Thursday, March 03, 2011

Meta-Musings on my B&W Photography Workshop

The graphic illustration you see above is a wonderful visual depiction of some of the key differences between how the left (analytical, logical) and right (creative, artistic) sides of our brain process information (it is part of a Mercedes-Benz advertising campaign). The point of my posting this image is not to engage in a dialectic on what is known, unknown, or merely believed about how the brain functions (though the popular distinctions are largely correct, the functional division is not nearly as "clear cut" as they purport, and much is still shrouded in mystery); rather it is to simply show it (because I think it is a really beautiful visualization) and to use it as a conceptual backdrop to asking myself a "meta" question about my experience of giving the B&W photography lecture this past saturday: "Just what did I actually convey about doing black and white fine-art photography?"

Let me go back a step, and begin again by recalling a chat I had with an artist friend at work (who was unable to attend my talk). When we met on the monday after my lecture, and as we sipped coffee together while viewing the slides I had used, my friend made the kind comment, "Andy, you've done an incredible job at elucidating exactly what's on your mind when you're out taking photos...what you look for, what the best compositions are, how to put feeling into your shots. Just beautifully done!" While his praise means a lot (my friend is a prodigiously gifted artist, and his "eye" is second to none), and I thanked him for his kind words, my immediate reaction - and the origin of this blog entry - was a giggle, followed by outright laughter.

It struck me that, far from elucidating exactly what is on my mind when I take pictures, there is nothing on my slides that speaks about what is really on my mind - on a conscious level (of which there is, in truth, very little) - as I take pictures (which is not to take anything away from the information about photography that the slides provide). Nor, I believe, can anyone expect there to be. This point is both a simple (almost trivial) one, and very subtle (possibly deeply subtle): when I am out with my camera, I am emphatically not thinking about shapes, or tones, or patterns, or textures, or any of the other things I talked about during my talk. Of course, I am mindful of light, of lines, of shadows, of planes of focus, and of a myriad other things that go into the "gestalt" of the process, but am so entirely on an unconscious, preattentive level. I've written about this timeless-state experience before, and of the mystery that surrounds it, psychologically, cognitively, and spiritually. But my talk has made me appreciate another aspect of this experience, and how it may contain certain universal truths about engaging ourselves on any boundary between cognition and artful creation.

In my case, the boundary was cognizing about photography; or, more precisely, attempting to communicate something about what "doing photography" is about by describing what one end result is (namely mine) of having done it. As a speaker, I was allowed (rather, constrained) to use only words, images, and short animations to convey something - i.e., cognize about such concepts as tone, shapes, texture, principles of design, and so on - that describes what "doing photography" is about. Only that's impossible!

The speaker's constraint is rendered inert at best, and self-negating at worst; and - if you think about - assumes this Pythonesque-level absurd form: "You are allowed to use any and all means of expression except those that are equivalent to what you are trying to describe." More succinctly, you can only use left-brain cognitions to convey right-brain creations. Even more simply: "Explain photography by not doing photography." Absurd. DOA.

I cannot "explain" photography using words (or images, or even giving an impromptu "demo" of what it's like for me to go out and take pictures) any more than a chef can "explain" what making a gourmet meal is really like (or what is on her "mind" as she prepares one); or any more than Baryshnikov can explain what is on his mind when he dances, or what "dancing is like" in general. One cannot convey anything meaningful about any process of "doing" via lifeless "symbols of doing," however elegant their form and manner of presentation.

Of course, the Zen masters have known this all along. For that is why they have long "taught" by not teaching. The master can point the student toward the path; he can supply the shoes, the books, the camera and lenses, as it were, even offer hints on where to look, why and how to look, give advise on what do afterwrads when the images are viewed in a darkroom or computer; but no words, no teaching, no "follow these easy steps" tutorials, will ever - ever - convey the essence of what it is like to experience what stirs in your soul as your finger clicks your camera's shutter.

"The purpose of a fishtrap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to." - Chuang Tzu

You will know that you are "doing photography" precisely when you are out and about with your camera (or just with your I's eye), with nary a thought in your head, or memory of someone pestering you with a bunch of slides about tone, light, gestalt, .... pontificating on how photography is done ;-)

Postscript: My wife reminded me of an incredible (and incredibly apropos) presentation by Jill Bolte Taylor at TED. Taylor is a neuroanatomist, and author of Stroke of Insight, which describes her experience of living through a massive stroke (!)


Jim Swift said...


One of those very high impact moments..

Read the blog, then watched the video and the blog a second time with new insight.

Many thanks and especially to your wife for that reminder.

The Ghost of Joseph Seal said...

Thanks for your insightful blog on the inability to express in words thoughtless expression. Or an art form,be it dance or photography. I am an amateur fine art photographer,Musician and also a surfer. I experience this 'Timeless state' everytime I surf,compose or take a photo. This is my Zen state. A place for meditation and where I re-energize myself for life in the 'rat race'.

Not a conscious choice to meditate but a reaction to this 'Timeless state'.

Great piece of writing. Thank you!

Gary Nylander said...

Great blog post, Andrew, you have a way with words, for myself I have never been "taught" or maybe I should take a class or two, I might learn something ! when I make pictures it all seem so mystical to me.


Gary Nylander said...

Great blog post, Andrew, you have a way with words, for myself I have never been "taught" or maybe I should take a class or two, I might learn something ! when I make pictures it all seem so mystical to me.