Zoo Photographs

Zoo Photographs 

On a beautiful, sunny afternoon in late May, 2016 my wife Gloria and I took a leisurely stroll, with our son and his wife and our grand daughter Claire, through the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, NY.   I had been looking forward to visiting the zoo after having been away for so many years.  This time I would be visiting as a grandfather.  I thought perhaps I could see the zoo "through the eyes" of our fifteen month old grandchild, perhaps seeing from this perspective might yield some interesting photographs.

It didn't take long, however, until I became uncomfortable with the ever-present bars, fences, glass windows and artificial "natural" looking walls.  Everything I was seeing was through obstacles, and the animals on display I was able to see appeared frustrated, anxious and exhibiting neurotic behavior.

After making a few photographs I noticed that my images were becoming increasingly cynical, ironical or satirical, so I paused before making any more photographs and thought about the challenges the zoo was presented me, not only as an artist but as a student of yoga.

I wanted to stay true to a commitment I had made to myself to devote my creative process in photography to making images that functioned, for me, as sacred art, that is to say images which unveiled the divine presence in all the things of the world.  Clearly, I needed to change my attitude about how I was seeing and feeling all that was around me.  I needed to "pry open" the bars surrounding me--and within my mind--by seeing more deeply, into a truer reality.  The great Sufi poet-saint, Rumi, wrote:

Great lions can find peace in a cage.
~ ~
So those bars I see that restrain your wings,
I guess you won't mind
if I pry them

The Yoga Masters and poet-saints are very clear in their writings and teachings: there's nothing that's not Shiva, everything is God; there are no forms, no places that are devoid of the divine presence.  I wanted to rise above my irony and cynicism and create photographs that functioned as symbols rather than cynical, critical commentary.  Symbols have the visual-transformative power--the grace--to open the heart and give "wings" to even the most restrained creatures, including myself.


When I visited the zoo I was still in the process of finishing my project City of Souls, thus the words of Islamic scholar Seyyed H Nasr were still fresh in my mind.  I had quoted a passage from one of his books in which he wrote about the wings of birds: 

directly the archetypal  
reality of flight, and of ascension in opposition  
to all the debasing and downgrading forces of this world,  
leading finally to escape from the confinement of earthly limitation.

Steven Foster,  Zoo Photograph  Image #1   2016
click on image to enlarge

I subscribe to the idea that perception is essentially projection; that we see or discover in the world what's already exists inside our minds, our attitudes, our beliefs, and most importantly of all, our hearts.  Perhaps the cage that was bothering me was the one I was dwelling in.


When I was a child I loved going to the zoo.  It provided me with an exciting change of environment, new experiences, lots of unusual and fascinating things to see and do.  Now, as a senior citizen, I found myself empathizing with the animals as they lived their restricted existences inside of cages.

Today my body is feeling more and more like a "cage."  I use to enjoy playing baseball all day on the vacant lots, and later tennis became my love, and running along the Milwaukee shores of Lake Michigan.  But my body aches everywhere now, particularly in my hips and legs, and especially in my right knee; sometimes it is painful for me even to walk, let alone run.  Instead of playing racket ball at the local gym, now I go there to peddle on stationary bikes.

The yogic sages teach that the body is a temple, the abode of God.  I have experienced that.  Indeed, I feel most free when I am doing the yogic practices, such as chanting, meditating, reading the words of the yogic scriptures.  Most recently, I have been enjoying reading sacred words of the poet-saints.  I consider my photography as a form of "meditation."  However, while visiting the zoo I had allowed myself to drop back into old patterns, old modes of thinking and being;  I needed to to get myself back to seeing, photographing from inside the profoundly expansive yogic perspective.   See my project Photography and Yoga.


