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).


Unknown said...

I like this! Wonderful quote from Borges; something Picasso was aware of his whole life. The work in progress is a "recorso" of both art and artist.

katie said...

finally you said what I feel: at the end it is not a face of artist-photographer that one discovers but
one sees the spirit that leaves in him and has to create...

Cedric said...

I don't remember ever coming across this "Transmission of the Lamp" but Dr Suzuki tells a similar tale: “Before Zen men are men and mountains are mountains; during Zen study things become confused; after enlightenment men are men and mountains are mountains, only one’s feet are a little off the ground.”

One time I was telling this to a friend who immediately exclaimed "That's great! That means I'm at the second stage because I'm as confused as hell. So how do I get to the last stage?". The response was amusing if not surprising. After all it is the nature of mind to analyse and breakdown everything we experience. We grab some wise old saying and immediately apply it within the context of our own story. Some will say this is due to our being egotistical but really that's just the way it is. Applying everything within the context of our own story is the whole point to our being here.

I truly enjoyed your take on this age-old saying and the way you applied it to the photographer. Positively insightful. My favourite phrase: "The photographer finds a picture, that discovers a path, that defines the artist, that is the photographer, that finds a picture....". A worthy pointer.

It would be a great joy for me to be able to attend your talk. Having seen the wonderful video your wife took in a previous post I can imagine it all the better. I wish you all the best with it Andy.

tsurune said...

Yes, the Borges quote in memorable. Thank you for access to the slides.

Unknown said...

Nice quotes! I really appreciate it,all digital photographers love it.

Dave said...

Quite enjoyed the presentation last night... thanks for making the trek across the bridge.

Jim said...

Thanks so very much for making the slides available, so much food for thought there.


Jim Swift said...

A question about one of the slides where you draw a distinction between the way eastern and wester images are read.

Please could you elaborate on this distinction. I still find that my eye wanders around eastern paintings, from one element tothe next.

Jim Swift

Andy Ilachinski said...


My observation that one's "...eye wanders around eastern paintings" is, in essence, the *very point* I was trying to make with the slide. Namely, that, generally speaking, Western "art" tends to focus on "things" and "focus", while Eastern art (as particularly exemplified by Taoist watercolors) tends to use art to evoke an experience of the whole. Eastern artists are adept at creating landscapes that do *not* focus your eye on any one spot, or any one "thing"; rather your attention is deliberately, though subtly, diffused throughout "the continuum of existence." A wonderful book that explores the artistic and philosophical implications of this point of view is called "The Great Image has no Form" by Francois Jullien (Univ of Chicago Press).

Jim Swift said...

Many thanks for the reference, Andy. I will certainly get that book.

I think I read your slides as implying that the eye does not wander around eastern paintings but only sees them as a whole, that the eye behaves differently in the two forms.

But now I think you are saying that it's not that - that the eye wanders around both, but that in western paintings there are "halt spots" where things ask for attention.

I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Best wishes for the exhibition. I very much wish I could get there.


Jim Swift said...

I got the Julien book, but find it hard going without being familiar with the numerous visual references he makes. I try to find some of his references on the web but it's slow going.

Do you have any more references to the differences between chinese and western art. I am try to get a feel for what you were saying because it has always intrigued me that, being conditioned by a western? composition framework, I don't find it as easy to enjoy chinese art as I do art that contains points of interest.


Andy Ilachinski said...


You may want to look up Professor Richard Nisbett from the University of Michican; his specialty is the examination of the fundamental difference in "thought" (literally) between western and eastern culture.

He recently wrote a fascinating book called Geography of Thought, which approaches the issue I raised in my talk from a vastly broader perspective (but which includes art as well):


Jim Swift said...

Thanks, so much, Andy. I will follow up that reference. The reasons the subject fascinates me is that we have lived and worked for more than 4 years in each of 5 different countries and I enjoy the feel of trying to think about things differently.

Hope the show went well

Nikographer said...

I enjoyed your presentation.