Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Wonder of Wandering Monks and the Lessons They Teach Aspiring Photographers

The recent passing of Zen master / photographer John D. Loori has, predictably, put me into a melancholy, contemplative state-of-mind. It also rekindled a life-long fascination with Zen Koans (go here for another list and accompanying mp3 files) that Loori so effectively used in his teachings on art and creativity. Apart from Loori's own books on Koans (see Sitting with Koans, Riding the Ox Home, and Two Arrows Meeting in Mid-Air), a favorite of mine is the classic Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps.

And one of my favorite stories from Reps' book is called Trading Dialog for Lodging (found on pages 46-47 of the book I've linked to above). Now, not being a Zen master myself, I humbly offer an "interpretation" of this little gem and remind the kind reader that it is just that, no more, no less; namely Andy Ilachinski's interpretation of a story found in a book of Zen and pre-Zen writings by an author named Paul reps, as revealed to Andy's consciousness on a beautiful autumn Sunday morning in October 2009. But therein lies both the rub and the truth; or, more precisely, the lesson. For "truth" is - at best - just a fleeting ephemeral approximation of ... ?

The story begins by reminding the reader of a Buddhist tradition in which a traveling monk can remain in a Zen temple provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with anyone who lives there. We are then told of a temple in the northern part of Japan were there are two brother monks: one, the elder; the other, stupid and possessing but one eye. A traveling monk finds his way to this temple and - rightfully - challenges the monks to a debate. The elder brother, too tired from a long day of studying to engage in the challenge, asks his younger brother to "go and request the dialogue in silence" in his stead. The young one-eyed monk and the wandering stranger go to the shrine and sit down.

A short time later, the traveling monk goes to the elder brother to inform him that his brother has defeated him. Before leaving, the elder asks the monk to relate what had happened. The monk recounts the challenge: "At first, I held up one finger, denoting Buddha, the enlightened one. So your brother held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teachings. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teachings, and his followers, living a harmonious life. Your brother then shook a clenched fist at me, showing me that all three come from the same - single - realization. To this insight I had no answer. I thus lost the challenge."

As the traveling monk made his way back down the road away from the temple, the elder monk's brother appeared, breathless, before his brother. "Where is that monk?" he started, "I'm going to beat him up!" Asked to explain his anger, the younger brother recounts what happened: "Why, the minute he saw me he insulted me by holding up one finger to laugh at my one eye. Since he was a stranger, and in need of a place to stay, I decided to be kind and held up two fingers, congratulating him on having two eyes. Infuriatingly, he then held up three fingers, stubbornly reminding me that - between the two of us - we still had only three eyes. I couldn't contain my anger any longer, and showed him my fist!"

One reality, or two? Or three? Or an uncountable number of "potential" realities, and interpretations? What I love about this simple story is how artfully it blends meaning, distortion, subjectivity, context, tradition, interpretation, and - with a subtle nod to an "unspoken" arbiter / truth-seer (not the elder brother, but an implied "outside observer" who is reflecting upon even the reader's interpretation of this story) - the recursive, self-referential nature of "true" objectivity; and, ultimately, the nature of "reality" itself. As space-time (so far as we know) is finite yet unbounded, so - too - this story suggests, reality is finite but unlimited in its interpretations.

This story also suggests that, despite there obviously being a reality - there are two monks engaged in a Buddhist challenge! - no one in the story experiences it fully. Certainly not the two monks, with their dramatically different recollections of what happened; and not even the elder brother, who ostensibly hears "both sides" of the "reality," but is not himself present when the "reality" occurs, and who does not reveal any of his own predilections and subjective interpretations of what he hears from two different people (one of whom is very close to him, the other a complete stranger); just what does he make of these two stories? And what does the elder believe really happened? We might, just as well, wonder about a "more complete" reality, that encompasses not just the two arguing monks but the two monks + elder. What is to be made of the single "interpretation" we have of this system (which is not, I remind you, that of the elder - who merely listens in the story - but the interpretation of the whole story that you, kind reader, have yourself to offer!)? The telescoping levels are, of course, endless and whose "end" remains perpetually out of reach; the next one starts at "two monks + elder + Andy's interpretation of the story". What of my role in this, as I've recounted a story favorite of mine from memory; and did so fairly and honestly, but certainly not verbatim, word-by-word. What intentional and/or unintentional subjectivities did I introduce into the story that altered its "true" meaning? And so it goes.

