Wednesday, January 13, 2021

"This is a Zen camera"

“After dinner I was distracted
by the dream camera, 
and instead of seriously
reading the Zen anthology
I got from the Louisville Library,
kept seeing curious things to shoot,
especially a window in the
tool room of the woodshed.
The whole place is full of
fantastic and strange subjects––
a mine of Zen photography.”
“Marvelous, silent,
vast spaces around
the old buildings.
Cold, pure light, and
some grand trees….
How the blank side of a
frame house can be
so completely beautiful
I cannot imagine.
A completely miraculous
achievement of forms.”
“Paradise is all around us
and we do not understand...
'wisdom,' cries the dawn deacon,
but we do not attend.”

Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)

Postscript #1. The quote begins with an entry that Merton made in his journal on Sep 22, 1963, which marks the first time he refers to Zen photography. Four years would pass before his second entry (made after John Howard Griffin, author of the civil rights classic Black Like Me and photographer loaned Merton a Canon FX): The camera is the most eager and helpful of beings, all full of happy suggestions: 'Try this! Do it this way!' Reminding me of things I have overlooked, and cooperating in the creation of new worlds. So simply. This is a Zen camera.” 

I had seen a few of Merton's wonderful photographs through the years, but have only recently stumbled on two stupendous collections of his oeuvre, the first being Beholding Paradise, edited by Paul M. Pearson (and, literally, just published). For those of you into "Zen Photography" (which I expect make up a sizeable fraction of my kind readers), I strongly recommend you get this volume. It is replete with insights into how a deeply felt presence of world - of spirit - may be made manifest in visual form. 

It is said that photography, in its purest form, offers a path toward self-discovery, helping reveal how you perceive the world and who you "are" as an observer / participant living in it. But Merton discovered (and immersed himself in) photography only a few short years before his death (he was barely fifty at the time he took his first images, and died a short five years later). His "lens" was therefore immediately pointing outward from within an already well-formed core. Oh, and what a core. Quiet, gentle, and humble pointers to a spirit infused world. 

Merton's approach to photography is eloquently summarized in another fine collection of images, A Hidden Wholeness, edited by Griffin (though affordable copies are hard to come by, as this book is long out of print): His vision was more often attracted to the movement of wheat in the wind, the textures of snow, paint-spattered cans, stone, crocuses blossoming through weeds – or again, the woods in all their hours, from the first fog of morning, though noonday stillness, to evening quiet. In his photography, he focused on the images of his contemplation, as they were and not as he wanted them to be. He took his camera on his walks and, with his special way of seeing, photographed what moved or excited him – whatsoever responded to that inner orientation. His concept of aesthetic beauty differed from that of most men. Most would pass by dead tree roots in search of a rose. Merton photographed the dead tree root or the texture of wood or whatever crossed his path. In these works, he photographed the natural, unarranged, unpossessed objects of his contemplation, seeking not to alter their life but to preserve it in his emulsions. In a certain sense, then, these photographs do not need to be studied, they need to be contemplated if they are to carry their full impact.

Postscript #2. I should mention how the triptych of images that appears at the top of this post relates to Merton. The individual photos were all taken during a "meditative retreat" my family and I took back in November (which I wrote about briefly here). We rented a cabin nestled somewhere in the beautiful woodland of southern Virginia (not too far from Natural Bridge State Park); whose babbling-brooks-infused grounds and old storage sheds beckoned quiet walks and contemplation. It may not have been Gethsemani, and I certainly had far less time to ponder - and immerse myself in - our lodge's storehouse of humble riches than did Merton in his Abbey, but it gave me a glimpse of Merton's experience. Less Wagnerian-sized operatic landscapes, and more - much more - simple unassuming delights of everyday miracles and mystery: a vigilant cross protecting a decayed entrance, magic light dancing its way around an "ordinary" bathtub, and a mysterious portal into the ineffable.

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