Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Mystical Way of Photography

I have just about finished preparing a set of powerpoint slides for a presentation I was invited to give early next year by the Silver Spring Camera Club (in Maryland). My "guest appearance" is scheduled for 7:30 pm - 9:30 pm on January 7, 2010 (a thursday) at the Marvin Memorial United Methodist Church (33 University Boulevard E., Silver Spring; corner of University and Colesville Rd.).

My talk consists of a brief bio (of myself as a "work in progress" photographer), a summary of my artistic journey thus far, a few "lessons" I've learned, a sampling of old and new portfolios, and ideas on how Eastern philosophy can help aspiring artists nurture their creativity. It is in regard to this last set of musings that I'd like to devote this blog entry to.

One of my all-time favorite quotes appears in the Ching-te Ch'uan Teng lu ("Transmission of the Lamp," assembled by Tao-Yuan of the line Fa-Yen Wen (885-958):

“Before I had studied Zen for thirty years,I saw mountains as mountains,
and waters as waters…

When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge,
I came to the point where I saw

that mountains are not mountains,
and waters are not waters.

But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest.
For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains,
and waters once again as waters.”

This sage insight describes not only life but - recursively, self-referentially - every aspect of the creative field that defines and nourishes it, including, of course, art and photography.

Now, anchored by the Buddhist quote above, consider the corresponding stages of growth of a photographer:

Stage 1: At first, the photographer sees mountains as mountains and waters as waters...

...the photographer searches for the picture. The slide shows an image I took last year when my wife and I visited Santorini, Greece. Why did I take this particular shot? What creative energies and motivations, internal and external, compelled me to point my camera in this direction at this time to record this emphemeral reality? Perhaps, being a physicist, I was drawn by the geometry, or entropic decay of the door? (In truth, the more meaningful question to ask is: "Why has the universe evolved in such a way as to have this image materialize at a certain point in time and space?", but please read on...) Of course, different photographers have different backgrounds, are motivated by different needs, and have different aesthetic temperaments and creative urges. One photographer might be attracted to light and geometry; another to history and culture; still another to textures and contrasts. But in all cases, the aspiring artist is in search of some "thing," and happy when she stumbles upon an object of interest.
While the resulting pictures are undeniably products of individual needs and aspirations, and thus necessarily reflect some part of the photographer responsible for creating them, they stand alone - at least at this early juncture (in the photographer's evolution as an artist) - as objects essentially of their own creation. They are what they are: a landscape, a portrait, a family picture, ... Some are better than others, but each is also more likely than not "yet another instance" of a picture that has been taken by countless other more or less talented photographers (though - importantly - for very different "reasons"). Trees are trees, portraits are portraits, and few, if any, of the images - as individual images - reveal much about the photographer that created them. The connection between creative energy and created "object" is not yet visible, and exists only in latent form.

Stage 2: Later, the photographer no longer sees mountains as mountains and waters as waters...

...instead, the photographer begins losing herself in her pictures, thus freeing the pictures to discover their - and her - path. (Instances of a given) tree grow into trees, of different kinds, in different light, at different times - of year and of the photographer's own inner state. The growing set of images evolves to encompass other, related aspects, of the shifting reality the photographer - partly consciously and partly unconsciously -immerses herself in. Perhaps rocks appear, perhaps water, then fog, then leaves, and - later - by an emergence of entirely new "nonphysical" categories - like abstraction, or tao; perhaps the photographer finds herself experimenting with color, or doing away with categories altogether.

Aesthetic meaning transitions from individual pictures to collections of interrelated imagery, which itself evolves - sometimes backtracking, sometimes taking lateral, seemingly "stagnant" unproductive steps - weaves in and out of itself, but also inexorably, inevitably, forges a unique path. One that is unmistakably and uniquely of the artist. Others that are allowed (even a partial) glimpse of the growing work - of the waypoints along the living path - can see past the "individual images" (that "anyone" with a requisite amount of talent and experience could also have created, but - again - for vastly different reasons) to see the first hints of a unique creative field at work. Paradoxically, the best artists are almost always the last to "see" these faint stirrings of new levels in their own work, even as they keep reaching upward. No path is the same as any other, and the path that emerges for a given artist is as much a product of the artist as it is of itself. The perceived duality between creative field and created form is much the same as all dualities; which is to say it is illusory. But the artist is not yet at the stage to see past illusion. Indeed, the artist uses the duality between self and world - exploits it! - to forge a path that others in the world see as uniquely hers.

