Presence and the Art of Photography

The metric for success in photography is NOT making a good picture. In fact, that may be the least of it. What I’ve been discovering this last year is that it’s far more about being present, about observing, about being a part of something much bigger than just me and my camera and my skills.

If you don’t make a substantive part of your living doing photography, then make photographs for a different reason. If you have customers, and they want something in particular, then you’re going to bring all that you have to providing that. But if you make photographs because it enables you to leave all the other things in life behind then don’t worry about what someone might think of your photographs.

Part of the discovery is that it’s not about the technical processes and practices or studied lessons in composition; it’s critical that the photographer know these things so that they are no longer something he or she thinks about. In Zen and the Art of Archery, which Minor White made all his students read (and which I highly recommend), the students practiced shooting until the mechanical aspects of archery ceased to be a subject of thought. It was only then that they could move into a space, a state of mind and spirit that made them one with the bow, the arrow, the target, and the world.

“Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so ridiculously simple…”

And that is how it should be when you go out with your camera. Hitting the target was not the objective. The objective is the experience; all that went into finding the subject (or having it find me if we’re to believe Minor White), getting myself, my ego, concerns about what others will think out of the way; then getting to understand, to know the subject, and finally using the camera to photograph it.

“Be still with yourself Until the object of your attention Affirms your presence” (Minor White)

Admittedly, if you’re to experience this then it presupposes that all things have life and all things are a part of a larger place, or spirit.

There are some principles to practicing photography as something more than taking a picture. Depending upon who you read or following there can be anywhere from 3 to 10. I’m just going to talk about 5 of them today; and we’ll look at some pictures while we do.

1. It’s not about you.

You have to get free of yourself and become a part of where you are, of what you’re photographing. “Let the subject generate its own photograph. Become a camera.” Minor White

Sebastiao Salgado writes, “There comes a moment when it is no longer you who takes the photograph, but receives the way to do it quite naturally and fully.”

Cartier-Bresson writes, “I find you have to blend in like a fish in the water, you have to forget yourself.”

He expanded on that with, “I’m not responsible for my photographs. Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience. It’s drowning yourself, dissolving yourself and then sniff, sniff, sniff – being sensitive to coincidence. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it, or you won’t get it. First you must lose yourself. Then it happens.”

2. You have to be receptive.

Kathryn Marx writes, “You’ve already thought about your subject and know the reason why you’ve placed yourself in a particular situation. But once you are there, you must try to empty your mind of all thought in order for you to be completely in the moment and receptive to your intuition and your surroundings. Simply react to them with uncluttered clarity.”

“For me, the creation of a photograph is experienced as a heightened emotional response, most akin to poetry and music, each image the culmination of a compelling impulse I cannot deny. Whether working with a human figure or a still life, I am deeply aware of my spiritual connection with it. In my life as in my work, I am motivated by a great yearning for balance and harmony beyond the realm of human experience, reaching for the essence of oneness with the universe.” (Ruth Bernhard, 1986)

3. You can’t force the photograph to happen.

“No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.” Minor White

And, realizing that for a photographer, life and photography are inseparable, if not one in the same. “Throughout my life I’ve never pursued anything. I just let things pursue me… they just who up… This is the way I’ve led my life, not just in photography, but in life.” Manuel Alvarez Bravo

I also thought Ruth Bernhard said it very well, “I never look for a photograph. The photograph finds me and says, ‘I’m here!’ and I say, ‘Yes I see you. I hear you.'”

Not forcing the photograph, or life for that matter, also implies that you’re open and aware, you’re present to what’s going on, to where you are. This enables you to see, to be spontaneous. It also means you don’t try to control the environment, but are a part of it; you become as the Chinese sage wrote, an “echo to a sound or shadow to a shape.”

“Most of us take things too literally. I want to see beyond the image, behind appearance. Taking things too literally stands in the way of this – like a veil.” Paul Caponigro

This also means that you have to continuously let go of habitual ways of seeing; you have to adapt to the subject; you have to be aware of changes. They are what make photography interesting for our whole life. The photographer is always open to opportunity, and because he’s present to where he is, he’s far more likely to see it when it occurs. There’s a subtle implication here that I want to point out. The photographer has to accept what is. If I’m upset or frustrated that the weather isn’t what I wanted today, then I’m not going to see the opportunities that present themselves, because I’m looking for something else, something that’s not going to be there, at least today.

And finally, sometimes what you think is going to be a photograph, just isn’t. It’s then that you pack up and continue on your journey. Many times I’ve spent an hour or more trying to make a photograph. I’ve set up the camera; and moved it dozens of times. Changed lenses. And often just sat looking.

4. The photographer understands the craft and skills of his/her art.

One thing that I learned from Zen in the Art of Archery was that before the archer became a master, he fired countless thousands of arrows. He became one with the bow and arrows and target. It was as if the bow was nothing more than another arm or hand; and it was as natural to use as his own appendage. If the photographer is going to be open to opportunities, then you must know how to take advantage of those opportunities.

“Photography is a medium of formidable contradictions. It is both ridiculously easy and almost impossibly difficult. It is easy because its technical rudiments can readily be mastered by anyone with a few simple instructions. It is difficult because, while the artist working in any other medium begins with a blank surface and gradually brings his conception into being, the photographer is the only imagemaker who begins with the picture completed. His emotions, his knowledge, and his native talent are brought into focus and fixed beyond recall the moment the shutter of his camera has closed”. – Edward Steichen

“One does not think during creative work any more than one thinks while driving a car. But one has a background of years – learning, unlearning – success, failure – dreaming, thinking – experience, all this – then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment.” Edward Weston

This is particularly true today with the apparent ease of digital cameras.

5. The photographer is always on a journey, and never in a hurry.

Cartier-Bresson, talking about a street photographer, says this best for me. “Alone, the Surrealist wanders the streets without destination but with a premeditated alertness for the unexpected detail that will release a marvelous and compelling reality just beneath the banal surface of the ordinary experience.”

And Emerson probably did the best job of generalizing it for life, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.”

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