Roger Cotgreave is an absolutely fantastic guy who takes dazzling, humanity-filled photographs under the name, “Tao Jones” http://taojonesphotographer.com/. After seeing his social media profile, I said to myself, “Absolutely. I must chat with this guy.” And I’m very glad I did. Roger feels like a long lost friend. He’s a very “Zen” man who is a real pleasure to chat with. This interview actually goes far beyond contemporary art. I really think it’s his way of expressing a way of life that could benefit us all. Here’s our cool chat, but first…
“The image has become the finger-pointing to the moon, but it is not the moon. It is not the real, just a pointer to it. I always wanted the images to have that ability to point to something greater; you see the image, but there is something else there you can't quite workout.”
MICHAEL: Hello Tao. Wait … isn’t your actual name Roger Cotgreave? Where did Tao Jones come from?
TAO: Hi Michael, My name is Roger Cotgreave, but when I first started on the net, I used Tao Jones in the photographic forums and I stuck with it as my photographer name. I’ve done martial arts for 50 years. I mainly only do Tai Chi now. So the ‘Tao’ was ‘The Way’ and ‘Jones’ was because I was sick of trying to keep up with them. Plus it's a play on words. I get to hear my name everyday on the news with the Dow Jones Index.
MICHAEL: Haha! Your work is incredible. There's something unusual about your photographs. I think it's the combination of the light, color and perhaps a filter? It seems unusually vivid, clear and artistic. Are my eyes deceiving me?
TAO: No, your eyes are not deceiving you. It’s my intention to create what you are seeing. I used to do watercolors and from that I learned about hot colors against cool colors, open edges against closed, rough next to smooth and so on, a play on the opposites to attract the eye. I have tried to incorporate some of that in my images in the way I process them.
I shoot in raw and everything goes through Adobe Lightroom. I have tried to do it in a way where the image attracts you, but you are not sure why. So I will add sometimes 2%-5% of a color to the highlights and to the shadows through split toning and sometimes blue to the midtones via a curve adjustment. The colors are usually yellow, red and blue and I will also add those colors to my Black and Whites.
I see life as a play of light and color. I have always been very observant and when I was a kid, I would try to look at things without naming them. Clear vision is very important in any art, but especially photography where the camera becomes an extension of that vision.
MICHAEL: Yes, I love your sense of clarity, but I also notice that your work is very celebratory. You seem to be celebrating life. I actually want to live in those photographs. They remind me of the Ace of Base tune, "Beautiful Life." I don't sense any cynicism, sadness or negative emotion in your work. Am I right?
TAO: Michael, we have to find another way of knowing the moment without using thought. We need to see and feel the present moment with the whole body/mind; the body being feeling and the mind being clarity and attention. When we can do that, the camera or the tool the artist uses becomes an extension of that feeling attention. We don't have to think about the tool once the technical element is achieved.
MICHAEL: Hmm, interesting. I’m with you.
TAO: When we can maintain that non-conceptual attention on the subject, the subject will start revealing itself as light. The subject is always made up of light, color and spirit. I shoot for this. I expose for the brightest part of the image, then overexpose the camera settings by two-thirds of a stop up to two full stops. This can only be done with a raw file. What this does is make the colors very bright and the shadows are lifted. I process the raw file to how I see things which is light, color and spirit. It’s all one energy, same but different.
The observer is the observed. We are always taking photos of ourselves. I am not looking out of my mind. I am actually looking in; the inside and the so-called outside are two sides of the same coin. What I think you see in my photos is yourself, so they become inviting. You want to live in them. I am appealing to that element in you.
MICHAEL: Very much so.
TAO: I get the same feeling as you when I see my photos. I am always in amazement of them that light and color can be captured in this way. I never take more than one shot at a time. I will watch, wait and quietly anticipate the moment to press the shutter which most times seems to happen by itself.
TAO: I do have to give you one quote because this quote changed everything about my photography. It is by Minor White: “No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.”
