent what he was learning, showing his developing style to Nodolini to receive his guidance and feedback. “That was a terrific experience,” says Basso, “because Nodolini allowed me to be in the editorial offices of one of the most iconic magazines in the fashion industry. Not only was I seeing the magazine being brought from an idea to an actual icon of the industry, but I was having the opportunity to look at the work of all the big masters who were collaborating with the publication at that time.” After years of apprenticeship, sacrifice and good, old-fashioned hard work in Milan, Basso went on to make his dream of spinning the globe a reality. Instead of hanging around Italy’s fashion capital with other successful fashion photographers who were beginning to enjoy the good life, Claudio packed his bags, went to Paris and started over again. Once he became successful there, he packed his bags again and did the same thing in London. “It was hard because every time I would go to a new place, not only did I have to break into a new market, but I had to literally start from scratch. That meant putting the portfolio on my back, going on appointments all day, and having most doors slam in my face until I got the first chance, then the second – all of this while surviving on french fries.” This cycle continued until Basso found himself in demand all over the world. It wasn’t until he landed in New York City that he called his father and said, “Dad, remember what I told you several years ago about spinning the globe?…” Today Basso can travel anywhere in the world and find work because his work and his name are so well-recognized. His portfolio includes exquisite fashion shots for magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Vanity, Amica and Grazia, and he has photographed some of the world’s most stunning and famous creatures; Cindy Crawford, Estelle Hallyday, Niky Taylor, and Iman Bowie, to name just a few.
At the height of his career, while working in New York, Basso stumbled upon the website of Buddhist teacher, Bodhipaksa. Immediately transformed by Bodhipaksa’s writing style, Basso found and read Bodhipaksa’s book, Living as a River. Six months later, Basso suffered a career-halting aneurysm, challenging his entire way of life. In what he describes as a “heat wave coming up from my feet,” Basso was rushed to the hospital, where doctors ordered an emergency MRI. Basso’s brain hemorrhage was so severe that he was immediately transferred to another hospital. Within a matter of hours, Basso underwent brain surgery, after which he slipped into a coma for eight weeks, suffered three strokes, and encountered multiple brushes with death. It was an ordeal that hospitalized him for over six months, an experience that affected him deeply on a spiritual level, and granted him a second chance at life with a new perspective on his work. After his aneurysm, Basso went on to create a series of images with meditative statements, infusing them with “Zen energy” to which he is magnetically drawn. In a partnership with his Buddhist mentor, author Bodhipaksa, Basso collaborated on the creation of the book entitled, Being the Flow.
WRR: Being the Flow, brings together two talented communicators from very different fields. How did you find one another? Claudio Basso: I was already very much captivated by Bodhipaksa’s writing and all of the things that he was talking about on his site. He inspired me so deeply that one afternoon during the winter – and it must have been a day when I think the temperature must have been about five million below zero – I picked up my camera, and I went down to a nearby location where there were waterfalls and decided to create a series of images. When I went back and looked at it, I was so happy with the results that I decided to send them to Bodhipaksa to let him know that his book inspired me to create it. A couple of weeks later I get an email from him saying, “Claudio, I find your work spectacular. It stops me in my breathing and it makes me think a lot. In fact, I find it so inspirational that I would like to ask you if you would be interested in doing a book with me where I create my spiritual writing on the inspiration of your images.” At that point, you can imagine, I was like a little kid jumping up and down the whole house. I mean, this guy was my guru that I’ve followed, and he was now asking me to do a book with him.
How did you arrive at marrying your respective images with the meditations themselves? Can you walk me through your image selection process?
Claudio Basso: The meaning really was about two artists, collaborating together, utilizing two different tools to send out the same message to the world. The pictures were the inspirational source for Bodhipaksa’s spiritual writing. So the pictures came first. However, we did have a wide selection to pick from and that was a wonderful sharing process between the two of us. I would send him a selection based on what I thought, then he would give me his comments and his selections, then working back and forth we came up with a final selection of images.
WRR: The image called Tango is such a captivating photograph. I look at this photograph and feel it’s so aptly named.
