Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part IX : Te

Know the light,
But keep to the shadow.
Become a pattern 
To all under heaven.
As a pattern repeats itself,
Act in constant Virtue;
Return to the beginning.
Tao te Ching - 28 

 The photographic sage exhibits the quality of Te which is generally translated as virtue or power.  By power, I am not talking about physical strength or domination but an internal power which comes about when we can perform our photographic work in a seamless flow of insight and execution. When we sense the Qi,or natural energy, of a place, Te can occur.   By virtue, I mean being true to who you are as a person and a photographer. Virtue is artistic honesty. Contemplative photographers are not concerned with the latest photographic trends, they make photographs that speak to them...not to the art market.

      Te is the characteristic most sought after by the Contemplative Photographer.  It is difficult state to achieve but when it is, when everything falls into place and you feel truly one with your camera, the sensation is quite exhilarating.  You feel, however briefly, the pure power of creative expression...when your personal intentions seem to align themselves with Natures energy. You achieve a level of mastery of the photographic medium that can be surprising.  What normally interferes or interrupts Te is our egos.  We begin to rationalize, to justify, to project, to doubt and, well, poof! disappears.

   For me, one of those "Te-moments" came when I was in Taos, New Mexico.  I came to photograph one of the supreme icons in the art world - St. Francis Church in Rancho de Taos.  Paul Strand had created several memorable photographs of it and Georgia O'Keeffe had painted it numerous times.  It was a little like a pilgrimage to a holy shrine.  How could I even attempt to represent this place?  What could I say that hadn't already been said by far greater artists than myself?  As the famous back view of the church loomed before me, the one EVERYONE photographs, I turned away from it and started to walk around the church.  Slowly, first one way, then another. During the walk I felt that energy start to flow and I made image after image. It reminded me of the time I was in St. Petersburg in Russia at Easter and I watched the priests and congregation slowly walk around and around the cathedral carrying their candles and chanting. I didn't understand why they did it; I do now.  It was a bit hypnotic. The dozen or so images I made on my circumnavigation of St. Francis Church were my own interpretation and none referred back to the classic images of Strand or O'Keeffe.  The more I walked, the more abstract my images became culminating in my favorite photograph below.

   I very much doubt I would have made that photograph if I'd not tapped into the Qi of that remarkable place. I'm not sure how it all came about but everything seemed to contribute to the feeling... the sun, the shadows cast by the church, the old dog that followed my footsteps, the sense of suspended time...perhaps all of it. I know I will never forget it.

   I will adapt a quote from photographer Wynn Bullock because it suits the context of this post.

"I didn't want to tell the church what it was.  I wanted the church to tell me something and through me express it's meaning..."
   For the Taoist, Te can be achieved when you allow the Tao to flow through you.  You don't fight it or force it.

  "True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can't be gained by interfering."
Tao te Ching - 48

   Now, if all this sounds a tad "new agey" and metaphysical, I assure you it really isn't.  People use more common phrases for the experience like "being in the zone". Everyone has experienced it at some point in their lives. Certain places enhance this experience...they are called "Thin Places".  There are famous ones all around the world but they can be as near as your own backyard. Taos is a "thin place". Artists have been attracted to it for decades. Your creativity reaches new levels in these places. Enjoy it when it happens...and I hope you have your camera with you when it does!

A  Little Practice for the Week:

   This is one characteristic that is nearly impossible to practice.  It happens when we least expect it and only when we put our egos and our skepticism away and let it happen.  I find that the best way to tap into the Te is to go to a beautiful place in nature...somewhere you've been many times and feel especially "in tuned" with.  Spend some time there...walk around just taking it all in...trying to see it with fresh eyes.  Sit for a time and see what suggests itself.  If everything is in sync you will know what to do.  The hardest thing is to quiet your mind and not to anticipate anything. You want to open all your senses...don't try to focus on only one thing. As I've said before, it is just a practice of letting go...letting the Tao and it's energy flow through you.  If you do, then you will know  what images to make and when. Simple.  Well, not really. It takes practice, and trust and patience but it will happen. Perhaps you will have to return again and again but at some point you will feel the pull of the Qi and then it IS simple!

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