When I was a college student in the late 1960's I was fascinated by the zoo photographs of Gary Winorgrand.  He perceptively, playfully, inventively portrayed in his black and white images a visual spectacle being acted out between the zoo visitors and the animals in residence.  For Winogrand, both were "The Animals," the title of his collection of zoo photographs.  Both humans and animals were mirroring participants in a grand drama.  It was not just the animals who were on display in the zoo; the sense of physical and psychological confinement in Winogrands photographs was reflected in his strangely humorous and ironic photographs of the people interacting with the animals.  It seemed that both had little hope of escaping their shared captive existence.   

Gary Winogrand, from his book The Animals   1962-67

Some of my own recent zoo photographs remind me of Winogrand's pictures.  For example in the image below of the yellow bucket suspended in blue-green water, though the bucket is central to the image and dominates the photograph in a rather surprising, surreal and luminous way, one can't help but notice the headless male figure lurking and slowly emerging from the shadowy background.  The figure's body appears to be reacting to the yellow bucket which seems to be "squeeing" him up against a wall and a light toned shape which is just touching and conforming to the figure's right arm.     

Image #8

On the other hand, there is a lyrical quality about the image, in the way the light is dancing on the bucket and filtering down through the water.   There is also a gentle rocking, wave-like movement of the horizon line that separates the darker water below from the illuminated surface water above; and there's an interesting pictorial rhythm to the play of shapes under the water across the picture plane from the left edge to the right.  These elements come together in a surprisingly graceful, engaging,  and provocative way.  We are "over our head" in a blue-green and yellow world of water, plastic, and artificial  "natural" walls.  That is to say, the image asks many questions to which there seem to be no answers.  

The figure emerging from the background is a reflection of someone who was standing beside me in the underground-underwater viewing room while I was photographing.  But as pictured he looks confined;  indeed the figure's body language reminds me of the strange, three legged "box animal" in Winogrand's photograph above. 

What kind of animal is that, with a box as a torso?  What kind of animals are those in matching plaid coats?  And those elephants: are they copulating?  The shorter elephant is staring directly at the two plaided figures, perhaps wondering about what they are doing there.  ~  I hate to ask this, but what is that pile of stuff in the background, between the two plaided figures?  Is it elephant poop?  What ever it is appears to have been extruded from the nose of the plaided figure on the left. 

Questions: is my photograph of the yellow bucket with the figure in the background a humorous image, like many of Winogrand's zoo photographs?  Is it a commentary on the social/human condition?  Is it a mirror reflection of my own state of being at the time of exposure?  

The thing that has always attracted me to Winogrand's photographs, even back when I was a college student, is a feeling of surreality or mystery that belies his "social landscape" photographs.   Winogrand was a "street photographer," but also, I think, something of a mystic.  He walked the streets (and parks) of New York City, and the Brooklyn Zoo, and saw--and pictured--strange, wonderful, beautiful and laughable things.  Winogrand's work is at its very best when the images transcend the (social) subject matter he photographed.  His strange-funny images, which are often like fantastic tableaus which portray his characters as if on a Shakespearian stage, and like Shakespeare, Winogrand shows us that "things" are not what they appear to be.  His images point to the mystery that lies below or beyond the surfaces of the performances.  In other words, many of Winogrand's best images function for me as symbols.

There is something magically revelatory in both Winogrand's photograph and my own.  Each represents a suspended moment in which everything in the rectangle, everything in the drama, seems perfectly choreographed.  The moment--held, eternally in the formal relationships of the photographic image--seems pregnant with mystery, with palpable though unknown meaning.  It is this sense of timelessness and mystery, the presence of potential but unknown meaning, which announces to me to the transcendental, symbolic functioning of both images. There are hidden treasures within the images which invite me into an open-ended, silent dialogue with them.  These images want to be unveiled; they insist upon a more deeply considered, engaged heart-opening conversation.

It is clear to me that images which function as true visual symbols are a form of sacred art.  Symbols are empowered with grace, sacred energy which can transform its contemplator.  Symbols unveil the divine presence hidden within the things, spaces and places of the outer world;  and simultaneously, they unveil the divinity within the heart of the contemplator.