Claudio Basso: The whole idea of the tango dance, as you very well know, is that it is a very passionate type of dance where the relationship between the male and the female dancer is extremely tight, even physically. At the same time, it really rolls out some culture elements, like the position of the male figure in society in respect to the female, and so forth. That is why when people dance tango, the male is holding his companion with his hand across the back, and usually with his fingers open, because they’re both striving for closeness. So when I looked at that image of those two trees, I felt this is really the same vibrational emotion as dancing tango. It was like someone pumped the music in my ears while I was looking at this image.
WRR: And what makes you choose black and white photography over color?
Claudio Basso: The choice of color or black and white is similar to the choice a painter will make when he decided if he is going to do a canvas with oil or pastels. So it is just one of the many tools I have available as an artist to describe my message. I find the black and white very valuable, not only for the drama it allows me to depict, but because it generates a certain type of vibrational intensity. In black and white the whole sense of the message is carried by shapes and shades of grey. There’s no color to distract. WRR: Did you give the photographs in Being the Flow their titles yourself or did you and Bodhipaksa work together on naming them? Claudio Basso: The titles are all mine. They are part of the message. Everybody gets a different story or interpretation depending on what they need when they are in front of art. That has always been the intent behind my work. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of adding some words to the visuals. On the other hand, I like my work to be as open as possible in the sense that while I’m trying to offer a message to the viewer, I don’t like to impose one. To me, it doesn’t matter, the connection between the title and the picture. The purpose behind my work is to connect with the people out there and hopefully inspire them to take a moment, breathe deeply, and try to look at things a little deeper. Whatever makes them happy is fine with me as long as it becomes a source of generating some positive energy. WRR: That brings me to another evocative image, the XII Station. For me, this image represents that which is weighed down in the human experience, when we feel that we are tangled and knotted and confused or burdened. It looks like it’s a person with his or her arms outstretched, literally entwined with complexity.
Claudio Basso: The title came from the Via Crucis where the twelfth station is the stop where Christ was crucified. In fact, when I looked at the image I sort of saw an abstract figure of a man on a cross. This is one of the images that has an incredible significance for me, as I am Buddhist. The Buddha acquired his final enlightenment one day while he was sitting under a huge tree called the Bodhi Tree. That very famous Bodhi Tree was a particular type of fig tree that is now called a Banyan tree and that’s exactly the tree that I photographed in that image. When I actually completed the image and I started looking at it – I had this huge print next to my bed, so I had many opportunities to really stare at it – I was captured by the meditative Zen qualities of the image. I would get lost and find myself moving into a different realm of reality. I found myself often meditating on that image.
WRR: There’s so much you can take from it. There are vascular elements, and just these really human qualities. So, in terms of where Buddhism meets Christianity, if one element of this image is suggestive of Christ on the cross and another element is of enlightenment through Buddha, where do the two meet for you in your meditative assessment of it? Claudio Basso: Buddhism is not a religion, rather a way of life. However, to me, any form of expression, be it religious or meditation, that allows you to get in touch with your inner self, is a good thing to have. It produces positive results. It’s like if you give a bunch of kids white paper and colored crayons and ask them to draw a house, you’re going to end up with a bunch of houses that look different with different colors and all of that, but they are all a house. It’s the same way with religion. In fact, if you really analyze the word of the most renowned profits – be it Jesus Christ, be it Muhammad or whatever – you will realize that in the very end they all speak the same language and the same concepts. That goes back to the critical Buddhist concept of oneness: that we are all one, part of the same universal energy. It doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or whatever.
WRR: In your biography, you refer to yourself as being a very sensual being in that you enjoy scent and surfaces, music, food, wine, and enjoying beauty wherever you see it. Do you feel this is something that has developed or is this something you’ve always gravitated to even as a youth?
Claudio Basso: I am indeed a very sensual man. I can tell you for a fact it has increased vertically over time. I think that is a direct consequence of acquired wisdom in the sense that you become more and more secure about yourself, and, therefore, you can set the path where you are walking and allow yourself the freedom to be who you are and to experience the things you want to experience without any form of shame or guilt. I never really cared much about how the world perceives me as an artist. What I really care about is to be able to touch the world with my art. As long as I know that if someone looks at one of my images and receives its stimulating energy that eventually transforms into something positive in their life, then I’m a happy man and I think that my mission is fulfilled. What I care about is that they get my message and that my message helps make the world a better place. I came to the point of understanding that I am a man with very alerted senses, and now I am totally at peace at letting those senses fly free whenever I have an opportunity, whether taking a walk in the woods or being in front of food or touching a nice surface or what have you. For me, it’s not even a matter of seeing it. When I’m presented with a situation, the universe sends me the message through energy and my senses alert me towards it.
