Meeting of Minds | Stuart Rome, Guggenheim Award-Winning Photographer


© Stuart Rome


Celebrated Guggenheim award-winning photographer, Stuart Rome documented the cultural traditions and natural wonders of Indonesia from 1987-2001. Steven G. Alpert, founder of Art of the Ancestors, connected with Rome to discuss the stories behind a curated selection of his luminous work.


Let’s begin with the megalithic stone with the sun rising behind it. Can you provide us with context for this alluring image?


© Stuart Rome


Stuart Rome: This stone is behind a big tourist attraction, Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave, which combines attributes of a beautifully hewed Hindu temple and a hermit's retreat.

As I understand it, the present edifice sits on a 10th century Buddhist site. There, remains of several fallen stupa and a number of simple ancient megalithic stones were hidden in the bush. The disarray was quite beautiful. 

I was there early one morning when the humidity and first heat of the day created a smokiness that framed a primeval scene.  This is such a powerful place.  It was a great moment just to be there.


You are highly regarded for your photographic work of the natural world. What ignited this passion?


© Stuart Rome

© Stuart Rome

© Stuart Rome


Stuart Rome: I was always very interested in the role that nature played in defining Western romanticism; the idea of things being both beautiful and frightening that can coalesce in a profound moment. 

In Bali, everywhere I turned, there was this imagery that sent powerful signals of some sort.


I've always thought that this was a perfect photograph. Every detail, from the pose of the dancer and his supporters, the smoke, the black and white skirts — it’s incredibly evocative. Can you share the back story of this scene?


© Stuart Rome


Stuart Rome: This troupe came from the village of Tegus, not far from Ubud.  Whenever I saw this dance performed, the dancers would go into trances. 

One time, I saw a dancer jump off of the shoulders of 20-30 bearers, run into the fire, and then wash his face with burning embers. It was an incredibly mesmerizing and potent performance. 

In this image, the central figure personifies the monkey king, Sugriwa, his dynamic pose symbolizing strength and unyielding devotion. 

I became friends with the head of the gamelan (orchestra) of this group and we would travel from village to village, where people would hire these dancers to bring energy back to their temple.  


I truly admire this photograph of Ngurah, the son of our dear friends, the late Ida Ayu and Ida Bagus Sutarja from Mas. What qualities in Ngurah did you intend to highlight in this portrait?


© Stuart Rome


Stuart Rome: Ngurah is intently preparing himself in front of a mirror for one of his last performances before he retired from dancing altogether.

Coming from a famous family of carvers and dancers, he was a natural, and like so many young Balinese men, he had a sublimely androgynous quality to his face and hands.


On the subject of intriguing poses and juxtapositions, what was taking place in this eye-catching photograph?


Stuart Rome: This image was taken in northeast Bali near the sea. There, I hired a group of dancers who are normally paid to perform at Balinese temple celebrations, or at the behest of a family for a ceremonial occasion.

It was sundown, we were all relaxed, and I was pleased to be able to move around the dancers without having to navigate an audience. 

What was caught was the mood of the moment as expressed between a whispering leering demon and a beautiful princess.

© Stuart Rome


In the center of this rice paddy, there is circular construction. It's the same circle that is represented in sacred paintings, or mawa. It's actually often a fish pond, but in the construct of the sacred, it's the axis mundi, the center from which food, fecundity, fertility, and all acts of reproduction emanate.

Your image conveys the spiritual essence of what a rice paddy means, of what rice is to life. Please tell us how you came to visit this sacred site.


© Stuart Rome


Stuart Rome: I took this image after hiking 3 or 4 days from near Rantepao into the mountainous interior of Tanah Toraja in central Sulawesi.  Waking up, I could look over a cliff and see the rice fields, below them were moving clouds, and when they parted more rice paddies were revealed. It was an incredible view!

I'm always looking for signals, like the semi circle in the rice paddy, that even if you do not fully know about its deeper meanings, you feel it. What I learned by photographing trance and ritual, as well as landscapes, in Bali and other places around the globe is that they are intricately related. Trance ceremonies present opportunities for people to speak to nature and then bring that sort of wildness back into a civilized place. 