What does all of this have to do with photography (you may be forgiven for wondering)? Everything (or nothing, depending on what "part" of the story one is paying attention to;-) The experience of the wandering monk reminds us that just as all of us ("privileged observers") sit at the center of a unique - and therefore uniquely limited - reality, the "true nature" of reality remains hidden, unknown in whole, and eludes even the mindful gaze of the wisest of wise "outside observers" (for, in truth ;-), there is no such being). Our understanding of reality is fluid, imprecise, and - forever - incomplete; and owes more - much, much more - to subjective context-dependent interpretation than most of us (particularly us physicists!) feel comfortable in accepting. A "photograph" may reveal two monks arguing, and show that one monk holds up one finger or two at the other, and/or that one monk is clenching a fist. But that is all a photograph can ever show. And, once it is created - and the "reality" to which it points has ceased to be - the "truth" of a photograph is forever limited to a sort of vestigial (and ever-changing) collective memory of possible interpretations that live on in the minds of those who "look at the photograph" and the photographer who "experienced" it while it was being taken.

And the lesson for the photographer? It is simply this: forget about trying to capture "truth" with your camera. Focus instead on communicating to the rest of the world what you experienced as truth (while immersed in the "reality" your camera recorded but an infinitesimally small slice of).
"When the photograph is a mirror of the man, and the man is a mirror of the world, then Spirit might take over." - Minor White

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Another "Light of an Enlightened Eye" Extinguished :-(

I was deeply saddened to learn (via an email this morning from Tyler Monson @ Original Refrigerator Art Blog) that John D. Loori - Zen Abbot and Photographer (and one-time physical chemist) - passed away a few days ago on Oct 9. Here is a link to an obituary that appeared in the New York Times.

Although I have never met Loori, a few years ago I stumbled across an extraordinary book of his called The Zen of Creativity, and have been admiring - and following - his work ever since. This book (which I've had to purchase a second copy of because my first copy is riddled with creased page corners bookmarking its veritable storehouse of distilled wisdom) turned out to be but one of many, many spiritually rich books he has authored - on Zen, photography, and the creative life in general - and illustrated with his own deeply soulful images. It should come as no surprise that Loori's spiritual / photographic journey started sometime in the early 70s when he attended a workshop conducted by Minor White, who was himself - arguably - the finest "spiritual leader" of photography of his era. Loori not only continued on with his own masterful photography, but eventually became one of the West's leading Zen masters. He was also the founder and spiritual leader of the Mountains and Rivers Order and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York's Catskill mountains.

Another book of Loori's that I own and treasure, and which perfectly illustrates his basic philosophy of nonseperability between art and spiritual practice, is Hearing with the Eye. This book - ostensibly a collection of images that Loori captured around Point Lobos, California (fused with a quiet but illuminating prose) - is a gentle, graceful meditation on the illusory boundaries between inner and outer realities. Much the same, and more, can be found in another, and even more recent, of Loori's books, called Making Love with Light.

A detailed account of his life and philosophy (including links to YouTube videos and a portfolio of his photography) can be found on the Mountains and Rivers Order site by following this link.

There are a total 24 books in all listed on Amazon's Loori page. The aspiring Zen student wondering about what creativity has to say about life, and/or the aspiring (or seasoned) photographer wondering about what Zen practice has to say about taking pictures - and even the stray physicist or two who may secretly wonder about whether there is more to the universe than what equations alone reveal - can have no better companion to start exploring these "wonderings" with than Loori, via his writings and photographs.