MICHAEL: Very cool. Spirit is orchestrating everything.
TAO: From the time I read this, I knew I didn't have to struggle with photography. All I had to do was become very quiet with a receptive mind and the spirit would stand still. All photos when taken like this are self portraits. You see yourself in these images. There is no cynicism, sadness or negative emotion. There‘s only what “is” which is always a mystery. The Tao cannot be described, but that shouldn't stop us from trying to describe it through art and poetry.
MICHAEL: Great answer. As you know Tao, so many people are running around documenting things on their cellphone cameras. They don’t strike me as being in the moment as you are because you’re creating art while they’re simply shooting snapshots. To me, they’re missing the moment because they’re so busy trying to document things. I don’t know. What do you think about this?
TAO: Well that could be the way of the new digital world. Nearly everything in it is a distraction from the moment. No ability to be still, constant brain chatter, no discipline, always doing and never being, plus constant information coming at us that we can't live without. When I do a festival, the photos go up on the festival’s Facebook page straight away. If it is a festival for 16-28 year olds, they aren't interested in the artist's shots. They only want to see themselves or their friends who then they knock the crap out of.
Many people own pencils, but they can't all draw. It’s same with cameras. I think some people with mobile phone cameras don't realize you can turn it around and take photos of other things besides selfies.
MICHAEL: Haha! Exactly.
TAO: But saying all that, there are some people taking great shots with them and I am surprised how good these cameras are. David Alan Harvey, one of my favorite photographers, uses his a lot. Maybe they lead people to be more aware through looking and thinking about composition etc.
There wouldn't be many things happening now that aren't being documented, simply because can pull the computers from our pockets. Unfortunately, the image becomes more powerful than ‘what is.’ We need to cultivate the art of seeing and if mobile phones can help in that for some users, then it's a good thing. Otherwise it's just more distraction.
MICHAEL: Much of your work seems to involve people in settings. I know you photograph music festivals so that makes sense, but despite that, humanity still seems to be your focus. Why is that?
TAO: Humanity is the quality of being humane. It encompasses such things as compassion, kindness, understanding, and the commonality that bonds us in a good way. I do indeed look for this when I photograph. It is a part of seeing with the whole body and not through a cloud of thought. Separation only appears in thought; it is not the fact of ‘what is.’ Life is relationship. We are the same, but different, one human species.
If I manage to catch some of this in my photos, it is again, due to this: ‘No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.’ The ‘artist’ is not chosen in a special way, but it is because the mind has become like an open window, the sunshine may shine through, the soil has been prepared and something may flower from it.
The small mind has to get out of the way for art to take place. My photography is everything that has gone before it, my martial arts training, my meeting with teachers like Krishnamurti. The meditation retreats, the understanding of ‘what is’ and the cultivation of awareness with feeling. Being attentive is so important in life, if you are not attentive in martial arts you get hit in the head.
I only do one shot at a time. I have to be in relationship with each shot. One of my cameras will do 12 shots per click. I have never used it because 11 of them I wouldn't know what was being taken.
Life is one big mystery. Nothing really can be explained, we don't know what anything is or why something should appear in the first place. When something disappears, where does it go? The Tao that can be explained is not the real Tao. Art is humanity trying to explain it. We are a mystery in space.
MICHAEL: Nicely said. You obviously photograph rock music festivals, but while looking at your site with many of the images together, I actually hear classical music. It's like this symphony of images that captures the fleeting, precious moments of life. It almost feels like if we blink, it'll be gone. Thoughts?
TAO: I just had another look at my website. I went through the Falls Festival Gallery. I can see how you could relate the images to a joyous Mozart. There are so many wonderful images of people having fun with their spirits high. As you say, you could easily blink and it could be gone.
Nothing sticks in this life. It is all just fleeting moments that photography freezes for us to reflect, ponder and remember. They give us time to reflect on how beautiful or ugly it all can be to ponder the mystery and to remember the body feeling of the time. The photo has become very important in this age. If a house burns down, apparently one of the first things people want to know is did the photos survive.
