Acquiring skills in photography is just one side of a practice. Constant repetition of procedure and attention to detail creates a skill that was not there before. There is also another side to the practice: the subject in which we modify ourselves rather than the objects that we fashion. It is the side of the subject where most gains are to be made. Or so I contend.

I was 13 years old when I first came across the word ‘Zen’. I was at boarding school in mid-1960s Sussex, England, and feeling unwell with a high temperature.

On that day I was given permission to remain indoors and miss the daily pre-breakfast cross-country run and afternoon games. I spent that winter day in the school library hugging the radiator and idly turned the pages of a dictionary – until I came across the almost last word, ‘Zen’. I think ‘Zygote’ was the last word but this has been superseded by another, Zyzzyva – a type of weevil.

I don’t remember that dictionary’s definition of Zen but I was intrigued by the fact that I did not understand it. By the time I was 17 I had read everything I could find about Zen which, in mid-1960s England, were by D.T. Suzuki, Christmas Humphreys and Alan Watts. These all served to confuse me, largely because D. T. Suzuki’s version (Rinzai) is wrapped up in the assumed centrality of koans and satori. Try as hard as I might, I could not achieve satori. I didn’t realise at the time that setting up a barrier to break through was never going to be achievable when there is no barrier to set up in the first place.

Today we find the word ‘Zen’ being used in ways inimical to the original meaning of the word – marketing hype, product placement and the relentless concern that people have with ‘self’. So alas, these days it is hard to use this word properly. And satori is more likely to be the name of a restaurant.

There were two things that I learned from reading about Zen in my younger years.

The first was about the supposed ineffability of direct experience (and also in the ineffability of Zen itself as a practice, hence the seemingly irrational method of its instruction). Our most insightful lessons come not from analysis but from direct experience. Or so it is held.

The other thing was about what is today called mindfulness. Actually, the word mindfullness does not do justice to the Zennist idea. Perhaps ‘no-mind’ says it more accurately or even better perhaps ‘belly-ness’ – that is, locating intention through the whole body, although initially the belly. The Zennist acquires insight from a way of doing things. The practice of tranquillity, attention to breathing and the belly all serve to shut out over-eager discrimination and judgement. (The best book on this is Karfried Graf von Dürckheim’s ‘Hara’. My edition is the 1988 one. I have always enjoyed his name).

So, long-suffering reader, what’s this got to do with photography? On the one hand, photographs show us that things are essentially ineffable. By ineffable I mean ‘unsayable’. On the other hand, the practice of photography, fine-tuned to the expression of the ineffable in its way, can be experienced as a ‘way’ that opens up the subject side of the subject-object continuum.

The notion of ineffability partly draws me to reading Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein talks about the fact that grammar is deficient in ‘surveyability’. “A surveyable representation produces precisely that kind of understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’ … it characterises the way we represent things” (Philosophical Investigations §122). Later in the book Wittgenstein gives the example of understanding a poem (§531). The thought in the poem can only be ‘expressed … by these words in these positions’. A paraphrase will not do. (Unsurprisingly there is much in Philosophical Investigations’ that seems to hark back to the themes of Wittgenstein’s earlier work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus.’)

One might go further, of course. If words in poems only convey through metaphor, simile and the like, then perhaps this is because there is a limit to what words can achieve? Words allude, glance, point to, but do they ‘touch’ objects? Or do they essentially miss their mark? Perhaps they can get you into the right ball-park, so to speak and perhaps the right game, if conditions allow. But can they convey a quality such as colour or a form in a way that does justice to the experience of colour or form. A Zennist would argue that all experience is essentially beyond words, but here that word ‘experience’ is having to do a lot of heavy lifting.

But perhaps the Zennist has it wrong. In what way is ‘direct experience’ privileged? Indeed what work is the word ‘direct’ doing here? Surely a poem can convey insights about objects that visual perception, say, of those objects can miss. Isn’t reading a poem a direct experience of its subject? Isn’t that what poems do – give us a direct experience of something that is absent? Poems express very well those aspects that are expressible in words. Visual perception, and by derivation photographs, work within those aspects that are particular to their own mode of representation. They can show things which words miss but there is no primacy of direct experience here. Ineffability is a something which words miss. But it can also be a something which a picture can miss, or a touch that can miss, although we don’t seem to have a ready word for this kind of ‘ineffabiliy’.

As for photography as a practise, I’m reminded of Yanagi’s, the potter’s, essay on ‘the way of tea’ (‘The Unknown Craftsman’ by Sōetsu Yanagi), in which he describes the necessity of rule-following in the notion of perfect freedom. One finds limitless expression in following a few rules. Freedom is not a state of having no rules; it is the acceptance of limits. The fluidity of thought and movement that comes from painstakingly acquiring a skill is its own reward.

So, where does all of this leave me? Language can open up vistas, albeit falling short in some way. Photography can open up vistas but also falling short in a different way. We don’t seem have a word for this type of falling short. Together however they give us something different to the the sum of their parts. As for practice: the tranquillity that photography can instill in a darting mind is a form of rehabilitation. It can help in the daily business of living skilfully.

Leave a Reply

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