interview by Douglas Eby
Elizabeth Taylor with Elizabeth
photograph by Joan Lauren
Her nationally acclaimed 1994 book "Portraits of Life, With Love" featured a collection of celebrities with a child, loved one or friend afflicted with AIDS. Included are Donna Karan and daughter Gabrielle, Patrick Swayze, Barbara Walters, Martin Sheen, Mohammad Ali, Johnny Cash, Whitney Houston, Melanie Griffith, Christian Slater, Whoopi Goldberg, and others.
Joan found her journey in creating the book was very much a spiritual one: "Being creative and being spiritual is like breathing for me" she says. "They all kind of co-exist for me. It's the reason that makes me want to get up in the morning.
"It started years ago, with my husband," she notes. "I was holding him, as he was dying, and there was something that happened to me, and I left my body. I kind of went with him; he stayed and I returned. I found myself, when I went with him, going into the white light. About three months before he passed, we started moving into a more spiritual awareness together.
"He was really teaching me, so at the actual moment of his passing, I feel like he took me with him to see this, and in this white light is when everything started opening up for me, and I was hearing these beautiful words like peace and harmony and joy and bliss. I'd heard them before, but I never knew them before. It was like knowledge of them penetrated inside.
"So when I came back, I call it, I was a different person. It was like I just transcended myself for a while, and when I came back everything changed. My environment changed, I changed, everything. And I started connecting deeper and deeper all the time with this spiritual experience I'd had, because in that light was the first time I ever felt love, and it was a very deep, profound, beautiful, unconditional love."
But she had other feelings as well: "I was very sad because that love wasn't here, on this planet. And I think that's the love we all go searching for. My whole life since then, basically, has been bringing that in here, and living my life and balancing the two."
Joan agrees her book 'Portraits..' was inspired by this experience of transcendence. "Without question," she says. "That book was given to me in a vision. I had to do that book, and I had to create something physical with that love that I experienced. I had to prove that love in a physical form.
"And that's what I do in my work, in my photography all the time: I bring that love and that light that I experienced into my work all the time. That's what I connect to."
The book included the participation of many accomplished celebrities. Some of them knew her and some of didn't, but, Joan notes, "there was energy around the book. It was so clear in my mind and in my heart, the way it would look. It looks the way it came to me in this vision.
"I had to go through a lot, like the publisher having their own ideas, and I'm going, 'No. That's not it; this is it.' It was very hard putting a book together, and it took about three and a half years to shoot, then another year to make the physical book.
"But during that time of shooting was a time of complete joy for me. What I found to be so incredible was these people. Basically, I showed up with a camera and light meter and a couple of rolls of film; no equipment, no nothing. And they came as people. They didn't come as an image of themselves.
"They came, and they wanted to do it, because they really wanted to do it. So we were all there because we wanted to be there. And that is such a unique situation. Never before had so many people come together for something like this."
Joan notes that 'Portraits..' is out of print, but still available on Amazon.com, and that she is thinking of having the whole book on her website: "You know, forty thousand copies were done, all sold out, and Amazon bought a bunch of them. I put it on the web so people all over can see it, but I've never sold prints, and it was a non-profit book, with all the money going to children with AIDS."
One of her newer projects is a series of photographs on the theme of human connection with the Earth, a theme she is very impassioned about: "Mother Earth is alive" she declares. What's been forgotten in modern life is that she is alive, and she does feel, and that we're all a part of that, and we're here.
"Through my travels and everything, I know why I'm here. We all have our own reasons to be here. Mine is to work in the light, to do what I do, and connect to Mother Earth and help bring forth that knowledge that she is alive. It's is very emotional for me."
This awareness of the Earth and the transpersonal, Joan feels, very much feeds her creativity, and spiritual awareness. "Deeper and deeper," she says. "And the more I go, and the more I let myself go -- it's like when I work, - Oh, my God.
"It really happened with Elizabeth Taylor," she recalls, referring to one of the portraits in the book [shown above - photographed at UCLA, where the child was being treated for AIDS]."I will never forget that moment as long as I live. I found a beautiful room, with a whole wall of glass bricks. [Elizabeth Taylor] walked in, and I was thinking, Oh, I can't believe it. She was very gracious, and just carries with her such beautiful light.
"What I'd been asking for -- I went with everybody with a clean slate, just what was going to happen in the moment was right -- and with her, I kept saying to myself, Oh my God. She's been photographed by everybody on the planet; she's had so many pictures taken, what can I do different and special? Before the shoot, I just closed my eyes, and asked God that it be a very spiritual experience, to be full of love and spirituality.
