What’s Going On?

I go out.  I take a camera.  Something catches my eye.  I raise the camera and peer through the viewfinder.  Hold it right there!  What is going on at that moment?

This is not a conundrum confined to photography.  In any creative endeavour there is the moment when you pick up the pen or brush or sit down with your instrument.  Just at that instant how would you describe what is going on? 

Let’s ditch even the concept of creative endeavour.  What is going on at any given instant you care to name?  Just as you arrive home at the end of the day and close the door; just as you stare at the supermarket shelf and try to decide what to buy; just as you take that first sip of a cup of tea or coffee.

If you try to examine any given moment closely there seems to be a fog.  You have thoughts coursing through, you have sensations of touch, smell and so on, you have perceptions, you may have memory or imagination or mood at work.  You may try to block all that out with concentration – it’s a standard technique and may help.  You may try analysing the moment or you may try ignoring the whole cacophony. 

We all have this problem and we all have techniques for dealing with it: sport, alcohol, pastimes, study, the open air, whatever.  Photography is one of mine.

But analysis or blocking only works so far.  When I look through the viewfinder what I see either resonates or it doesn’t. It is intuitive. If I start thinking rationally at that point I am lost.  I have to function on another level – away from rational thought or analysis.  Maybe this is what Henri Cartier-Bresson meant when he talked about putting the head, heart and eye on the same axis.  Pressing the shutter button then becomes reactive rather than premeditated.  This photo, as an example, seems to have come from deep within that process.  I look at it now and see it not simply as framing a view that I noticed but as the reflection of a state of mind.


 For about thirty years I have gone on retreat quite regularly, mostly in eastern spiritual traditions.  I’ve found they help me to look more closely and see more clearly.  Usually they major on meditation but this September I am attending a Japanese brushwork retreat which combines meditation and, well, brushwork.  According to the Zen master Hakuin (1688 - 1768)  brushwork is a practice with the intention of drawing 'lines of unfettered simplicity, to reveal nothing special, with no particular beauty, only an uncommon ease that transcends our understanding of space and time.' 

I am hoping that in exploring this tradition I will be able to learn something about the nature of creativity that I can apply to photography. Something that does not necessarily fix what is going on but which helps to work with it.

Something like this, if I am not mistaken.

Kaz Tanahashi: Untitled (1992) Zen Mountain Monastery Archives

Kaz Tanahashi: Untitled (1992) Zen Mountain Monastery Archives

 According to the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitarō true creativity is not the product of conscious effort but rather the 'phenomenon of life itself'. True creativity arises from a state beyond thought, emotions, and expectations.

These sort of statements always sound a bit vacuous when quoted out of context but it’s the process of discovering how, if at all, they can be applied in practice that I find so central to daily life.