Though I may never have been graced by Loori's physical presence as a "teacher," I - and therefore my own work and vision - have nonetheless been deeply touched by the lessons and wisdom of this graceful soul. And, although there obviously remain plenty of souls left on this planet who can communicate to the rest of us beautiful and delicate eternal truths with their cameras (and "gifted seers" are - luckily for the world - born every day), this one preternaturally enlightened "eye" is - mournfully - no more (but only so far as corporeal existence goes).
"To know objects only through dissecting and cataloguing them is to miss their full reality. It is to fall asleep amidst the mystery and to become numb to the wonder of this great Earth." - John Daido Loori

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Upcoming "Worlds Within Worlds" Exhibit

I am delighted to announce that I will be part of a three-artist exhibit entitled "Worlds Within Worlds," to be held Oct 21, 2009 - April 16, 2010 at the American Center for Physics (One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD, 20740). The reception for the exhibit - curated by Sarah Tanguy - will be held November 16, 2009 (which falls on a Monday) between 5:30 - 7:30, with a gallery talk and presentation scheduled for 6:00pm.

If any interested readers of this blog are in the northern-DC/Maryland area around that time, and would like to see works by a wonderful sculptor (Julian Voss-Andreae), a gifted traditional artist (Cynthia Padgett), and a physicist/photographer (yours truly... I'll have 18 of my images on display, grouped into 6 categories; see below), please swing by! I plan on being at the reception on Nov 16.

A two-page fold-out brochure for the event can be downloaded here (in Adobe pdf format). It contains one of my favorite quotes by Einstein:

"Where the world ceases to be the stage for personal hopes and desires, where we, as free beings, behold it in wonder, to question and to contemplate, there we enter the realm of art and science. If we trace out what we behold and experience through the language of logic, we are doing science; if we show it in forms whose interrelationships are not accessible to our conscious thought but are intuitively recognized as meaningful, we are doing art. Common to both is the devotion to something beyond the personal, removed from the arbitrary." — Albert Einstein
As the venue is clearly related to science - physics in particular - it should come as no surprise that all three artists were selected with an eye toward either the artist or his/her work having some connection to physics.

Julian Voss-Andreae, for example, is both a physicist and artist/sculptor by training. His magnificent geometric sculptures are best described as physically manifest visual forms of quantum realities. Starting from original designs of mathematical surfaces (or dynamic processes) on a computer, Julian uses his art to guide and shape these forms into a finished sculpture. Sometimes a work is created by using a particular physics-inspired process; sometimes it is created to reflect a specific physics-related property or principle. But however he creates his individual works, they are all undeniably mesmerizing and leave the viewer with a deeper appreciation of the connection between science and art. Julian's website includes a link to an informative ~8 minute YouTube video that describes his creative process (first shown on Oregon Public Broadcasting TV in December 2008).

Cynthia Padgett, while not a scientist by training, will be displaying works inspired by the exposure she has to astronomy and astronomic images through her son's study of physics. Working with a variety of media (oil, pastel, charcoal, etc), and using real astronomical photographs as conceptual spring-boards, Cynthia magically transforms empty canvases into cosmic breeding grounds for stars, entire galaxies, and the infinite mysteries of time and space. She will also be exhibiting works from her floral series, whose more "earth-centered" origin belies the drama of their own abstract cosmic rhythms.

As for me, though the subject of my photography is not confined to "metaphors of physics" (or some such thing) and actually spans quite a wide spectrum of ostensibly non-physics subject matter (from landscapes, to still lifes, to abstracts, to macros, ...), I cannot escape the fact that since I am a physicist by training - and still use my physics to solve problems in my "day job" (here is a link to one of my technical books) - I cannot help but see the world as a physicist (whatever that means;-). And that is, I suppose, the main reason I have been included in the show with these two accomplished artists. (Sarah Tanguy, the curator of the show, "confessed" that the way she found my work was by going to the Washington Project for the Arts site, of which I am a member/artist, and conducting a search for "photographer AND physicist"... hey, sometimes it pays to self-advertise!)