WRR: At the age of 51, you experienced a life-altering event and suffered an aneurysm. Tell me, how did that experience affect your health, your outlook, and your career?
Claudio Basso: Let’s just say I had a lot of time to think, and I took the whole ordeal very spiritually. The question that kept bombarding me was, “Why? Why does God, the Source – call it whatever you want – think I’m not ready to go? Why does he think I still have work to do on this planet when I’ve worked so hard all my life? What is it that I have to do?” These questions were bombarding my brain every day until one morning the light bulb went on, and I heard this little voice inside me that gave me the answer, “But you see, Claudio, you spent your entire life making pictures to please art directors, fashion editors, and advertising executives. I think it’s time for you now to make pictures to please people.” So that got me thinking a lot. I came to the conclusion that it was time to start thinking about messages that I want to communicate to the world to make it a happier place.
WRR: Did you battle at all with doubt or fear?
Claudio Basso: One of the things that was a consequence of the aneurysm – and the hospital afterwards – is that I gained an incredibly intimate relationship with mother nature – to the point that I can now walk outside and literally feel the energy of the Earth. My friends think I’m crazy because I talk to the birds or I go out at night and I talk to the moon and I talk to the stars because I feel they are all my friends. I truly feel their energy. Although I’ve always had a connection with Mother Nature since I was very young, it was never as deep as it is now because of a spiritual component in it. What happened was that I learned how to train my senses to become more and more alerted and more receptive towards universal energies. That stimulated the creation of my latest work.
WRR: Tell me about the transitional process away from high fashion celebrity photography.
Claudio Basso: I’m not in the fashion industry anymore. I’m not even in advertising anymore. As an artist, I now depend entirely on people purchasing my fine art from my website. That is my only source of revenue and my survival depends on the income I earn selling my fine art.
WRR: Do you feel more isolated?
Claudio Basso: Actually, I don’t. I’m very often alone, but I’m never lonely and that is because I believe my spiritual awakening has played a big role, so I’m constantly feeling this connection to “The One” and to Mother Nature. So whenever I go through moments of difficulty, I resort to meditating and that helps me a lot. Every morning I go down to the ocean, and I do my own meditation because moving water has a terrific beneficial impact on me. I developed a tremendous friendship with the ocean, which I feel is a direct conduit to the wider universe. When I go out and I create fine art, it’s not like “Alright, I’m going to pick up the camera today, get out there and do some fine art.” It’s a much more involving process. To start with, my fine art projects are all collections so there is always a concept behind them and a very clear message that I intend to describe to the world through images. That being said, I usually do a meditation session to get balanced and in tune, and then, when I am out there with my camera, I don’t use much of my brain anymore. I let my senses drive me. It’s the universe itself that shows me the things that I need to capture and the message that I want to tell.
WRR: You have an image called Change that shows water flowing behind ice. It struck me as perhaps an autobiographical statement of yours – how through your medical setback, your personal change might have served to have you to flow deeper into your artistic expression. I feel that image really captures how you are able to be in the flow. And I noticed that you chose that particular image as the book cover.
Claudio Basso: I look at my artistic process as an extremely dynamic one and, as such, is always changing. With this image, I had a very clear idea in mind: to debate and create some discussion about the fact that the general public looks at water and ice as two completely different elements: one being solid and the other fluid. So my intent was to stimulate a different approach to understand that they are both very fluid elements for the fact that without water there is no ice. One morning you wake up and you look out the window and you have an icicle that is three inches long, then two days later it’s two feet long. Ice itself is an extremely dynamic element.
WRR: You talk about how “exhibiting your work is the most humbling experience for a photographer” and how it is “the ultimate break away from the intimate relationship between the creator and the creation.” You liken it to the cutting of the umbilical cord. Can you elaborate about this kind of creative humility and intimacy?
Claudio Basso: For an artist to create, to go through the struggle – the emotional and intellectual turmoil – to produce something, it’s like the gestation of a baby inside the belly. Then it comes to the delivery point where you have to expose your work to the judgment of the public, be it a book, an exhibit or whatever. That, to me, is comparable to when the baby is born and you have to cut the umbilical cord so the baby stops feeding from the mother and is out in the world on its own. So an artist has to come to that point of inner security and spiritual balance to be willing to let go of the project and deliver it without fearing what sort of response will come back. The work was created to be given to the world, so give it to the world!
