Zen Photography

To understand Zen photography let's listen to what photographer and Zen practitioner Wayne Rowe has to say. According to Rowe, an image made in the true spirit of Zen photography can provoke the moment of enlightenment that in Zen is called satori

Satori is a Japanese Buddhist term which literally means 'understanding' and is considered a 'first step' on the road to nirvana, a central concept in all Indian religions where union with Supreme Being is achieved. Although satori should be used to refer to a 'deep' or lasting realization of the nature of existence, it usually refers to a flash of sudden awareness.

Wayne Rowe has more to say on the subject:  "Zen... is experiencing intuitive contact with reality", "finding the extraordinary in the ordinary".

He says that Zen photography is: "where the moment, the camera, the subject all become one thing and you don't break it up. In that sense, it's a little bit like what Herrigel (in Zen in the Art of Archery) is saying, the archer, the bow, the arrow, the target, they're all one - there's no separation."

Wayne Rowe is strongly influenced by the work of Minor White who said that the state of mind of the photographer while creating is a blank, a special kind of blank where the mind is very active and receptive "ready at an instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time".

This is the Zen concept of the Empty Mind, the idea that we must "awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere." (Blyth, 1942) This means that the mind or spirit is present everywhere, because it is nowhere attached to any particular place.

For Suzuki, who was a Japanese author of books and essays on Zen that helped to spread interest in both Zen and Far Eastern philosophy in general to the West: "Zen (photography)... finds meaning hitherto hidden in our daily concrete particular experiences...The meaning thus revealed is in being itself, in becoming itself, in living itself...in the 'isness' of a thing." (Suzuki, 1959)

How Can We Make Zen Photographs?

The main aim is to get away from thinking that you are trying to do Zen photography and to get in touch with your feelings. Consider the following quotes:

  • "Release the camera's shutter when it feels right. Let yourself be guided by your feelings."
  • "One should throw oneself open to the advent of feeling. What takes place is something analogous to listening. That is, the attention is withdrawn from everything other than the object of aesthetic contemplation, and inwardly the ground is cleared for the reception of the import of feeling of that object." (Ducasse, 1966)
  • "I have made thousands of photographs of the natural scene, but only those visualizations that were most intensely felt at the moment of exposure have survived the inevitable winnowing of time." (Ansel Adams, 1983)

In other words, to create Zen photographs empty your mind, throw yourself open to the advent of feeling, and let yourself be guided by those feelings. Release the shutter when the image feels right - and not before!

Recommended Reading

Left: Zen and the Magic of Photography: Learning to See and to Be through Photography

In Zen & the Magic of Photography, Wayne Rowe's aim is help people improve their visual awareness, intuition, and sensitivity.

He says: "In this book, I tried to put in some of my Zen experiences, moments of satori, things that I connected with, "in the moment" kind of photos."

The book is designed to improve the quality of your photography by helping you to discover, create, and capture the points of intersection and merging between photography and Zen, between camera and "real moments", between seeing and being. This is the point at which all such distinctions no longer exist, the point at which photography and Zen are one. This is the point at which we discover and create our best photographic images."

One Amazon customer summed up the basic ideas in the book as follows:

  1. Open yourself to the light, images and reality around you.
  2. Open yourself to feeling. Look with your capacity to feel and you will experience and become part of the NOW, Reality, Being: the "isness" of the moment. Always follow your feelings.
  3. Experiencing real moments will lead you to a culminating moment of Satori, a moment when you hear the light; the image sings; and form, content, and feeling are one.
  4. You will, by virtue of being in the moment, improve the quality of your art.
  5. The more you actively look, the more the action will become intuitive and natural, subconscious and effortless: and that with practice, you eye will be intuitively and subconsciously drawn to the light, and the light will be drawn to your eye. 

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