A while ago I posted a blog entry that was derived, in part, from a lecture I gave at the Smithsonian about complexity and photography. I crafted some of the images I used during the presentation (and reproduced in this blog entry) with a deliberate eye towards illustrating how one's inner world (one's feelings, thoughts, predispositions, academic training, worldview, ...) guides and shapes what one's I/eye/camera eventually reveals to the external world. As the "Worlds Within Worlds" exhibit opens, I'm making a mental note to myself to expand a bit on these ideas in future blog entries. The fundamental question being: "To what extent does the aesthetic dimension of my photography (what I choose to photograph, what my eye sees, what I work to reveal in a print, ...) owe itself - and in what way - to the fact that I am trained as a theoretical physicist?" How is what I do, as a photographer, different from what other photographers, not trained in physics, do? If there is a difference, is there an objective way of assessing what that difference is?

As for the "Worlds Within Worlds" exhibit...I will have a total of 18 images exhibited, grouped into six categories: (1) micro worlds, (2) mystic flames, (3) abstract triptychs, (4) entropic melodies, (5) rhythmic patterns, and (6) ripples & ice.

Having looked at - and marveled - at Julian's and Cynthia's works on-line (I do not know, and have not yet met either of these two gifted artists; though I am very much looking forward to meeting them at the opening in November), I am truly honored to be asked to display my humble works alongside theirs.

And I hope to see some of the readers of my blog at the reception!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Homage to Friedrich

As I've alluded to several times over my last few posts (since returning from a trip to Scotland my wife and I took in August), Scotland is a place that inspires meditation; of both outer and inner realities. Particularly if one is traveling, as we did, to Orkney and Skye - where it is not unusual to spend a few hours driving from vista to vista with hardly another car passing, and only the grazing sheep and cows for roadside companions - one has a chance to reflect on this magnificent land of light, wind, and magic, and one's own ephemeral existence in the universe that surrounds it, in an immersively hypnotic silence. (I've posted a gallery of shots from Scotland here.)

In-between shots, or while adjusting my tripod, or searching my camera bag for a filter, I periodically found my wife gazing out toward the infinite horizon, motionless, lost in a figurative and literal sea of tranquility, her soul communing with place and timelessness; offering herself, as it were, to eternity, or just being. On occasion, when not transfixed myself by what caused my wife's reverie, I managed to train my lens in her direction. I call the series of shots that resulted, a few of which are displayed here, my "Homage to Friedrich" (after Caspar David Friedrich, the 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter known, among other things, for silhouetting contemplative dark figures against mysterious landscapes).

The image at the top of this blog entry was taken near Teangue, Skye, on the next to last day of our stay in Scotland (before we headed off to Edinburgh to catch our flight back to the states). The sun was setting, but we had a bit of time for some last minute exploration. I was busy taking close-up shots of rocks and water, with my back toward the water where my wife was standing (in my crouched position, glaring starry-eyed at the compositional marvels on the exposed beach, I was - ironically - "oblivious" to what I was really searching for ;-) I finally stood up to give my knees a rest, and while stretching my back swung around to look for my wife. What I saw I was magic and thus not something that can easily be translated either into words or images, but I did manage to catch a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable with my camera. What it recorded is reproduced in the photograph above, and is among my top three favorite images from our entire trip.

Four other shots from the "Homage to Friedrich" series: (1) Gazing westward from atop a walking path near South Duntulm, Skye:


(2) Looking northward from a beach near Nairn:


(3) Looking west from Castle Stuart in Scotland's Highlands:


(4) Contemplating Orkney's mysteries towards the west from a mound directly adjacent to the Ring o'Brodgar: