When I see the two words ‘Zen’ and ‘Photography’ together my in-built bullshit alarm starts to ring. An on-line search of the words ‘Zen’ + ‘Photography’ will retrieve ethereal long exposure landscapes and seascapes or articles about the need for an empty mind when pressing the camera’s shutter. And and so on. Empty indeed!

Of course there might be something quite serious about Zen once one gets over the comical aspect of talking about it. I think I was about 16 years old when I first came across the idea of ‘Zen’. As I remember, it was one of the last words of my dictionary and so it caught my attention. What followed was an intensive phase of pretending to be enigmatic with my school teachers. This continued in my first year at university with the Castaneda phenomenon. The fact that here in England almost all of our exposure to Zen was through the writings of D. T. Suzuki did not help. His fascination with Satori became a huge barrier to a proper understanding of Kenshō.

In terms of the context of photography one thinks of the work of Minor White, his student John Daido Loori, the oft quoted importance of Herrigel’s ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’ to Henri Cartier-Bresson, and of course of a particular favourite photographer of mine: Thomas Joshua Cooper.

But one can recognise ‘mushin no shin’ when one sees it, if you are on the same wave-length, so to speak. The moment one tries to articulate it through language though, it is lost. Language does not do this kind of a job. Tangentially it is perhaps approached through poetry, but the best way is by an image un-encumbered with words. Not much else to say about this …

North Dakota window curtain.

One thought on “Zen and Photography

  1. Hi Tony,
    I am nearly illiterate with regards to Zen ideas, but the ‘mushin no shin’ you are mentioning perfectly makes sense, if I may say so when refering to a state of mind.
    Thank you once more for this new string to my bow!
    Your picture is just perfect.
    Best – Frédérique
    ps: “my in-built bullshit alarm …” sounds really funny, but gets straight to the point!

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