A Story: The Frustrated Sadhu
A sadhu was wondering all around a dark forest thick with the tangle of the limbs of the banyan tree.   He was seeking the darshan, the vision, of Shiva, the very Lord Himself.  The sadhu had been searching for Shiva everywhere, and for a very long time.  Because the sadhu could not find Him in any of the man-made temples of India, he decided to follow someone's suggestion that surely Shiva could be found in the primeval forest.

Indeed, Shiva was in the forest, and He was watching the sadhu looking everywhere for Him.  But each time the sadhu's eyes turned toward Shiva, Shiva would gracefully turn His back, revealing instead the splendor of the goddess Parvati--the "other face" of Shiva, His creative power.

The sadhu could not notice Parvati because he was so intent on seeing Shiva.  He saw the many created forms of Parvati that made up the forest--the delicate mosses, the white Jasmine, the knotted trees and tangled tree limbs, the creepers, and so on--but each time the sadhu looked for Shiva, the Lord turned round and presented yet another "vision" of Himself as the forest.  The sadhu was oblivious . . .  and finally left the forest, frustrated and disappointed once again.

This traditional yoga teaching story (see the version published in Darshan #135) of course plays upon the idea that Shiva is both visible and invisible, present and yet hidden from plain sight.  I am particularly fascinated by the way Shiva turns round and shows his other face, the face of Parvati--the infinite forms of the apparent world.  From an artist's perspective, this is a metaphor for the very nature of any creative process.  My best photographs will "turn" or transform apparent reality into an image which unveils the hidden treasure within--the overlooked divinity that exists inside all things.  In slightly differently terms, this "unveiling" is a process of "turning" appearances inside-out.  When an image accomplishes this surprising, mysterious transformative revelation within the contemplator, the image is functioning for the contemplator as a true, living symbol.  

The idea of Shiva's turning around implies movement in a circle, and this relates to an essential aspect of my symmetrical photographs.  Shiva's turning corresponds to the circular nature of my four-fold symmetrical "image constructions" which consist of four identical "source" photographs that mirror each other above&below, and left&right.  These four repeated, mirroring images are conjoined at the very center-point of the "circular" image.  Indeed, the center-point of the photograph represents the inner dimension, the "Imaginal world" from which the symbol originates. 

Usually the source image undergoes a surprisingly radical transformation when it is treated with the four-fold symmetrical process.  There is a fascinating tension in most of the symmetrical images between the more literal imagery of the source image and the abstract nature of the four-fold constructed symmetrical image.  When I contemplate a symmetrical photograph, I try to hold both images in my mind simultaneously and witness my experience between the two.  This process of contemplating the images, this "silent dialogue" with the image, has rewarded me with remarkable, unsayable insights.

I have included four symmetrical photographs in this project, all of which were constructed from source images made at the Seneca Park Zoo.  They are presented together below, following the "straight" zoo photographs.     


I hear the voice
Of every creature and plant,
Every world and sun and galaxy--
Singing the Beloved's Name!
Sufi poet-saint

Prelude to the Zoo Photographs
I am presenting below an excerpt from a talk given by my meditation Master, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda.  She speaks of mirrors, reflections and turning in relation to the Siddha Yoga practice of chanting God's name.  Chanting is a form of praising God, and when one sings the names of God repeatedly, over and over again with heartfelt devotion, this practice can give one the darshan, the vision of the Lord, Shiva, the Beloved . . . "the One who resides in your heart."  Gurumayi says all the yogic practices transform our vision so that we can have the Lord's darhan, the vision of the Lord who is present within every thing, place, thought, feeling, action.  

Gurumayi's words will serve as a prelude to my zoo photographs.  As I have said before, I consider the making of photographs as a form of yogic practice, a means of having the darshan, the vision of Shiva.  The photographs which succeed at transforming appearances into images that function as symbols are, for me, a form of praising, a way of "singing God's name."

Gurumayi said:

When you turn a mirror toward a flame, it reflects the flame.  In the same way, when you turn your mind toward God, it reflects God.  One of the practices of Siddha Yoga is to chant the praises of the Lord.  Many times you cannot really experience the Lord in every action.  However, when you chant the praises of the Lord, you glimpse His greatness; you have the darshan [the vision] of the One who resides in your heart.  

In every thought, every feeling, every action, the Lord exists.  Na sivam vidyate kvacit, "There is nothing in this world that is not Shiva.  There is nowhere that the Lord does not exist."  The true devotee of the Lord sees everything as the Lord.  All his thoughts, all his feelings, all his actions are nothing but the Lord.  There is great sweetness, great rasa, in the practice of this awareness.  When you chant and meditate with this awareness, you recognize that your heart is the dwelling place of the Lord, and everything you do bears great fruit.   Gurumayi Chidvilasandanda, excerpts from a talk published in Darshan magazine #120


The Zoo Photographs
  Click on the images to enlarge them

Zoo Photographs  Image #1   "Snowy Owl" 

Zoo Photographs  Image #2    "Stone Face"

Zoo Photographs  Image #3   "Wires and screw eyes in earth"

Zoo Photographs  Image #4   "Tree Limbs, Light Post and Lamp"

Zoo Photographs  Image #5   "Architectural Detail, Entrance facade to an Exhibition Building"

Zoo Photographs  Image #6   "Cornered Tree Trunk"

Zoo Photographs  Image #7   "Reflection in Zoo Pond"

Zoo Photographs  Image #7   "Underwater view of zoo pond"

Zoo Photographs  Image #8   "Yellow Bucket, headless reflected figure"

Zoo Photographs  Image #9   "Purple Ball with eye holes floating in zoo pond, underwater view"

Zoo Photographs  Image #9   "Split View of zoo pond :
looking out over the water's surface /
looking down at the dance of light on the pond's bottom surface 

Zoo Photographs  Image #10   "Boy looking at Blue Ball and Yellow Bucket floating in zoo pond"



Symmetrical Photographs

Image #11     Symmetrical Zoo Photographs  

Image #12     Symmetrical Zoo Photographs

Image #13     Symmetrical Zoo Photographs

Image #14   Symmetrical Zoo Photographs
Click on the image to enlarge

Commentary on the Zoo photographs
For the most part I failed at photographing the animals in a way that praised their natural greatness and liberated them from their cages . . . and my own.  Only two of the images presented above include animals, and I think that's because my feelings about their captivity obstructed my ability to see them and their situation clearly . . . with right understanding.

 Image #1 

I do like the image of the Snowy Owl (#1), though there is clearly some irony in the juxtaposition of the "real bird" (in its fenced-enclosed space) with the image of the bird with its wings spread wide painted on the rock .

Image #14 

The symmetrical image (#14) of two wolves is, you may agree, rather startling when first clicking on it and seeing it enlarged on the screen.  When I took the source picture something aggressive seemed to be happening between the two animals.  Perhaps they were only playing?  Perhaps the one was being territorial, or "top doggish" with the other?  I don't know.  This image certainly succeeded in at least unleashing some of my own feelings of what I perceived to be their frustration.


 Zoo Tiger Pacing In Its Cage

I fell in love with a tiger who was pacing back-and-forth within its fence-enclosed space.  It moved with restless, frustrated intensity against the fence, back-and-forth . . .   There was a second obstruction--a set of bars close to me--through which I was watching and admiring the tiger's natural grace and immense power.  The bars and the fences, and my identification with the tiger's captive discontent, distanced me not only physically but emotionally such that I could not make a satisfactory photograph of the tiger, that is to say, an image that celebrated and praised this majestic being, that unlocked the doors of our cages.  

