1. Portraits of Devotion
There is a private, hidden place in people’s homes where they connect with transcendent beings, ethereal energies, and supernatural realities. It’s a hallowed site with sacred objects like statues, images of gods or gurus, and elemental specimens of fire, air, water, and earth, all lovingly cared for as if the objects were alive. The collection of items are arranged together, in a microcosmic tableau that reflects larger spiritual dimensions, where the devout pray, make offerings, worship, and meditate. Sometimes it's where they perform rituals. Or ask that a wish be fulfilled. It's where believers go to be inspired and have their spirits nourished. The entire atmosphere is carefully composed into an artful composition to create a personal altar.
As a photographer and artist, I’ve always been fascinated by altars. I view them as demonstrations of love, as individual expressions of spiritual devotion. I’m drawn to the mysterious ways believers express inspiration, how they attain a sense of presence. And how they can focus attention to awaken meaningful objects or infuse them with their own lifeforce. The altar could be as simple as a candle or flower. Or it could be designed with so much complexity as to amaze and enchant the eye. In all cases the arrangement of sanctified objects elevates the spirit of its composer to a place beyond the tangible. It is a nexus, a site-specific portal, a focal point through which its architect communes with beings whose presence can be felt, though not often seen by the eye.
In 2016 I started a project to document the meaningful connections people have with their home altars. The subjects with whom I have collaborated represent a small sample of people with wide ranging belief systems, both in and outside mainstream religions. They are spiritual practitioners who are willing to give voice to and celebrate their unique expressions of worship. These worshippers are interconnected with diverse systems of supernatural meta-ecologies, or structures of subtle dimensions that co-exist with our reality.
My goal has been to record the unique way each person expresses the special relationship they have with their altar. I’ve networked through spiritual communities around the world to find individuals who are willing to be photographed. Subjects have also contacted me, asking to be included in the project. Early on I photographed a photographer who used ceremonial magic as part of his spiritual practice. He suggested I reach out to a man named George Kingswood. “He’s an Alchemist and I’m pretty sure he has an altar.” I was intrigued. “I think he’d be willing to let you take pictures because like the two of us, he’s also a photographer.” This person sounded exactly like someone I was looking for!
I Googled the name to find contact information but the only search result was a picture of a tombstone inscribed: “George Kingswood, 1825-1851”. The internet, my primary resource for information, came up empty. By going back to the source of the lead I got a P.O. box address and mailed a letter that day. After several rounds of letters, I was invited to meet this “alchemyst”*, philosopher, and self-proclaimed photographer, Mr. George Kingswood, who I will now refer to as GK.
*Spelling provided by George Kingswood.
Throughout our correspondence, it became clear that he was not what I imagined. My mental picture of an “alchemist” was a bit outdated. I had pictured an enigmatic character speaking in riddles, similar to Mary Anne Atwood’s description of an individual “brooding over his crucibles and alembics that are to place within his reach the philosophers’ stone, the transmutation of metals, the alkahest, and the elixir of life" (Atwood, 11). Yet, Evelyn Underhill wrote, “Of all the symbolic systems in which this truth has been enshrined none is so complete, so picturesque, and now so little understood as that of the ‘Hermetic Philosophers’ or Spiritual Alchemists” (Underhill, 141). Underhill, an author on mysticism, penned those words in 1911 and her observation painted an enduring picture in my imagination, well over a century later.
Atwood, Mary Anne. Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy: A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery with a Dissertation on the More Celebrated of the Alchemical Philosophers, Routledge, 2005, p. 11. Abardoncompanion, http://abardoncompanion.de/Alex/Atwood.pdf. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness,
Dover Publications, 2002, p. 141.
GK responded to my naivete, stressing that he was not the “puffer” or “sooty empiric” I had envisioned. He hoped I was not imagining him “toiling in his dark, smokey laboratory, surrounded by a pack of oath-bound demonic servants, all driven by a common lust to turn lead into gold.” He ended the paragraph with “Rubbish!” GK is a descendent of fourth-generations of alchemists who were also photographers. He is also a direct beneficiary of those ancient practitioners of the true hermetic art. Some of which (GK confirmed) were only concerned with the projection of gold.
