Change is afoot across a range of activities that I am involved in. I recently read ‘The Craftsman’ by Richard Sennett which got me thinking more deeply about doing things for their own sake.

I have always been taken by an exhortation written by Miyamoto Musashi:

Discern the advantages and disadvantages of all things.

Discover through yourself those things that cannot be seen,

Take care even with small matters.

Do not do useless things.

From the Five Rings

Each line can be thought about deeply, almost as a meditation, but the two middle lines in particular strike me.

Discover through yourself those things that cannot be seen’. Often, it’s the unseen internal things that make the biggest difference to how things turn out. Many years ago, 1976 I think, I was a guest at a tea ceremony of the Urasenke school. I was with an experienced tea master and we took tea from another tea master. After the ceremony, on the way out, I commented to my friend how vigorously the tea master had whisked the tea, (a feature of the Urasenke school I later learnt). My friend asked me whether I had noticed how she had moved from her centre? I had not seen this, my attention being drawn to the whisking activity. ‘You didn’t see the things that cannot be seen’, he said.

Musashi is referring to what can be learnt through deep self-observation and also the taking in of the whole of something.

Take care even with small matters’. Anything done well is only achieved by paying attention to details. Athletics, martial art, writing, craft, philosophy, photography – everything is the accumulation of tiny steps done well and practised relentlessly. Musashi is saying that there is no end to practising basics, because there is always a deeper level or a more nuanced way of doing something, and it’s this that makes what you produce special, rather than the attainment of advanced technique.

I would say that I’m no longer a beginner in the darkroom, having spent a good deal of time in my darkroom in the last 4 years. And I push myself to learn more advanced printing techniques and so on. But can I say, hand on heart, that every picture is completely square on the paper, that I have really spent the time necessary to work out the exact exposure required rather than something ‘close enough’; that the focus cannot be improved, that the fix has been completely washed out and so on? And that’s just the doing of the picture. What about my own state of mind when I am printing? Can this not also be a matter to be careful about?

So, a time for introspection and inner cultivation, both in my dojo and in my darkroom.

Oh, and ‘do not do useless things‘. Enough said …

My dojo

4 thoughts on “Photography as Askesis

  1. “What about my own state of mind when I am printing? Can this not also be a matter to be careful about?” – an interesting thought. I often feel the work I produce in the darkroom is somewhat influenced by my state of mind or mood. If I’m conscious of finishing in time to complete another task that day the work can feel rushed and “that will do”. Anyhow, great article, certainly some food for thought.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *