Monday, August 10, 2009

A creative response to the "isness" before us

A good photographer -- I was told once, in a truly excellent weeklong photography workshop -- does not take pictures, she makes pictures. I have struggled with this distinction ever since, because it seems to be my calling, not to create photographs -- i.e., to use a model, or create a backdrop, or to consciously juxtapose disparate objects as an expression of some deeper opinion or wisdom I wish to share -- but merely to take them; to capture a moment when it appears and then to discover what IT might have to tell ME.

Which is why, of course, my photography often awakens that "Jeez, if I'd been there, I coulda taken that picture," response in viewers -- and therefore becomes a bit of a hard sell.

But then, of course, having "listened" to a photo, I've come to love the subsequent explorations of meaning and presentation that become possible in the land of digital photography and photoshop. In the world of post-processing, it is as if the photograph and I explore together what potential worlds the image may be longing to express.

One of the things I love about Thomas Merton is that he is not just a mystic and a writer; he, too, was a photographer -- in fact I have two books of his photographs, and he seems to have been as enchanted with driftwood and natural formations as I have been at various points in my photographic career. So I love that he explores the creative process from these three different points of view, and particularly appreciated what he had to say this morning in his reflections on "The Theology of Creativity":

"The Zen artist does not 'study Zen in order to paint.' ... he does not...practice meditation as a means to artistic experience and expression...rather he enters into a purifying struggle against conceptual knowledge, in which he 'sweats out' his attachment to images, ideas, symbols, metaphors, analytic judgments, etc. as means for grasping, appreciating, and understanding reality.

Instead of this, he seeks to recover an immediate, direct intuition... an intuition in which the existent knows existence, or 'isness,' while completely losing sight of itself as 'a knowing subject.'

...there is then no artistic reflection: The work of art springs 'out of emptiness'... One cannot begin to be an artist, in Suzuki's sense, until he has become 'empty,' until he has disappeared."

I suspect I like these thoughts, not just because they shed light on some of my own struggles with the connection between my meditation practice and my work, both as writer and as photographer, but also because they give me leave to continue exploring the territory that lies between "taking pictures" and "making pictures;" a sort of justification for my own preferred approach to photography, which is to raise the camera to my eye in response to some obscure awakening that passes from a subject to me, some combination of light and stillness that invites a capture and reflection.

Because there is -- despite my ongoing frustrations with my inability to be fully present at all times, and my newly re-awakened concern that the camera may sometimes decrease rather than induce my ability to be present -- a huge gift in allowing photography to lead me rather than me controlling it. And that is that in moments like this morning, when my dog -- who usually waits for his second morning walk until after I have completed my blog -- insists that I break in midstream to take him outside -- there could be a gift awaiting me.

For as I stood, waiting for him to do his duty, I realized that this scene which lay before me, when the Puget Sound was uncharacteristically still and a gentle mist was falling, was crying out for attention from my camera. So I took him in, gave him his reward, and went back out with my camera to collect my own reward: this shot -- which I now share with you.

Peace be with you, my friends -- and may we continue exploring together what it means to develop a creative response to the "isness" of our world.


todd roseman said...

You sound ripe for an exploration of Miksang photography. The workshop is all about dropping the conceptual mind and photographing the flash of recognition when something shows up in the world for you.

I've taken a couple workshops with Michael Wood and Julie Debose and highly recommend them. ( said...

Thanks for the Miksang reminder; I've heard of them before and will definitely look into that! At first glance it looks like their next workshop is a distinct possibility...

todd roseman said...

yes, it's just what you're talking about...the receiving of perception/art instead of the "making" of it.

I just finished level one and two in boulder, co. Great classes.

Love your work, thanks for sharing!