I was surprised to learn that contemporary alchemists aren't as rare as I thought. In fact there are currently a number of present-day alchemical organizations, like the International Alchemy Guild, the Temple of Mercury: A College for the Hermetic Arts, the Fraternity of Hidden Light, and others. One such twentieth-century practitioner of the art was Frater Albertus (1911-1984). He argued, “Many people think of alchemists as strange, mysterious individuals, half crazy, if not completely insane, who belong more properly to the Dark Ages. To mention that true alchemists are living and working today sounds, to most people, like a fable from 1001 Nights. But the remarkable fact remains that even to this day, unknown to the world at large, alchemists continue to practice their art and science, faithful to a centuries-old tradition. More often than not, those apparent miracles that happen here and there are the results of the deeds of these unselfish men and women” (Albertus, 104). That said, GK adds that authentic alchemists have always been able to exceed the limits of space, time, physicality, and the limited capacity for perception of the ordinary person. “And” he pointed out, “I regularly use those abilities to help others.”
*Albertus, Frater. The Alchemist’s Handbook, Samuel Wiser, Inc., New York, 1978, p. 104.
GK turned out to be a modern-day alchemist who, from the beginning, had set his sights higher than the avaricious desires of some predecessors, those self-interested relics who longed for riches and fame. Instead, he is on a mystically oriented path that he refers to as the “Opus Magna Lucis et Umbrae” (The Great Work of Light and Shadow) or simply, the Great Work. A unique aspect of GK’s approach to the Great Work is that it is a photocentric subcategory of Western Mysticism. He pairs a metaphysical approach with photography as a sacerdotal art. In doing so, photography becomes the main vehicle for his life’s alchemical pursuits. In this context, his approach to the art could be defined as what authors Philippe Gross and S. I. Shapiro call, “the path of conscious camerawork” (Gross et al., 141). GK faithfully follows the teachings of his ancestor, Abraham, who recognized in the late 19th century, that “Alchemy is an art form above all other arts, a noble craft that calls on the highest degree of creativity and like photography, is an art of fire.” He also believed what most others overlooked, that “light”, in the words of scholar of mysticism, Henry Corbin, “is the agent of Revelation” (Corbin, 191).
*Gross, Philippe L., and S. I. Shapiro. The Tao of Photography: Seeing beyond Seeing, Ten Speed
Press, United Kingdom, 2001, p. 34..
**Corbin, Henry. Creative Imagination in the Ṣūfism of Ibn ʻArabī, Routledge & K. Paul, United
Kingdom, 1969, p. 191.
The main reason I contacted GK was to ask if I could photograph him with his altar. From the very beginning he seemed interested, but wanted to learn more about the project. As we sent letters with questions, our rewarding conversation carried on for more than a few months. I realized that my creative goal had been reformed into GK’s larger purpose, which was to have me make five photos of him as illustrations for a manuscript idea about the theories and practices of his family’s system of western transformational alchemy (Spirituele alchemie) and its interdependence with photography. Furthermore, he asked me to write the book. GK’s ultimate purpose was to bring his beliefs and practices out into the open, beyond the sanctuary of his ancestral home. His hope was that there would be interested readers who might feel a sense of recognition with this, “particular philosophical vantage point of the Hermetic arts.” He also said that there needed to be a contemporary book of authenticity as a counterpoint to what the honorable alchemist, Éliphas Lévi called, “catch-penny mystifications and impostures of dishonest publishers” (Lévi, 42).
Lévi, Éliphas. “Book 2.” Dogme Et Rituel De La Haute Magie, Rider & Company, England,
1896, p. 42. Academia.edu, https://www.academia.edu/27051672/Dogme_et_Rituel_de_la_Haute_Magie?email_work_card=view-paper. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
I was surprised that GK asked me to author the book. I believe he did so because of my knowledge and experience with photography, while concurrently having a simplistic understanding of alchemy. Instead of finding a writer who was steeped in alchemical understanding, he thought it would be better to have someone with an uninitiated, objective viewpoint. Most of what I knew about alchemy was its status as an ancient pseudoscience that was relentless in finding a way to transmute lead into gold. GK thought this state of ignorance was the perfect place from which to start my education into the Western Mystical Tradition.
