Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part III "Wu-Wei"

   This third characteristic of the Photographic Sage could also be described as "effortless effort", another of those wonderful Tao paradoxes.  It is often misconstrued as passivity but it is anything but that.  A dancer or athlete practices countless hours perfecting their technique so when it is time to perform onlookers are amazed at how effortless it appears. It is the same for the Photographic Sage.  Countless hours of photographing, editing, selecting, rejecting, study, and reflection must come before they take on an almost effortless relationship with their cameras and their subjects. But there is another dimension to Wu-Wei, at least as it applies to photography.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place
Tao te Ching - 3

   As the first word in the above quote admonishes, "not-doing" takes practice! You have to actively engaged in not-doing!  In my post on Visual Listening, I describe a kind of Wu-Wei requires that the photographer practice the Three B's...Be Still, Be Patient and Be Present.  While Visual Listening is a contemplative practice prior to photographing, Wu-Wei can be thought of as the practice of actively not looking for the photograph...of letting the photograph come to you but, nonetheless, being ready when it does come!
   The photographs above and below were taken at Shannon Airport while I was waiting for my flight.  I simply put the camera on the table where I was sitting and released the shutter from time to time, constantly rotating it but never looking through the lens. The camera was in auto-mode of course.  I only photographed what came to me.  I got some interesting images and I think this technique could work virtually anywhere...on a park bench, at a sidewalk cafe or waiting for a bus!  Let the photograph come to you.

    I believe there are many approaches to using Wu-Wei as a contemplative photographer.  In an earlier post I spoke about the danger of allowing a tourist's guidebook to direct your photographic efforts.  Naturally, one consults them when you travel to a new area but strict reliance on their agendas is extremely stifling.  One thing I always do when I travel is to spend at least one day getting off the main roads and driving wherever the spirit moves me.  This is called "shunpiking".  Yes, you will inevitably get lost but you may discover amazing things along the way!

   "Things were looking for me, I felt - just calling to me." 
- Walker Evans

     A mind in Wu-Wei is extremely sensitive to circumstance...they "go with the flow" as it were. For those of us who are often in need of organizing and directing our lives, "going with the flow" can be hard to do but when you are able to reach this state, wonderful things are very likely to occur.

A Little Practice for the Week:

   It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon and you find that, amazingly, you have no "must do's" on your list!  Today is the perfect day to practice your Wu-Wei!  Pack your camera and maybe a little snack in your car and set out. If you normally turn left out of your driveway, turn right. Now the only thing you need to do is to turn whenever the spirit moves you. If the road seems interesting or you've never ventured down it than go for it!  Stop  from time to time and get out and look....REALLY look. Be very sensitive to circumstance and trust that you will end up exactly where you need to be. Follow the words of Chuang-tse.  He said that the mind in Wu-Wei, "flows like water, reflects like a mirror, and responds like an echo."

   Where did the flowing water take you? When you did pause, what did the landscape reflect back to you? And, finally, how did you respond?

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