Stage 3: Eventually (if the artist has journeyed on a sincere - and sincerely discovered - path), she once again sees mountains as mountains and waters as waters...

...and, in the end, finally discovers herself. The (unending) path defines the photographer! Not as a passive collage of "photographs taken," but as an active embodiment of the artist's spirit. The creative field awakens to a new reality in which all divisions between self, path, and creation have no meaning, save for the unending process and timeless yearning to create. There is only the creative field, journeying into the infinite depths of its own self.
The photographer finds a picture, that discovers a path, that defines the artist, that is the photographer, that finds a picture....

Now look deeper still, beyond even this "last" step; beyond the "Ouroborian" synthesis of self and process (which is an important portal to the ultimate ground of all being, but not an end...), a place where words - and even pictures - begin to fail....now, what do you see?

Note: Interested readers can download the full set of powerpoint slides of my upcoming talk (in Adobe pdf format): low-res version (4 MB), high-res version (16 MB).

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Blurred Distinctions

A set of Nambe-like metallic salt and pepper shakers (featuring shiny reflecting metallic surfaces), assorted pots and pans and formal serving trays, and the backdrop and decor of my in-laws' dining room (in Coral Gables, Florida), all mysteriously conspired - during the Thanksgiving break - to teach me a lesson on the art of making blurred distinctions. I mean this both literally - as in exploring (what for me) is an unusual range of bokeh-inducing f-stops (f~2.8; compared to the range I "normally" work in: f11 ~ f16) - and metaphorically - as in the lesson the "abstract experiments" I will describe below has taught me about the blurry distinction between "photography" and (more traditional forms of) "art."

“In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” - GAUTAMA SIDDHARTA (563-483 B.C.)

The context, and lucky trigger, for my lesson, was my (day-job-related) physical and mental exhaustion that I've accrued over the days and weeks before the Thanksgiving break - which effectively barred me from going outdoors with my camera, as I normally do when on vacation. I was simply too tired to go on any of my usual photo-safaris. But not too tired to pick up a camera, of course ;-) I took the normal mix of family photos, and photos of my in-laws' garden plants and flowers.

And then we had Thanksgiving dinner! The silverware was out, the serving trays were on display, and those precious Nambe-like salt and pepper shakers were teasing me with their compositional possibilities!

I spent the next few days playing with the macro lens I brought with me, Canon's 100/f2.8. This is the same lens I'd used previously for both my "Micro Worlds" and "Whorls" portfolios, and remains one of my favorite lenses to turn to when my muse keeps me indoors. I trained my lens on the reflections of objects in the dining room that appeared on the salt and pepper shakers as I moved them around perched atop one of my mother-in-law's metal serving trays.

What I found was both a revelation and a source of illumination on the nature of photography and art (with a smattering of insight into the nature of life itself).

"Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally." - DAVID BOHM

First, the revelatory part... since, at f~2.8, the macro lens renders everything with an extremely narrow depth of field, the "distinction" between otherwise separate objects is either difficult to discern or is effectively invisible. Indeed, different "things" are mostly blurred into fuzzy indistinct clumps of overlapping shapes and color. And, speaking of color... precisely because of the paucity of recognizable "things" - that normally provide the backdrop of "compositional primitives" with which a photograph is aesthetically organized - color becomes as integral a component of a composition as shape and tone (this, coming from a black and white photographer - hence a revelation!).

The resulting images of reflected objects are (almost absurdly) minimalist abstractions of fuzzy fields of overlapping colors. My usual argument for preferring not to use color is that my "eye" tends to focus on shape, tone, and texture alone. Color (at least in the context of this particular aesthetic approach) is thus unnecessarily intrusive, distracting, and - often - overbearing. In my post-Thanksgiving experiments, however, with texture virtually gone, and shapes and tones reduced to their bare essentials, color reasserts itself as an important aesthetic tool. In side-by-side comparisons between the color and black & white versions (not shown here), I strongly favor the color versions.

As for the illumination part...it is often argued that the fundamental difference between traditional art (such as watercolor) and fine-art photography is that where photographers must search for (and find visual approximations of) what they wish to print as a "photograph" (and thereby use to communicate some "idea" or "feeling" as photographer-artists), traditional artists create what they see in their mind's eye (or inspired by what they see). The artist intentionally adds things in his "mind's eye" to an initially blank canvas; the photographer intentionally wanders around the world looking for something "out there" to add to an initially data-lacking CMOS sensor (or undeveloped film) that the lens can record an image on. One adds information from within; the other adds information from without.