GK had a timeline in mind. He wanted to finish our conversations and photography sessions by the end of 2022. He felt that because our time together would be limited, and the amount of information was so vast, that he urged me to “listen carefully, and from the inquiring light within.” I should ask questions to clarify my understanding (especially when feeling mystified). That I should learn as much as I could. It was easy to comply because the more stories I heard, the more I wanted to know about his extraordinary ideas, his fascinating work with alchemy, and how his forebearers discovered a spiritual dimension to photography.
At the onset of this project, I needed to gain a better understanding of alchemy, particularly the arcane tradition of spiritual alchemy, which historian and scholar Mike Zuber defines as, “the practical pursuit of inward but physically real transmutation” (Zuber, 38). From an academic perspective, I started a parallel line of research in which I began studying alchemy’s ancient history, while working my way up to its significance in our 21st century world. By becoming familiar with the theory and practice of the alchemical arts and the esoteric process of the Great Work, I hoped to be able to ask relevant questions during our interviews. I knew that if I wasn’t able to understand the topics for myself, I would never be able to write about the subject with clarity. Furthermore, I would have to know enough information to put GK’s accounts into context. I would need to help readers by defining unfamiliar terms and citing sources for some of his arcane references.
*Zuber, Mike A. Spiritual Alchemy: From Jacob Boehme to Mary Anne Atwood, Oxford University
Press, New York, NY, 2021, p. 38.
GK talked about being, “thrice born”. Once as a human, once as an Initiate of the Hermetic-Gnostic Mysteries, and lastly, the dissolution and reemergence into a state of gnosis, or more specifically, photognosis, meaning, light’s divine wisdom. Between the first and second birth there is a series of transformations. During the third birth there was transmutation in which he experienced a total psychological and spiritual reawakening. He said that in alchemy there is a saying, Durare mori et non perire, which means, Endure death and do not perish. This refers to the alchemical process of, “solve et coagula”, defined as, dissolution and reformation. Through the process, one dissolves their self (a kind of death) and re-forms (coagulates) into a new and higher form of being…a “third birth”. GK said, “It was perfectly described when Albertus Magnus said alchemy was, ‘nothing else but to dissolve and recongeal the spirit, to make the fixed volatile and the volatile fixed, until the total nature is perfected by the reiteration, both in its Solary and Lunar form’”(Atwood, 103). GK’s commanding appearance, his intelligence, and authoritative delivery helped emphasize the impact of what he intended to convey about his personal experience with life, death, and reemergence into a new form of being. I was convinced.
*Atwood, Mary Anne. Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy: A Suggestive Inquiry into the
Hermetic Mystery with a Dissertation on the More Celebrated of the Alchemical Philosophers, Routledge, 2005, p. 103. Abardoncompanion, http://abardoncompanion.de/Alex/Atwood.pdf. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
Our Ancestors Guide Us and Protect Us by Garin Horner
Solve et Coagula
Mylius, Johann Daniel. Anatomia auri. N.p., n.p, 1628. Part V, p 15
GK explained that his family of alchemistic philosophers learned to speak about their esoteric processes in terms of light, cameras, lenses, glass plates, silver saturated emulsions, chemical operations, and photographic subject matter. On transformation he wrote: “Nothing is static, everything is in a state of metamorphosis, of becoming something else. Energy, which cannot be created nor destroyed, is constantly changing from one state to another. For example, the blazing nuclear fission of the sun is converted to heat and light. Eight minutes later that light is translated into the life-energy of plants through photosynthesis. That same light falls upon and awakens silver halides on film inside the camera. The images produced energize the photographer, stimulate physical movement and cognitive energy in the brain. If prints are made of those scenes and those physical objects are burned, the energy is liberated back into the very same heat and light from which they were created. Those objects and the imagery upon them transform back into that very same aspect of the sun from which they began. Eight minutes later, the firelight that made those photographic images will return to their source: the sun.” (Kingswood)*
Kingswood, George. The Personal Journal of GK, 2022.
