September 18, 2019

Capturing Life’s Inner Journey On Film

“Those who say the body and soul are different have neither.” – Oscar Wilde

In the new book “The Soul Aflame” (Conari Press/Raincoast Books), Eric Lawton’s latest collection of photographs, with text by Phil Cousineau, the introduction evokes the age-old enigma of where the soul resides. While Aztecs and Mayans believe the vital spark was in the blood, Cousineau’s text explains, the Dayaks of Borneo and the ancient Celts regarded the soul as being in the head, while the ancient Egyptians thought the soul lay in the tongue, and the classical Greeks were convinced the soul hovered in the joints of the body. Still other cultures targeted the spinal marrow,seminal fluid, brain, hair and nails.

But judging from “The Soul Aflame,” Lawton believes it resides somewhere in the eye. Not in the cornea or the pupil, but in the iris of his camera.

A student of photography since his UCLA days, Lawton served on the 1984 Olympics Cultural and Fine Arts Advisory Commission for the Olympic Arts Festival. He has produced multimedia montages with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and has collaborated with artists such as the Doors’John Densmore. Most recently, his work was exhibited at the Consulate General of Israel’s Israeli Independence celebration at Bergamot Station.

Back in the late 1970s, Lawton abandoned a burgeoning law career to travel the world and capture it on film. Lawton has collaborated with Cousineau – who had worked with Joseph Campbell on a documentary called “The Hero’s Journal” – since their days circulating in the writers’ and artists’ circles of San Francisco’s North Beach.

“We struck up a conversation that’s been going on for 15 years,” Lawton says.

Their first book, “The Soul of the World” (HarperCollins), came out in 1993 and visually addressed great traditional landscapes from around the globe. Their latest, “Soul Aflame,” takes the opposite tack.”It’s an inward journey,” says Lawton, who adds that both books hearken back to the medieval “illuminated manuscripts where there’s an inspirational painting on one side with a passage of text on the other.”And what strange bedfellows the authors quoted in “Soul Aflame” – words of wisdom, flanking the exotic photographs, include Martin Luther King Jr., Woody Allen, IngmarBergman, Aretha Franklin, and Percy Shelley.

The images are striking. Culled from Lawton’s many journeys to Asia and the Middle East, they literally are all over the map, presenting meditations of the soul: a Burmese woman kneeling with clasped hands, speaking to her god; a serene boat ride across a blue Chinese landscape; a portrait of a boy from Guanajuato in military garb, his eyes pensive; a time-worn visage of an old Asian man; a shot of a religious Jew against the vast, tie-dyed Judean Desert sky.Weaned on the images of Life photographer W. Eugene Smith and Alfred Stieglitz, Lawton is equally moved by the Campbellian notion of “going out into the world, finding some wisdom, and bringing back the experience. Part of going out in the world is bringing things back in.”

These days, Lawton doesn’t travel as much. He divides his time between working at the Century City-based law firm Mahoney, Coppenrath & Jaffe, and enjoying life with his wife,Gail, and their young daughters, Rebecca and Alexandra.

And he is pleased that his children are picking up paintbrushes and starting to findtheir artistic voices. He calls this “transmission from the elders to the children” – a recurring theme in his life and his work, the “ultimate joy.”

Eric Lawton will sign “The Soul Aflame” at Barnes & Noble, 13400 Maxella, Marina del Rey, on Thurs.