The point of exchange between wildness and a civilized place is important.  In a sense, I was doing what people in trances do as I was trying to allow the landscape to speak in images at a precise point of exchange.


Stuart Rome: The same is true of this photograph that was taken in West Sumba at the Raja's house in Anakalang.

It was one of those delicious and unsolicited moments when something serendipitous just happens. 

The Raja's wife or an immediate female family member appeared and she began to dance; slowly with spirit, pleasurably, even beckoning as she regaled us with the treasures of her ancestors.

© Stuart Rome


Returning to the subject of landscapes that have been shaped by nature and by man in some relationship, some measure, in this image you transport us to a scene with a pantheon of heroes, demons and gods that seem to be emerging from rocky outcrops. How did you discover this mystical location?


© Stuart Rome


Stuart Rome: We all had hidden spots that represented the 'essential' Bali of our dreams. We protected those spots and only showed them to a few special persons. Once, I took a friend of mine to see a marvel hidden in the jungle beside running water that an old man had once revealed to me, and in exchange I was brought to what appeared to be a hole in the earth, but what in reality was a hidden spring with these evocative ancient carvings.

Upon first sight, the only thing I could compare these figures with in Western Culture were Auguste Rodin's famous gates of Heaven and Hell, where the bronze still feels molten, and the figures are emerging as if they are being formed before your eyes.


This image is from the Island of Flores, from the Ngada region somewhere in the mountainous villages surrounding the Bajawa area, if I am not mistaken?


© Stuart Rome


Stuart Rome: Yes. I arrived in this Ngada village on a day when a traditional clan house was about to be inaugurated. 

This required sacrifices to the ancestors and the division of food to celebrate the great house's birth, and to insure the stability of the structure and its inhabitants. 

There is a sense of tension and anticipation here, even danger in the air, as this man's determined stance and aggressive energy is on display just before a large number of buffalo are about to be ceremonially sacrificed. 


The annual Pasola in West Sumba is also an archetypal event, one that is intended to appease and propitiate the forces responsible for an abundant harvest. 

Once, the Pasola would not be considered complete until warriors died while throwing spears at one another in a melee amid shrieks and galloping horses. There have been many fine photographers who have taken photographs of this famous event, but yours strike me as being immediate and somehow different. Please elaborate on your experiences at the Pasola.


© Stuart Rome

© Stuart Rome

© Stuart Rome


Stuart Rome: I wanted to get as close as I could. The only way to do that was to run in the middle of the field where people were taunting and accosting one another. It was like jousting. It was amazing to watch agile riders twist, dip, or glide on their small Arabian horses to avoid being hit by their opponent's sharpened sticks. 

I just made a few pictures of the mock fighting. I did not want to tempt fate. These pictures were made quickly while I was running and I don't think that I even looked through the camera when I made these photographs. That year the large audience that was expected to attend didn't materialize, so there was a lot of room for me to maneuver. It was probably stupid, but I got excited and ran into the center of the action as horses galloped by and one rider came right at me as he veered towards his opponent.


Stuart Rome

© Catherine Bogart-Rome

© Catherine Bogart-Rome


Stuart Rome has worked as a photographer since the 1970’s during which he began exhibiting works in color - both landscapes and portraits, entitled, Modern Mythologies. His first solo exhibition was presented at the International Museum of Photography in 1978.   

His interests in anthropology led to projects photographing antiquities in Latin America and Asia as well as recording remnants of these expressions found in the rituals of trance. This documentary work led to landscape photographs of forests as a manifestation of pantheistic energy. 

Patterning found in tribal art and textiles became the framework from which ideas about the natural world would emerge in his most recent published work, Drawn from Nature as well as ongoing Forest Pictures and the new series, Oculus. 

In 1985 Stuart Rome was hired to design and build a new Photography Program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he continues to teach. 

Stuart Rome has exhibited extensively over the years in solo and group exhibitions - in galleries and museums. Amongst his publications are: Maya, Treasures of an Ancient Civilization, Abrams, 1985; Forest, a monograph, Nazraeli Press, 2005; Signs and Wonders, The Southeast Museum of Photography, 2011. The John Simon Guggenheim fellowship was awarded in 2015 for his most recent work, "Oculus", photographs from within giant redwoods and sequoias.