Saturday, 14 June 2008

The Zen of Photography

People sometimes ask for my advice on buying cameras. The camera they have now doesn't give them good shots, and they want something with mysterious dials and switches and buttons so they can take photographs they can be proud of. I usually tell them a little of what I know about cameras, but seldom what I am really thinking: that buying a new camera to improve your photography is like buying a new pen to improve your writing. If you are taking rubbish now, a new camera will only deliver you more sharply focused and better exposed rubbish. A good photographer will take stunning shots with a $199 point and shoot. Consider photographs like his or like his, or like hers; Although all these were taken with fairly good camera gear, it's not the equipment that mattered - it's possessing a photographic eye. (and since writing this, I have stumbled on this blog which eloquently proves my point)

Which is what? Well, hard to explain really, but you know it when you see it. It is (sorry) the ability to know it when you see it; to look at the world around you and recognise the photograph that is just sitting there, pretty much all the time, waiting for someone to take it. Anybody can acquire a photographic eye. You don't have to learn anything. But you do have to unlearn a whole lot of stuff.

You look at the world through a truly miraculous optical instrument, the human eye. What you see is processed by a truly miraculous piece of graphic software, the human brain. Your view is constantly auto focused, auto exposed, auto zoomed, adjusted for distortion and screened for irrelevancies, and all done so quickly and seamlessly that you never notice it happening. Which is fine until you try to take photos. Suppose, for example, that one enchanted evening, you may see a stranger, across a crowded room. What you see is this:

You raise your camera, press the shutter, and get this:

Because you are focused on the face you want to record, you just don't notice that all that other stuff - the stuff that fills 90% of the picture - is edited out by your brain; but not, of course, by the camera. In fact you will be slightly surprised when your picture is developed or pops up on the screen because 'that's not the way it was at all. I must need a better camera.' The camera, no matter how pricey it is or how many knobs it has to twiddle with, is a stupid little piece of machinery that slavishly records anything and everything before it. Your brain and eye are sophisticated instruments that record only what you are interested in or need to see. If you want to take good pictures, until you can build a camera as sophisticated as the brain / eye combo, you've got to start seeing the world as a camera sees it. Which means shutting off the automatic adjusters between your ears; quietening the internal editor who, unobserved, works so relentlessly. It means teaching yourself to see what is actually in front of you. I've been taking photos for about 40 years now and I guess I'm about halfway there.

Anthony De Mello says there are three basic rules of spirituality: 1) Awareness 2) Awareness 3) Awareness. For me, photography is about awareness. This process of seeing what is actually there is an act of contemplation which can be, for me, a form of prayer. For me with an intuition which runs autonomously most of the time, it is a great act of calming and discipline to hang a camera about my neck and walk into a garden or along a beach. It means that I consciously shut off the internal editor, and am present to what is actually before me. Even if I come home with no shots at all, at least I have spent some time actually seeing. Often (usually?) the photographs are irrelevant and I hardly bother with them.

As with photographs, so with all types of prayer, and maybe all types of learning. Adding new learnings is never the problem. Letting go of old learnings, that's the problem. Because, before you let them go, you first have to recognise them, and that's the really tricky bit.


Anonymous said...

Why Zen? Why use a Buddhist term when there must be many Christian ones that would fit?

VenDr said...

Very good question. I wondered that myself. Perhaps it's a tribute to a book that once meant a lot to me, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Perhaps it's a feeling that if St. John could borrow the term The Logos from Philo, I can borrow Zen from the Buddhists.
Zen is a type of practice which eschews too much theorising and concentrates instead on developing the experience of spirituality. This is exactly what I was trying to drive at.

If I was a Catholic I'd be a Jesuit. If I was a Buddhist I would be Zen. I'm never going to be either, so I'll borrow the term in the meantime because I can't think of a better one.

Anonymous said...

So looking through the blog you linked to, I come across this post. For a moment I wondered if I was going in circles...

VenDr said...

Yes. She is an interesting and innovative photographer, and has impeccable taste in her choice of blog names.