Book: photography and zen

Western conceptual thinking and therefore conceptual thinking about photography is unsurprisingly dominated by Western ideas. I’ve been influenced in various ways by Eastern thought at different times in my life, firstly as a teenager playing Judo. Later as a guitarist, embracing the ideas of ‘Zen Guitar’ and more recently through the study of mindfulness. Also, while unaware of the conceptual thinking, being ‘in the flow’ while making street photography, which is what first encouraged me to study photography seriously.

I would characterise these practices as experiential – there are concepts and philosophies that can only really be understood through experiencing their practice. They are not simply conceptual. I am interested in how I might use these ideas to shape my photography practice and whether there is a research perspective for my contextual studies work. Also, whether there is a genre connection to psychogeography in this thinking. For example Umberto Eco’s essay Critique of the Image proposes various codes of recognition in the process of perception . These introduce bias into the perception of the significance of things; what is important and therefore, what might be a worthy photographic subject. Contemplative thinking can help put aside these biases and help interact with objects in their pure form.

I begin this exploration with the book Photography and Zen by Stephen Bray . Notes are below. My reflections on the reading are:

  • Realising the ‘interconnectedness’ of self-other-thing as a totality changes both perception and behaviour. We no longer think of self and other but together. There is some Western philosophy that draws on these ideas that I should explore further – Fichte and his ideas of ‘inter-subjectivity’ and Schopenhauer and his ‘negation of desire’.
  • Bray offers a number of photographic influences. With Chögyam Trungpa in particular deserving further research.
  • On a practical level Bray suggests two traps of photography: 1) producing stereotypical images and 2) abandoning convention, making images to please only ourselves and becoming completely unconcerned about others – using the term ‘spiritual materialism’ to describe this. Finding a right way, he suggests, is between the two extremes. To me, some conceptual photography falls into the latter category.

Bray’s conclusion to the book is interesting ‘ one of the dangers of photography is that, whilst it enables expression …, it can also become a substitute for living’.