Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part I, "The Empty Bowl"

 "To create one's own world in any of the arts takes courage." 
Georgia O'Keeffe

  It seems reasonable to now discuss specific characteristics possessed by a Photographic Sage. This term is the best one I could think of that would fuse the two things I feel passionate about, the contemplative photographic process and  Taoist philosophy.  I profess to being an expert in neither. Rather, I consider this blog as an opportunity to clarify and refine my own thinking on those topics  in a public forum where, I hope, others will offer me their insights and reflections.  As a retired teacher of 35+ years, I firmly believe that all it takes is one mind sending and one mind receiving for learning - and therefore growth - to occur and it is most definitely a two way street.

   The first characteristic of a Photographic Sage can best be illustrated by "The Empty Bowl". Let's begin with a story....
   A young photographer went to visit a Photographic Sage to discover the secrets of his amazing images. He thought that he had prepared himself well. He had purchased all the latest equipment and had attended countless workshops with the renown experts.  He had read every book he could find on technique and composition and his bookshelf sagged with the weight of instruction manuals on Photoshop. He had committed the style of every master of the photographic medium to heart. He could speak fluently in f-stops and apertures.  Finally, he felt himself truly worthy to come before the Master. "Tell me, oh wise one, what are your secrets? I am here to learn all I can from you."  The Photographic Sage just smiled and asked the young photographer if he'd like a bowl of tea. He began to pour slowly into a beautiful and ancient tea bowl. Even when the bowl was full he continued to pour out the tea. It ran over the table and onto the floor but the Sage continued to pour. "Wait!" cried the young photographer, "The bowl is full! It won't hold another drop!"  "Ah", said the Photographic Sage, "you begin to understand."

   This is, of course, a paraphrasing of a  famous old story but the lesson is still clear. You can't begin the journey if you are weighted down with every other photographer's ideas.  You must take on the characteristic of the empty bowl. There  must be space to add new insights and understandings.   A Photographic Sage knows nothing and, therefore, knows everything. The Tao is full of such paradoxes and at first it seems irreconcilable. How can you know "nothing" yet know "everything"?

   For the sake of our discussion, it means a Photographic Sage does not let his knowledge or past experience interfere with his response to a subject.  He approaches a subject each time with new eyes instead of old mind sets.  He tries to avoid photographic cliches - already seen and expected - and lets his inner voice direct his lens. 

   Learning is an important part of becoming the best photographer you can be but the trick is knowing when to let go of all that learning.  This requires a kind of supreme trust in yourself or as O'Keeffe says, courage.  As I wrote in my previous post, I went on my first photographic trip in 2005 as a pilgrim seeking to worship at the shrine of Paul Strand.  I was indeed fortunate to come to my senses. I let it go. I did not forget everything I knew, and loved, about Strand's work, I just tried to not let it interfere with my own response to the landscape. I wanted to experience the Hebrides through my own eyes and not through Strand's lens.

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
Tao te Ching - 36

   As a contemplative photographer, I try to generate questions rather than looking for answers. The "why" is far more important to me than the "how". But all this musing and reflection I confine to the pages of my journal.  When it's time to make photographs, I step away from it and try to simply be in the moment.

"It took me years to learn how to draw like Raphael
and a lifetime to learn to draw like a child." - Picasso

   I have found in my study of Taoism a certain child-like quality to the philosophy.  That's why I love Benjamin Hoff's books so much. They make that quality so clear.

A Photographic Sage knows when it is time to learn and when it is time to put the learning aside. They make photographs from the inside out and not from the outside in.

Now Some Practical Stuff...

   Do you have book shelves sagging with volumes on photographic technique and the work of  the masters of photography?  I certainly do.  They are valuable building blocks for your foundation but be careful not to merely follow their blueprints when you start constructing the house where your photographs will live!

   Consult them frequently but also add to your collection books about famous painters you admire and other cultures approach to the visual image.  I love the watercolors of Andrew Wyeth, Japanese prints of the 19th century, and Chinese landscape scrolls  All of them have contributed to my photographs in some way.

A Little Practice for the Week:

   If you are lucky enough to have a young child, around 5 - 7 years of age, or know someone who does, give them an inexpensive point and shoot digital camera and take them out one afternoon.  Tell them to just take pictures of anything they want while you do the same. Later, down load their images and compare them to yours. They are truly "empty bowls" and you may be surprised by what they chose to can be a very humbling experience.

"Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?"
Tao te Ching - 10


Andy Ilachinski said...

Ran across your wonderful blog while - as almost always, of course - "looking for something else" ;-) What a delight. Deeply soulful images with commentary to match. We seem to be journeying in similar aesthetic landscapes, both inner and outer. Will be making this a regular stop for sure. Kudos on a great start and some superb imagery!

Patricia Turner said...

Thank you so much for the kind comment! I'm glad you stumbled onto the site! I will be posting every week...usually on Thursdays. If there is an interest, I may try to set up a Flickr group for those who would like to post their photographs in response to my posts. Sharing images and ideas on Contemplative Photography is really what this site is all about!

Andy Ilachinski said...

A blog entry I posted a few years ago on my own blog deals with many of the same issues you raise here (from a similar point of view). It may be of interest:

Patricia Turner said...

Oh my goodness! I hadn't made the connection! I am familiar with you work...I even posted a link to your site on this one! Your images are amazing and I do believe we are on the same wave length! It is so good to connect with other Contemplative Photographers, no matter what they call themselves!