But is that really the case? My post-Thanksgiving macro experiments reminded me that - on the deepest level - there is little if any meaningful distinction between what artists of any kind do. All artists create; that is what they do, and that is what describes how they behave. But it is the process that defines them; not the tools they use, not the methods they employ to create their finished artwork, not even the conventional "categories" that others use to label what kind of artists the world perceives them to be.

"What is needed is ... to give up altogether the notion that the world is constituted of basic objects or building blocks. Rather one has to view the world in terms of universal flux of events and processes." - DAVID BOHM

The usual art / photography distinction is blurred by what I found myself doing with my camera to "create" my images (a few of which appear in this blog). Rather than simply moving my camera left, right, up, and down on my tripod "looking for pleasing compositions" - as I normally do when doing macro photography (and which, in particular, I employed for both the "Micro Worlds" and "Whorls" portfolios), I found myself also intentionally repositioning the metal tray on which the salt and pepper shakers were standing, intentionally moving various colored objects on the table that were reflected in the shakers and tray, intentionally moving objects on the adjacent walls, and intentionally changing the room lighting.

On the one hand, none of this is out of the ordinary, and - to a degree - is something that I, and all photographers regularly do. On the other hand, there is a crucial difference: in this case, I was making all of these changes not just so that I could find a pleasing composition (that would, as if by magic, appear before me); but because I deliberately wanted to create just the right combination of objects and light for a particular composition of color, shape, and tone - that I had previsualized in my mind's eye - to appear in my viewfinder! In short, I was using a camera, but I was creating the image as though I was a traditional artist!

To be sure, I had no brushes and was not using paint; but the effect - and, more importantly, the intent - was exactly the same. To make the distinction - or lack of one - even more self-evident, consider a simple thought experiment. Suppose I create an image, such as this one...

...in the way as I've described above: I use my macro lens set to f2.8, and deliberately and willfully create a local "environment" (consisting of a particular configuration of things, light, and color) previsualizing the image that forms in my viewfinder to look as it appears in the image above. I press the shutter, and process the file as I normally do (except skip the step of converting to black and white). Call the resulting image, image-A. Now suppose that I instead start with a paint program - say ArtRage (which, BTW, is a magnificent little program that does much of what more sophisticated and expensive programs do for a fraction of the cost: check it out!) - and paint the same image. I then grab my camera, take a shot, and again process as I normally do, winding up with image-B.

Here's the obvious question: are these images different in any meaningful way? And, if not, then why? Assuming I've acquired a modicum of painting skill before opening the paint program, let's for sake of argument accept that I've managed to create a passable doppelganger for Image-A. We can safely assume that - apart from some minor cosmetic differences - Image-A is essentially equivalent to Image-B; i.e., the two images are effectively the "same." But we must ask, why are they the same? Clearly, the processes that led to the two images are very different. In one case, an image has been photographed; in the other, it was created directly in a paint program. The constant in both cases, of course, is the artist, and the previsualized image the artist had "within" before initiating the creative process that leads to the physical creation of either of the two images.

Is the "artist" a photographer or is the artist a traditional artist? And does the distinction really matter in this case? On can also argue that the deliberate "repositioning of objects" to yield specific color-forms in the camera's viewfinder is merely a "complicated label" that designates a different kind of "brush" used to apply a different kind of "paint" to a different kind of "canvas" (albeit a more involved and complex one). Whichever way one argues, though, in the end, I'm left with the conviction that - at least in this case (of post-Thanksgiving macro experimentation) - I'm both photographer and artist, and I'm neither a "photographer" nor am am I an "artist."

So what am I, really? Ahh, we've now truly come back to basics. What else, but the blurred distinctions between the sounds of one hand clapping!

"Whether you are going or staying or sitting or lying down,
the whole world is your own self.

You must find out

whether the mountains, rivers, grass, and forests

exist in your own mind or exist outside it.

Analyze the ten thousand things,

dissect them minutely,

and when you take this to the limit

you will come to the limitless,

when you search into it you come to the end of search,

where thinking goes no further and distinctions vanish.

When you smash the citadel of doubt,

then the Buddha is simply yourself."

- DAIKAKU (Zen teacher)