You are an ocean in my chest,
where everyone changes places,
believer-unbeliever, cynic-lover, dervish-king.
Last night, you came to my sleep asking, "How are you?"
Locked out of life, waiting, weeping.
Sufi poet-saint


I enjoyed photographing in one of the zoo's under water viewing rooms.  I loved seeing the light reflecting off the water's surfaces, and filtering down through the pool's blue-green colored depths.   

Image #10 

Two of the pool photographs, importantly, include the human figure.  The figures functioned as a point of identification for me while I was photographing; they provided me with a mirror-form which reflected my own projected interior feelings and thoughts.    

I have already written about image #8 in my Introduction.  Regarding the photograph #10 above, the image represents for me a startling moment of recognition in which I was confronted face-to-face with mystery, the unknown, the unfathomable.  It is the kind of "revelatory moment" that often comes to me spontaneously, as a gift of grace, in situations I can neither anticipate nor avoid.  

The image #10 has a most wonderful sense of the moment in which all the energies of the world, including my body and mind, seem to be radiantly shimmering together in silent, auspicious synchronicity.  I like the way the light radiates out of the boy's head and ripples onto the blue ball.  And strangely, the yellow bucket I photographed for image #8 reappears in the background of image #10, as if it is appended to the ball.  The bucket's recurrence links the two images (#8 and #10) and provides some kind of meaningful counterpoint to each other.  It seems to me some ineffable meaning exists in the imaginative space between the two images because of yellow bucket's presence in both.

Image #8

The two images seem to function for me as a kind of "self-portrait."  Though image #8 gives visual form to my own personal feelings of confinement in the zoo spaces, the image #10 seems to transcend that concern; it pictures "myself" surprised by the mystery and the light with which I am being presented, confronted.  The #10 image allows me to see something deeper in myself--and in the moment.  As such the image has an expansive, liberating affect on me. 


I hear the voice
Of every creature and plant,
Every world and sun and galaxy--
Singing the Beloved's Name!
Sufi poet-saint

Water is an archetypal symbol of the unconscious; it is the source of all life.  In A Dictionary of Symbols Cirlot writes:  "Limitless and immortal, the waters are the beginning and the end of all things on earth. . . . Immersion in water signifies a return to the pre-formal state, with a sense of death and annihilation on the one hand, but of rebirth and regeneration on the other . . . "  

Clearly, I found refuge, and release at the zoo in the water imagery.  The symmetrical photograph #11 presented below in the Postlude is for me a magical image of transformation and regeneration.  It amplifies the quality of radiant light that spontaneously manifested in image #10.  It is palpably alive with archetypal qualities, particularly the qualities of expansiveness and limitlessness.  It feels to me like an image of re-birth, or similarly, a re-turn to the origins of all life.  The image celebrates and "Sings the Beloved's Name," it opens my heart and releases me from the "cages" of my mind. 



The sky
Is a suspended blue ocean.
The stars are the fish
That swim.
The Planets are the white whales
I sometimes hitch a ride on,
And the sun and all light
Have forever fused themselves
Into my heart and upon
my skin.

Sufi poet-saint

Image #11

I slip in and out of the Sea at night with this
Amazed soul I have.
I am like a magnificent, magic ocean turtle
Who sets aside his vast wings of
Blue effulgence
When I crawl upon your shores
To leave my divine seed of verse.
Let me remain cryptic tonight
All the way till dawn
As I orbit God
In this holy, ecstatic mood.

Sufi poet-saint

*      *

This project was published and posted 
on my Welcome Page, in the 
"Recently Added" section,
July 1, 2016


Note: the Hafiz poems are "renderings" 
by Daniel Ladinsky from his book:
The Subject Tonight Is Love
The Rumi poems are "rendered" 
by Coleman Barks 
from his book 
Rumi : The Big Red Book 

Related Links & Projects:

Siddha Yoga Path

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.