Photographing the Sacred Feminine

Volume 39, Issue 3 :: by Michael J. Crosbie

An Interview with Cindy Pavlinac of Sacred Land Photography

Photographer Cindy Pavlinac has captured glimpses of the sacred feminine in her work as she has traveled the world. I sat down with Pavlinac to talk about her photos, her inspiration, and how her images convey an ancient sense of the sacred feminine.

Michael J. Crosbie: How did you choose photography as a medium for your art?

Cindy Pavlinac: I grew up in Michigan and always thought I’d be a scientist. While an undergrad in astrophysics and engineering I found myself in the art department photographing physics experiments. When I was told I wasn’t allowed any more art classes unless I was an art major, I switched. My greatest struggle was the required figure drawing assignments because I didn’t like objectifying the human figure. The professors insisted on realistic drawing, so one day out of frustration, I said “If you want a realistic image I’ll just take a photograph.” I went around the back streets of Kalamazoo photographing old houses and broken-down cars, and suddenly my art teachers began treating my art seriously. Working in black and white, I learned to see light and shadow, scale and texture. I experimented with time exposures, laying the appearance of physical objects and movement on top of each other to form a new shape, otherwise unknowable. Photography captures material objects, yet there is an inherent self-portrait component to every created image. And the viewer brings her own personal history to the photograph so everyone sees something different. I found that by telling my story, I could bring the infinite into a moment.

Crosbie: The name of your studio is “Sacred Land Photography.” How is the land sacred?

Pavlinac: My first encounter with sacred land was at Delphi in Greece. I studied archeology in Athens as an undergraduate for six months on a foreign studies program. Our spring trip was to Delphi, and my assignment was to give a report on the Temple of Apollo at the actual site. As we were driving to Delphi, the road narrowed at a place where the mountain slopes to the sea. One of our professors mentioned that this was where Oedipus had met and killed his father, fulfilling the Delphic Oracle prophesy he had just received. It really struck me for the first time that the ancient myths were based in real places. The modern road became suddenly layered with the present and the mythic landscape. Arriving at the ancient temple precinct of Delphi, I immediately trotted up the Sacred Way to get a photo of this magnificent valley. I wasn’t high enough, so I climbed a cliff, and as I looked down the wind wisped my hair and I felt that Apollo was speaking to me. The mythic became real. It was a glimpse of source, an essence, and I had never experienced that in my life. It was an awakening, a shift in my attention. Apollo told me to visit sacred sites. I got my picture, climbed down, and visited a different island every weekend.

My school also had a field trip to Egypt – more ancient sacred places – and I found that there were possibilities in accessing ancient civilizations through their sites. Something about the sites remains real and continuous. When I step into an ancient precinct that has a very deliberate alignment, I find that it aligns me. That’s my attraction to the sacred. All the old religious sites are very attuned to the sky; for me they represent a point where the inner and outer worlds connect. It awakens a sense of the sacred in me, and I’m attracted to the idea of human consciousness being preserved at a site. It’s enhanced and honored beyond its natural state. I named my studio Sacred Land Photography because I make pilgrimages to places that are set apart; finding and honoring and illuminating the sacred, I return with photos to share.

Crosbie: Is there a feminine dimension there?

Pavlinac: The potential for accessing the sacred from these sites, like Delphi, is there. To me that is a key to the feminine. Every cathedral is built atop a sacred grove of trees, or a well, or a place where people gathered. The potential of its being a sacred place makes it feminine. We feel nurtured there. That’s why people gather there and why we build there.

Crosbie: What role do your photographs play?

Pavlinac: Part of my role is to visit those places and to translate them into the modern present through my photography. I’m not a tourist. I’m trying to understand the sites in their terms and translate my understanding into art. Native Americans have a term, “rainbow warrior,” for someone who bridges these worlds. I want to show people a glimpse into the mystery and power and beauty of a sacred place. The feminine is there, and it’s big enough to hold everything.

Crosbie: Do people respond to your work in ways that suggest that a strong feminine quality is present in the subjects you photograph, or in the way you have photographed them?

Pavlinac: I never think of myself as a woman taking a picture. I am a person alive right now responding to what is in front of me, while trying to touch what has come before. As to how people respond to my work, it stops them. There is a stillness, and they may not say anything at first. Then they want to know where it was. And if they’ve been there, they want to know when I was there, because it didn’t seem like that when they were there. I usually tell people that I wait around a lot. I travel off season and I go when places are misty or in the rain. I don’t like crowds. To be alone in a place is a big head start in helping you to experience it. An image can help bring you into the present, while talking takes you out of it. People are interested in knowing more about the culture and then the conversation turns to more of the feminine, gentler ways of treading the earth, of being there together.

One of the most common questions is what kind of camera I use. How did I get that picture? People are fascinated when I tell them I walk around a site first, and you don’t have to have the camera glued to your face. I encourage people to experience the place where they are and to be present. People sometimes open up and tell me their own stories, of something that happened to them there. The photo might give them validation to what they experienced, or they may resonate with it. My multimedia shows, with music and hundreds of images, are a more comprehensive experience of a sacred place. They are a nurturing experience.

Crosbie: Do sacred sites you have photographed have anthropomorphic qualities that seem to suggest a feminine quality?

Pavlinac: I am drawn to circles and negative space: domes, wells, and bodies of water; things that are organic, rather than with straight lines. The standing stones look like people, and they have been carved that way. I like places like caves that are enclosed, with subdued lighting. I like to be at sites that are veiled and mysterious. They all suggest a feminine dimension, like petroglyphs that follow the curve of a rock. The feminine aspect is the physical space, the meeting place, the structure; the masculine aspect is the activation of that structure. The shape of a site like Stonehenge is feminine. There is an essence about it. Looking into the mechanism of the universe you are seeing a phenomenon, something that happens every year, but when you experience it, it completely knocks you loose from time. To really experience such sacred places you need to open yourself up and you need to pull back, to stop and look. We need to strengthen people to do that. You need to surrender yourself to a site instead of conquering it, and that’s a feminine aspect to experiencing the places and my photographs.

Crosbie: Many of the places you have photographed are very old. Do you think the feminine aspect of these places evolved over time, or were they always this way?

Pavlinac: I’m not sure about the feminine evolving – that sounds like a masculine quality. The feminine is more in recognizing what is eternal, the quality that people were attracted to in the first place, and the different responses that people have had to these sites over time. Chartres started as a well in a grove of trees, then a little church was built, and then larger and larger structures were constructed. But I don’t think the feminine aspect changed.

Many of these old sacred sites are ignored now, which says more about our own culture and society. But they are still there. The old sites are held in context and for me that is how you get meaning. There is no context with a relic. But the site is all part of the geographic fabric. The context is an environment, closer to the feminine aspect of the sacred – the nurturing, holding aspect of it. It is an environment – not just the temple, but the environs around it – that prepares you for it, aligned with and integrated into the landscape.

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