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Walking in the Woods with Fred Ressler

This is an edited version of the article that appeared in Raw Vision Magazine, in Winter 2004.

‘I have always known that alaha1 is in me, talking to me, is me. Later I found out it is in everyone. I know that this being is on my side because I have been shown in a dynamic beyond everyday vision what are the rules of life.’ — Fred Ressler.

Fred Ressler (b. April 29, 1941) had not photographed in decades, fearing that the camera’s fixed image might claim his subject’s soul. He did not want to risk offending native Americans or be ostracised by his friends who acknowledged the claim. Sensitive but odd, given that Ressler’s whole life has been about questioning social convention. But it is this sensitivity, to the production of ideas and images, that conditions our understanding of the meaning of perception and which underlines his photographic practice.

Ressler could have been a poster-boy for the hippie revolution, having come of age in the thick of the tumultuous sixties and epitomising its central tenet – rebuking the Establishment – whilst ‘searching for something’. Yet, Ressler had differences with the counterculture mindset too, finding it restrictive at times. Nevertheless creativity was in his blood, so when his daughter gave him a camera in 1995 he used it for purposes beyond the family pictures for which the gift was intended. A serendipitous photograph taken with a Canon Sure-Shot camera then revealed a face caused by the play of light filtering through the foliage against the side of his home. For the next five years, Ressler would fastidiously look about, wander through his wooded property in Hawthorne, Florida, in search of images entwined in the shadows.

Although he looked for anything of interest during his photographic forays, only faces and figures appeared to him – never cars, aeroplanes, or houses – and these constituted 99% of what he saw; the remaining 1% were of animals. Some of the images were of friends and relatives. Others were of archetypes, including a native American princess. Bob Dylan and Albert Einstein were among the artists and intellectuals who appeared to him. According to Ressler, this is because ‘our brain stem is hard wired to see human faces and figures for reasons of reproduction and infant survival if nothing else. Our hard wiring of the brain has us see them for survival and mating purposes. Each species is wired to see the pattern on which it is from and will be shown these patterns by the environment’. On becoming more aware of these elusive faces and figures, Ressler describes how he extra loaded his normal brain stem and how ‘these images would pop up in leaf patterns in trees as I was driving down the road’, whilst emphasising that he ‘was not consciously looking for anything’.

Undoubtedly, Ressler has attuned himself to a particular mode of perception. He truly believes that he is revealing something ethereal but that which already existed. Only through photography has Ressler been able to communicate this to others. Ressler’s photographs are notably different from the ghostly faces that emerge through Spirit Photography (a tangent of mediumship whereby visages appear out of nowhere in otherwise normal photographs). These photographs often seem to be the results of faulty exposures, light leakages and inept processing. The mysterious imagery of visitations from those who have passed to the spirit plane is dubious if not doubtful as chicanery was an established fact of 19th century spiritualism.

In contrast, Ressler’s photographs are composed solely of the play between light and shadow. His technique is simple and straightforward. He has the film processed and the photographs printed at a custom laboratory. There is no room for photographic or digital manipulation. Ressler makes no claims about divining his images either. In fact, he denies any proprietary sense by acknowledging that making such photos or perceiving persons in nature is available to anyone with the patience and interest. According to Ressler the images are always there, ‘filtering through the trees, it’s just a matter of how clearly defined’. His interest, though, is not in the passing fancy, of finding resemblances to the natural or super-natural world. This is further reinforced by the fact that his photographs do not contain any real objects, such as branches or leaves. Alternatively, definition in Ressler’s photographs seems to come from intent, attention and looking carefully to find vantage points from which the forms momentarily arise, ‘You do miss them. It’s like fly fishing’, he adds. Concurrently, what holds the viewer’s attention and gives the photographs meaningful definition, is the way in which they reveal his philosophy. So much so, that it is plausible to argue that Ressler’s photographic practice is directly echoed in his philosophical principles. For instance, Ressler, in order to express his idea about the inevitability of revealing oneself through one’s own image-making of others, cites the guru Krishnamurti: ‘the observer is the observed’.

For Ressler, the camera serves to mediate and focus a two-way relationship of sight and perception, but paradoxically this focus lies with making the subjective and intangible ‘real’ and thus poses an epistemological dilemma. His work, however, is an effort to expose and magnify his own heightened existential perception of usually unseen phenomena by taking what may at first appear to be very abstract photographs. Ressler’s photographic practice forces him to engage in an epistemological debate that seems inherent throughout his entire life. He concurs by admitting ‘this whole thing is tied in with the phenomenon of projection... we project these images and they are projected to us’. Musing on the nature of his first photograph, that looks convincingly like an archangel, he asks, ‘Am I seeing this as an angel because that is what my brain stem (unconscious) wants? Or is there objectivity involved?’.

This inescapable philosophical duality is crucial to Ressler’s work. It is a duality between using photography for the purposes of objectification - to memorialise people in time and space - and that of using photography to highlight the subjective nature of perception - of fleeting forms made from light and shadow. Ressler asserts that ‘All art is sublimation, and there is art in everything’. An awareness of this dialectic of vision: of seeing and being seen simultaneously, dissolves the ‘I’, the ego and the self. Hence, everything has the potential to be made into art and labelled as such. Following this, all socially sanctioned and institutionalised art forms can be seen to only verify objective ways of looking, whereas Ressler is interested in the spaces of unexplored perception and connectivity. He says that ‘the photos are showing us the way. It’s not what we perceive but what we don’t perceive. It’s not the notes but the spaces between them that show us the way to see, how much we have not seen or heard’. Ressler’s work highlights these in-between spaces wherein lies a wealth of art and beauty, innate in everything.

Having explored Ressler’s relationship to his work, it is understandable why he is adamant that he has ‘been shown in a dynamic beyond everyday vision, what are the rules of life’. By being receptive to this divinity that exists all around us, Ressler transforms the mundane into the metaphysical: ‘The photographs of shadows are examples of sacred unity’. Ressler’s practice obviously yields surprising images, but they are surprising in part by their consistency which is rooted neither in the supernatural nor photographic artistry. Rather, they are a result of his focused energy and camera work that is fluid, extemporaneous and obsessive. He is in concert with the practice; ‘It makes me feel good and honoured that the photos were given to me, and I know the shadows are the tip of an iceberg that no one will ever fully understand, like the universe itself.’

All of Ressler’s photographs are rendered in as much focus as possible (using an old Nikkormat manual camera). Paradoxically though, due to the nature of the shadows themselves, the image is never keenly resolved. Ressler’s unique photographic practice highlights the difficulty of asserting one type of epistemological reality or set of beliefs over another. Neither the shadows nor the photographs are definitive and yet it is this lack of definition that gives them their fluidity and meaning. They are inversions or negative reproductions of the real. Following the wisdom of the guru Krishnamurti, it is true to say that Ressler’s photographs "observe the observer."

(1) ’In Aramaic (a Semitic language or what is usually called Hebrew script) the name Alaha refers to the divine. It means variously: Sacred Unity, Oneness, the All, the Ultimate Power, the One with no opposite. It is related to [the word] God in Hebrew, Elohim, which is based on the same prefix El or Al. This [prefix] could be translated literally as the sacred ‘The’, since it is also used as the definite article in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic’. – Fred Ressler.

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