Even though empirical science has proven that energy can’t be created, the origin of the energy that drives evolutionary processes is of major importance to alchemists. GK contemplates the description of creation in both the Bible’s book of Genesis and in the story of Egypt’s progenitor god Ra. Both deities are said to have emerged from the dark void, then manifest around them all material forms. In alchemical philosophy, these are two primary examples of the origin of evolutionary, transformative energy and its processes. Each also marks the emergence, the source, and the goal of the Great Work.
GK talks about his personal Great Work as the unyielding efforts to manipulate the natural energies that fuel the transformative processes which continue to drive evolution. The aspirant seeks illumination from the source, a divine knowledge that leads to the spiritual insights needed to purposefully evolve one’s being. Taking on this challenge and acting on the knowledge it imparts promises to rapidly compel self-evolution. This arduous journey relies on the transformation of addictions, fear, greed, selfishness, and other imperfections to achieve an exalted form of being. Photographer Sean Kernan says, “When you face something you think you can’t possibly do, and then go ahead and do it anyway, creativity is the tool you use. It is how you can get far beyond the self that you have constructed at all ages as you’ve practiced being you” (Kernan, 2).
Kernan, Sean. Looking into the Light: Creativity and Photography, 2014, p. 2.
Focusing on creative problem solving, alchemists follow the examples of the biblical god and Egypt’s solar god Ra. Both of which teach that all transformative processes begin in the infinite potential of darkness. GK declares “It is from the inexhaustible darkness that the creative arcana can manifest universes filled with living beings and hidden clues to the methods for their evolution. It also reveals the mysteries to its seemingly lightless origin. So too it is with photography, in which silver halides birth an image in a pitch-dark environment, an impression that remained resting in its creative potential, prior to becoming.” The Great Work utilizes ingenious alchemical methods and high magic to reverse-engineer the processes of evolution. Transformations that gave form to the human body, mind, soul, and consciousness. The intention is to gain further insights into the primordial gloom from which all things originated and emerged.
The last four generations of Kingswoods (like the ancient, secretive alchemists of the past) have been rigorously devout to the Great Work. That devotion took form in the development of their own language, which is filled with symbolism, metaphors, paronomasia, and techno-jargon. In addition, they wielded a mysto-centric visual language of emblems, pictograms, ideograms, and logograms. Due to a variety of encryptions used in all aspects of alchemical communication, I learned that I could never take what I heard or what I saw at face value. Everything expressed by GK had more than one meaning; communicating with him was like learning a new language, one that took an active, conscious effort to decipher. There was what I understood from GK, in his own words, and then there were far more reaching meanings, most of which surely went over my head.
GK’s laboratory appeared like an externalized projection of his research and mystical pedagogy. It's a chamber where he immerses himself in the production of artisanal elixirs and the alchemy of photographic processes. He says, “I have all the items listed in Rhazes’ Book of Secrets, including specimens from the categories nascentia and viventia and more.” There are beakers, flasks, aludels, crucibles, funnels, graduated cylinders, developing trays, a cucurbit, an alembic, and a collection of unlabeled containers filled with abstruse substances. There were myriad boxes and bottles, labeled Kodak, Ilford, Agfa, Fotospeed, and Kentmere. When he described this room as his laboratorium what he really meant was that it was the architectural construct of his true alchemical atelier, hidden within himself. It is the place, “where the Work could proceed on my soul” (Carty, 10). It’s where the discipline of true transformative processes are constantly working behind the scenes to examine, refine, and purify the very essence of his being. To my eyes, the room was overflowing with miscellaneous objects and exotic ingredients. To GK, these same components were organs of knowledge and the viscera of his own body.