Eliza Drake Auth is a painter who lives and works in the Philadelphia area. She is a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Primarily a landscape painter, her work can be seen at Sherry French Gallery, New York City and Richard Rosenfeld Gallery, Philadelphia.
Works by Eliza Drake Auth
Laura Martin Bacon is a longtime writer and creative consultant for Williams-Sonoma and other well-known entities. She’s also the Culinary Creative Director of DooF (“food” backwards), an organization that uses multi-media entertainment, education and live events to help kids and families discover the magic of food. DooF explores every aspect of food – from flavors, history, science and cultural traditions to the exciting journey from source-to-table. Laura’s mission: to make good food fun – at home, in the classroom and beyond.
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Author and teacher Ned Bachus earned multiple teaching awards during his 38-year career at Community College of Philadelphia, including the Christian and Mary Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. His book of short stories, City of Brotherly Love, received the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. His memoir, Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning, will be published by Wild River Books in 2017.
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Lauren Baker studied at Rider University, studying English and Elementary Education. She has strong interests in and passions for literature, creative writing, and sidewalk-chalking. She spends her free time coffee-drinking and shoe-shopping.
Elizabeth Bako lives between Center City, Philadelphia and New Hope, Pennsylvania. She acts as contributing editor and writer for Wild River Review, published in fiction and non-fiction. She has just finished her first YA novel and is working on her second. She has a background in editing, writing and social media, and works as a private consultant and content editor for writers. Her most recent projects include Anatolian Days and Nights by Wild River Review editor-in-chief, Joy E. Stocke and, The Last Daughter of Prussia by Marina Gottlieb-Sarles.
In partnership with Wild River Review, Elizabeth and colleague, Fran Metzman, will be hosting Writing Beyond the Paradigm; a series of dynamic workshops providing a new approach to creative writing and memoir.
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Katie Baldwin migrated to Montana, the Big Sky Country, from California. She attended Montana State University studying History, German and Spanish. Baldwin’s father is a pilot for Northwest Airlines, and she spends all of her school breaks traveling. In Montana, she skis, hikes, and volunteers for numerous organizations. Her energy to affect social change spans issues from Habitat for Humanity to land mine eradication, political campaigning, or raising the minimum wage for Montanans. Katie hopes to work for an international development organization after graduating, taking a position abroad, of course.
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Susan Balée regularly contributes essays on literature and culture to The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Hudson Review. Her work has also appeared in many other journals including The Times Literary Supplement, The Women’s Review of Books, The Weekly Standard, and Wild River Review (“Memoir of a Ghost”). Years ago she edited a literary magazine, Northeast Corridor, where parts of Dana Gioia’s libretto for Nosferatu originally appeared.
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The late Leslie Esdaile Banks, (1959-2011) was an African American writer. She wrote in various genres, including African American literature, romance, women’s fiction, crime suspense, dark fantasy/horror and non-fiction. Leslie wrote under the pseudonyms L. A. Banks, Leslie Esdaile, Leslie Banks and Leslie Esdaile Banks. She won several literary awards, including the 2008 Essence Literary Awards Storyteller of the Year.
Banks was born and raised in Philadelphia.
Banks contributed to magazines, newspaper columns, and has written commercial fiction for five major publishers: St. Martin’s Press (NYC), Simon and Schuster (NYC), Kensington Publishing (NYC), BET/Arabesque (NYC), and Genesis Press (MS). Books one and two of The Vampire Huntress Legend Series (Minion and The Awakening, respectively), were optioned for Hollywood films by GothamBeach Entertainment and Griot Entertainment. Originally a nine book series, The Vampire Huntress Legend Series was expanded to twelve books.
Leslie Esdaile Banks was a founding partner of The Liars Club, a networking group of professional in publishing and other aspects of entertainment.
Works by L.A. Banks
An avid reader and budding writer, Alex lives and works in Washington, DC. He graduated from American University with a Bachelor’s of Arts in International Studies in 2007 and has worked for the J. William and Harriet Fulbright Center since graduation. Besides being a political junkie, he is a volunteer at the Washington Animal Rescue League. Alex rides the Metro to work every day.