IF THE BUDDHA HAD HAD A CAMERA

Looking Closely And Seeing Clearly

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I went to a talk given by a Buddhist monk recently on the general subject of Buddhism and creativity.  He spoke in the characteristic Buddhist extemporaneous style which follows the injunctions of the subconscious rather than any pre-planned pattern but, if I heard him correctly, he did suggest that generally Buddhism does not have a great deal to say about the arts other than through traditional iconography.  I was surprised to hear that since the connection between Zen and several fields of artistic endeavour is pretty well established and in the field of photography there has been quite a close connection since the second world war at least. 

The figure to whom most investigation of the subject leads is Minor White who was active as both photographer and teacher from the late thirties up to the early seventies.  He was heavily influenced by various eastern philosophies and for me his photography falls squarely within the Transcendental tradition.  Amongst his colleagues and pupils were Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Paul Caponigro, Walter Chappell and John Daido Loori (who later became abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State).  His work, it might be said, was part of the spirit of the times and his influence may perhaps be said to have made its way over the Atlantic to places like Trent Polytechnic and Derby College in the work of photographers such as Thomas Joshua Cooper and John Blakemore. 

As hippies turned to punks it seemed that in photography at least the eastern influence was dying away but Buddhism is more resilient than that.  On Minor White’s bookshelves there was at least one work by the controversial Tibetan Buddhist figure, Chogyam Trungpa, whose teachings on Buddhism and the arts were collected in True Perception: The Path Of Dharma Art in the 1990s.  He was himself an accomplished photographer.  His (and more general Buddhist teachings) on artistic practice including photography form the basis of the courses at the University of Naropa which he founded in Boulder, Colorado in 1974.  Those teachings are also promoted through the Miksang school and the principles of Contemplative Photography.  I myself went on a short course several years ago given by Helen Vink (a teacher in the contemplative tradition) which changed my practice very significantly.   

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If we put aside the current omnipresence of mindfulness on the shelves of bookshops there are still good books to help photographers on their way in this particular method.  Two that I have found useful are John Daido Loori’s Zen And The Art Of Creativity (there are many similar titles but I think he is the one with both the Buddhist and photographic pedigree); and The Practice Of Contemplative Photography by Michael Wood and Andy Karr (whose website http://seeingfresh.com/ is also helpfully illustrative).  I notice, too, that the recent new edition of Richard Zakia and John Suler’s Perception and Imaging: Photography as a Way of Seeing (5th Edition) contains numerous references to Buddhist practices.

What is particularly striking – and should be of interest to any Thinking Photographer – is the way in which photography yet again shows itself to be such a chameleon practice.   Buddhist ways of thought have for centuries been seen in the west as religious.  Yet when they encounter a secular society such as western Europe they change character and hitch a ride onto our cultural highways through the vehicle of photography.  It is not only through photography, of course, but for those of us interested in the subject it is yet another fascinating way of looking at it.

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(All three of the photos are my own and are examples of quotidian images which I almost certainly would not have taken if I had not absorbed some influence of contemplative photography)