The image has become the finger pointing to the moon, but it is not the moon. It is not the real, just a pointer to it. I always wanted the images to have that ability to point to something greater; you see the image, but there is something else there you can't quite workout. Classical music like all ‘good art’ has that same ability to take us to something greater. When I look at the images I have taken, I don't see them as being mine. I am thrilled about them as much as you appear to be.
MICHAEL: What I'm hearing you say is that no matter how accurate, beautiful or true to reality art may be, it remains an imitation of life. Yes. Where are you? Sydney? Melbourne? Are you part of the art scene? Gallery shows?
TAO: The present moment is not just about being in it, but at very attentive times, we glimpse and taste the feeling of actually being the present moment. From this connected state, art is the natural expression of that relationship to ‘what is.’ This type of art doesn't have to have a signature. The artist was out of the way when the art took place. The artist only appears after the fact.
The word ‘door’ is not the door, the art is not the actual, but it does take on a presence of its own and may carry the essence of the real. I once went to an Andy Warhol exhibition. It was packed out with people. I was pretty bored after the first five minutes, so I left and went upstairs to see some new, Aboriginal art and there were two of us in the gallery space standing in front of these amazing large pieces. They transported you into a silent open space and it was transcendental. This is what art is for me.
MICHAEL: Yes indeed.
TAO: I live in a town called Byron Bay in the sub tropics of Australia. It’s an alternative town full of artists, writers, actors and film crews, plus it’s home to some of the biggest music festivals in Australia. It’s a surfing town in a very beautiful location. Nearly everyone here is into some sort of self expression or creative pursuit. I have never had an exhibition. I am thinking of doing a book called, ‘Tails From the Beach.’ It will be a dogs on the beaches book. There are lots of mad dog owners in this town and the Springer Spaniel you see on my website is mine.
MICHAEL: You have never had an exhibition? What? Well, I'm going to do what I can to help change that. That seems unfeasible to me. Obviously, every day is different, but what's a typical day for you like living in a beach town? That seems like such a dream to me.
TAO: I get up early and do some Tai Chi, then grab the dog and my camera and go for a walk on the beach or around a very quaint cemetery. After that, I meet my partner and friends at the roadhouse cafe for a cup of coffee. The roadhouse is a very trendy cafe just down the road from where I live. It sells fantastic coffee and is full of Byron's beautiful people. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) drinks there. He lives in Byron and Michael Fassbender was in there a few weeks ago. Byron is south of Brisbane and there are big film studios on the Gold Coast so actors often come to Byron. Johnny Depp is filming here right now and Sting is in town. He does Yoga here. The town is also full of yogis.
MICHAEL: I’m a yogi. Cool.
TAO: After the café, I work on some photos, I usually get to work shooting musicians and the bands etc. There is a big music studio in town and I do all of their work. Plus the Bluesfest; I am also their main photographer.
I live a life of leisure mainly doing what I want. I have always been like that. I have never concerned myself about security so the future takes care of itself. I decided at a very early age working for someone else wasn't for me. I had been doing six major music festivals a year, but I’ve cut back to doing four which are all local. I live a very simple, quiet life except for the festivals. I go for another walk on the beach in the afternoon and a swim. We are surrounded by beautiful beaches.
MICHAEL: You must photograph things all of the time.
TAO: I don't always take my camera with me as it is important for me to just look and feel without recording everything. But I never go a day without taking photos. I see photos everywhere. I am always looking. My main thing is the understanding of life. That has been with me ever since I was a kid. I do things that help me to stay in that non-judgmental awareness hence the photography.
I had a Chinese Tai Chi teacher who told me to only do three things in life so that's what I did. They are…
- Do something for yourself to keep yourself healthy and I did martial arts, but now, it is only Tai Chi.
- Do something for someone else such as a healing art. I studied Zen Shiatsu for five years and practiced for 10 years.