Carty, Donald G. The Emerald Tablet: And the Alchemy of Spiritual Transformation,
Personal Development Institute, 2007, p. 10, https://www.alchemystudy.com/download/Emerald_Tablet-Carty(plagiarized_from_Hauck's%20book).pdf. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
GK’s path is undeniably a mystical one. He never settles for taking on faith what he has learned or discovered without first putting the information to work, testing it in order to gain a deeper, first hand knowledge from experience. In Gary Edson’s book Mysticism and Alchemy through the Ages: The Quest for Transformation, his words aptly describe the enigmatic state from which GK views the world. “‘The mystic insight begins with the sense of a mystery unveiled, of a hidden wisdom now suddenly become certain beyond the possibility of doubt. The sense of certainty and revelation comes earlier than any definite belief.’ (Russell, 9). The mystic seeks an enhanced form of life. The way of spiritual and emotional enhancement involves the ‘remaking of character and the liberation of a new, or rather latent, form of consciousness; which imposes on the self the condition which is sometimes inaccurately called ‘ecstasy,’ but is better named the Unitive State.’ (Underhill, 81). Ecstasy may be considered as meaning ‘to stand outside.’ the mystic in a state of ecstasy, stands outside his normal awareness and discovers he or she is more than he or she imagined” (Edson, 79).
Russell, B. Mysticism and Logic, W.W. Norton, New York, 1929, p. 9.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness,
12th ed., Dover, Mineola, New York, 2002, p. 81.
Edson, Gary. Mysticism and Alchemy Through the Ages: The Quest for Transformation,
McFarland & Company, London, 2012, p. 79.
By way of his humble demeanor and kindness, it was clear that GK’s perception of the phenomenal world wasn’t the same as mine. His fearless worldview had somehow expanded to include much more than what I perceived. His state of consciousness extended into realms where spirits, gods, and even demons dwell: where the elements: fire, earth, wind, and water are understood as animated, as being distinct, autonomous intelligences. What’s more, his intrepid sense of vision isn’t limited to merely “looking” at photographs, but penetrated their flat surfaces, seeing deeply into them as though they were windows looking out into infinitely regressing scenes. The accuracy with which he could interpret even the most subtle details and meanings in a photograph was truly, what he would assert as, “superordinate and unexplainable”.
Spending time with GK in his home, I became almost accustomed to inexplicable phenomena. For instance, I can’t count the number of times I would, out of the corner of my eye, catch the shape of a person standing or moving. Sometimes it was an outline of flickering light; other times it was a murky human form, like a shadow floating on still air. Every time, I was chilled by the experience. In response, GK would let slip something like, “don’t mind them, they’re just curious.” It was disturbing, but more unsettling were the times he said this while his back was turned to me, despite the fact that his position made him unable to notice a quick turn of my head or my startled (yet utterly silent) expressions. In these moments I would think about how he may be living with over two centuries of ghosts. When I asked him if he thought there were actual ghosts in the house, he quoted mystic Helena Blavatsky, “Tell one who had never seen water, that there is an ocean of water, and he must accept it on faith or reject it all together. But let one drop fall upon his hand, and he then has a fact from which all the rest may be inferred. After that he could by degrees understand that a boundless and fathomless ocean of water existed” (Blavatsky, 4).
Blavatsky, Helena. ISIS Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science
and Theology, Theosophy Trust, 2006, p. 4. Anthroweb.info,
So much of what I learned while with GK couldn’t be categorized as “explainable” or even “rational” in my mind. But, this is what made every day with him so exciting! I think back on the end of our first meeting: I had been left with a simultaneous feeling of hesitancy and exhilaration, like I was a supporting character in a supernatural thriller, the token optimist who says to the protagonist, “Let’s do it. What could possibly go wrong?” That day, with a decisive handshake and penetrating focus, GK testified in his enchanting English accent, “Nothing’s more meaningful than applying the uniquely valuable resources of photography for one’s self-transformation. This art is crucial for maintaining the steep ascent toward gnosis, where one encounters the first emanation of light.” The tales he told over the next few years clarified and made real the meaning of those thirty-three words, expanding them into a fantastical story, told from the vantage point of his own lived experience.
George Kingswood's Alchemy Laboratorium by Garin Horner