"Still today, I walk into a shoot and say, basically, 'This is for you God.' I just bring in the energies and spirits who are around, to help guide the shoot. But this day, I went a little farther, and was thinking I wanted this to be so spiritually great, just glowing.
"So anyway, she sat down, and the little girl's mother gave her the child, also named Elizabeth. And I put the camera up, and we started shooting, and then all of a sudden, I couldn't see through the lens anymore, because there was such a haze of white light that came into the room.
"She kept looking at me and smiling, and I kept going Oh my God, Oh my God. It was just great. And then all of a sudden, this moment happened. The little girl picked up her cross, and Elizabeth looked down at her, and I went click, and said there it is. Later I sent her a print of it, and I know she has it on her wall.
"It was a very special moment for me, and I think she felt it also. It was a transformational moment, and to have it with somebody like her, who's such an icon. But it was her spirit that was there. I mean, she was there as Elizabeth Taylor, but she was so far beyond that. And the whole book was like that, with everyone. It was amazing."
Joan has found the spiritual quality of that time making the book has continued: "I grow more open every day. I truly do. And I have a lot more to explore with my work, and a lot more I want to do. I'm doing this doggie book now. They're like photographs you've never seen before. They're black and white portraits, and are just the spirit of dogs. Very emotional and spiritual.
"This is just something that sort of happened. I was going to move to Hawaii, and I have my beautiful dog, Ivy. I was in Oahu, looking for a place near Kona, and decided I should look at the animal quarantine. So I went, and as I drove up, I just died. The grass was all dead, it did not look like Hawaii, but like the middle of some weird desert, and it looked like a penitentiary, all gated with barbed wire and everything.
"My heart sunk. I went in and asked for a tour, and they thought I was crazy, but I said I was moving over here and wanted to know what I was putting my animals through. It was devastating. They showed me where they kept the cats, and that was worse, and I have two cats. It looked like a dungeon cell. At that I just said, I can't do this. I felt that I couldn't put them in hell so I could live in paradise. This doesn't work for me.
"So I went back to the parking lot, and I said, okay God, whatever you want me to do, I've got to do something to help. I've got to do something for the animals. I just kind of opened myself up." Returning to L.A. and her work, Joan got a call "out of the blue" from acclaimed casting director Mary Jo Slater: "I had photographed her and her family, and she said she'd love me to photograph her dogs. And then a couple of weeks later an agent called and said they'd really like me to photograph their dogs.
"Nobody, ever in my life had asked me before to photograph dogs" she adds with a laugh. "So I was getting great shots of these dogs, then all of a sudden it hit me to do this doggie book, and make it a very spiritual thing. Because we all work in harmony together. It's about the Earth, and animals are true angels and beings of light, and they give us and teach us so much if we listen and watch."
Joan has so far photographed over a hundred dogs, shot against a white background, for the book. Still in production, she titles it "Barks" and describes the process: "The dogs arrive, and they're mixes and mutts, breeds and all kinds of dogs" she says, "and I look at them and I tell them -- this sounds crazy, but it works -- that I'm going to take their picture, and I show them the camera, let them smell it, and I just kind of sit there and talk to them a while.
"It's an amazing experience, because some are right there from the get go, and posing, and others are kind of shy and they don't want to give it to me, and I keep talking to them, and all of a sudden you can see it in their eyes and they get what I'm doing, and then they start posing. Everything from bulldogs, to pit bulls to little tiny dogs, they all get it. And I get an emotional thing from these dogs. I get who they are.
"Then after I photograph them, I interview their 'human' about the dog, about the history. Then when I get the photograph back, I go to my feeling, to what the humans told me about their dog, and mostly to what the dog gave me during that time, and I put it all together and come up with something that is the essence of that dog, what that dog wants to say, and then I write something and sign the dog's name."
She is thinking of self-publishing, because she needs to "be in control of it. My publisher who did 'Portraits' is no longer publishing books. And I don't want to change the concept, because it's so unique and different. I have talked to a couple of people, but they've said, well, you know, that sounds good but we should do this and this. But that would be a different book. So I think I'll self-publish it and see what happens. It's as inspiring as 'Portraits..' is."
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images from The Joan Lauren Gallery online:
Portraits of Life, With Love by Joan Lauren
of the 21st Century : The Millennium Photo
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