- Write poetry to the Moon. That is my photography. With this, you have the three treasures of life covered: first yourself, second someone else and third the universe.
Byron Bay is the ideal place to live this sort of life. It is the ‘Spiritual Capital’ of Australia and everyone who lives here is on a journey of some sort. I finish the day off with another short walk or some tai chi look at the stars and go to bed.
MICHAEL: You don't strike me as being part of "the art world" and yet you're the very definition of an artist. Thoughts?
TAO: I probably would mingle, but I have never classed myself as being an ‘artist.’ I think keeping good company is very important and to have feedback and constructive conversations helps with the creative process. I do have a lot of friends who are not artists and some that are, but “the art world” in Byron Bay is nothing like where you are from. The population here is only 12,000 for the whole shire. There are a lot of artists in this area, but I mainly stick with non-artists and sometimes other photographers.
I don't really push myself and people are surprised when they find out I am Tao Jones, as Tao Jones is known in the music industry etc. I like the anonymous factor. I do it because I love to. I take photos of things to see how they look as a photo. I am always amazed at photos and how they have captured light. I have never really identified with being anything except for social reasons, etc. A free mind has no identity it has no center. All identification will lead to conflict and boundaries cramping the creative urge.
This is an edge-less universe; all edges are open. This moment is an open, dynamic, rolling out like a Persian carpet. Concepts and identity put an edge around ‘things’ and yourself. Of course, we do need concepts for language to take place, but I need to learn when to think and when not to think.
The root meaning of Art was to ‘be.’ Maybe to ‘be’ leads to what we now call art. Art is the medium we use to describe the indescribable.
MICHAEL: Finally Roger, I guess Tao Jones is really your brand and business. I mean, why else do you have the website and all of the social media postings, etc. What's the point of all of the photography? What do you hope to achieve through this work?
TAO: Well it has become that way. Tao Jones has become the alter-ego.
MICHAEL: That’s exactly the way it is for me and ‘ArtBookGuy.’
TAO: The name started out just as a forum name. I kept it because my real name was a mouthful for most people. There is no point to the photography except that I love doing it. I have always had a fascination with photographs. I am not trying to achieve anything with them. It is nice to know people enjoy looking at them though, such as yourself. My social media was something I had to join and be part of because the festivals want the images up as soon as possible on these sites. I do get work from my webpage so that is handy. Adobe saw my images and put me up on their special site for chosen photographers.
When I think about it, these media sites are myself mixing with the ‘art world’ you asked about in your previous question. You can create your own circle of like-minded people and you have to be very active.
I am going to do the dogs on the beaches book. My partner works in a bookshop and she keeps telling me to do it. There is a music festival book out with about 80% of my shots in it. I am not overly impressed with it and they didn't consult and used shots I wouldn't have used. But the doing is the important part for me, the magic box, and the camera brings me to the present moment and the outcome amazes me.
Also, here are a few questions for seeing clearly that are reminders to remain present:
1. Find another way of knowing the moment without using thought.
2. See the moment as being completely open to space, no closed edges.
3. Look at the moment without naming it. A state of actively not-knowing.
4. Look at space instead of objects, see that space unifies and permeates everything.
5. Bring yourself present with something that is in the present moment such as your camera etc. (Bodily we are present, it is our thoughts that are constantly drifting between past present and future).
6. Instead of looking out, get the feeling everything is looking at you (not good for paranoid people!).
7. Look with soft eyes and allow your feelings/awareness to move further than the surface of things.
8. I did a Zen retreat and they would get you to repeat "Why not now" or "Only this moment," if you found yourself being distracted into thought.
MICHAEL: Well Roger, I must say that this has been such a great pleasure. I’m sure that I will be referring back to our chat often. I believe that your work, your life and this interview are your stunning statement.
ROGER: Thanks Michael for your generosity and your questions. It has been fun trying to explain the why and how of it all.
Roger is the man. Check his work out at http://taojonesphotographer.com/.