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Thread: Zen photography

  1. #1

    Zen photography

    Back in the days of film, I shot photos, made prints in a darkroom, etc. About seven years ago, I decided to get back into photography, and have been spending a fair amount of time since then learning, looking at photos, and trying to be creative.

    Something that has interested me in the past couple of years is the idea of zen photography. This is a term that is used in photography a bit, but it tends to mean some sort of "contemplative photography," or sitting in a trance before shooting photos. I'm not interested in that, but I'm more interested in the idea of photography that reflects a zen aesthetic.

    I've found a number of websites that talk about the seven main principles of zen aesthetic, and here's what one says:

    Kanso (簡素)
    Simplicity or the elimination of clutter. The best things are expressed in a plain, simple, natural manner. Nothing extraneous, nothing frilly. This reminds us to think not in terms of decoration but in terms of clarity—a clarity that can be achieved through omission or exclusion of the non-essential.

    Fukinsei (不均整)
    Asymmetry or irregularity. The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso (“Zen circle”) in brush painting, for example, is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence. In graphic design too asymmetrical balance is a dynamic, beautiful thing. Try looking for (or creating) beauty in balanced asymmetry. Nature itself is full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are asymmetrical yet balanced. This is a dynamic beauty that attracts and engages.

    Shibui/Shibumi (渋味)
    Beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon. Direct and simple way, without being flashy. Elegant simplicity, articulate brevity.The term is sometimes used today to describe something cool but beautifully minimalist, including technology and some consumer products. (Shibui literally means bitter tasting).

    Shizen (自然)
    Naturalness. Absence of pretense or artificiality, full creative intent unforced. Ironically, the spontaneous nature of the Japanese garden that the viewer perceives is not accidental. This is a reminder that design is not an accident, even when we are trying to create a natural-feeling environment. It is not a raw nature as such but one with more purpose and intention.

    Yugen (幽玄)
    Profundity or suggestion rather than revelation. A Japanese garden, for example, can be said to be a collection of subtleties and symbolic elements. Photographers and designers can surely think of many ways to visually imply more by not showing the whole, that is, showing more by showing less.

    Datsuzoku (脱俗)
    Freedom from habit or formula. Escape from daily routine or the ordinary. Unworldly. Transcending the conventional. This principles describes the feeling of surprise and a bit of amazement when one realizes they can have freedom from the conventional. Professor Tierney says that the Japanese garden itself, “…made with the raw materials of nature and its success in revealing the essence of natural things to us is an ultimate surprise. Many surprises await at almost every turn in a Japanese Garden.”

    Seijaku (静寂)
    Tranquility or an energized calm (quite), stillness, solitude. This is related to the feeling you may have when in a Japanese garden. The opposite feeling to one expressed by seijaku would be noise and disturbance. How might we bring a feeling of “active calm” and stillness to ephemeral designs outside the Zen arts?


    To this end, I've created a gallery of the photos that I think fit the definition of zen photography:

    https://kirkville.com/kirks-photos-2/zen-photography/

    I'm curious as to what others think, and I'm particularly interested if anyone else working with photography is thinking in this direction.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    Last edited by kirkmc; 07-10-2020 at 06:51 AM.
    -----
    I know nothing.

  2. #2
    Member Onka's Avatar
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    Does this kind of thing fit the definition Kirk? It's a native peach we believe that is budding and blossoming now in our winter. It has grown by itself within a cattle run leading to a cattle crush and ramp in our paddock. I guess a cow provided the seed a bunch of years back. Its resilience is what I admire about this tree. When someone needs a yard, run and ramp they come around, cut the tree at its base so the cattle can walk through then it grows back. Pretty amazing I reckon.
    Gassho
    Onka
    ST

    Sent from my SM-A205YN using Tapatalk
    穏 On (Calm)
    火 Ka (Fires)
    aka Anna Kissed
    Resident Anarchist.
    Pronouns:She/Her They/Them.
    Life's too serious to be taken seriously.
    No Gods. No Masters.

  3. #3
    Hi Kirk and yes yes yes!
    I could say that I was influenced primarily by the Miksang approach proposed by Chogyam Trungpa, but I know that I've instinctively been searching for everything you mention since I picked up my first proper camera at art school back in the 70's. In fact for my very first brief back then I produced a series of black and white photos of drain covers, iron railings and barbed wire. Black and white not for any aesthetic reason but because we had to develop and print the film ourselves and at the time there was no way of doing that with colour film.

    I'm particularly drawn to the simplification of images, and also finding aesthetic beauty in the traditionally non-beautiful, urban landscapes, man made products and objects, imperfection and impermanence.
    It wasn't until quite recently that I discovered that most of what I'm drawn to and love is encompassed in the Japanese Zen aesthetics, and it explained why I've been so drawn to the work of Japanese photographers, and the work of non Japanese folk like yourself and Michael Kenna. I'm thinking also of Jishin's series of photos of abandoned buildings, which were superb.
    Thanks for such a great post. I'm wondering how we can develop this thread - by posting the work of photographers who we think embody these ideas, and our own work too as a start. Maybe a project?
    I'll be back!
    Gassho
    Meitou
    Sattoday lah
    命 Mei - life
    島 Tou - island

  4. #4
    I was hoping that those interested in photography might start a dialog about these questions and hopefully come to some conclusions about what "zen photography" could be. I've been looking up the Miksang thing, and I only just bought the book to find out where they're coming from, but it seems that their approach is more about the idea of creating images in a meditative state. I may be wrong, but from what I see of their photos, such as on Instagram, I don't see a lot of zen esthetic.

    I know the person who does this podcast, where there was a recent episode about photography as a zen art:

    https://www.neomodern.com/podcast-bl...y-as-a-zen-art

    We had a long talk about this a few weeks ago, and, while I think he's on the right track, he's not a zen practitioner. On the other hand, he has a vast amount of photography knowledge; he grew up with, then inherited, his father's large collection of really great photos. He has thousands of photos, including many that are familiar to those who know a bit about the history of photography.

    So we could post photos by photographers that we think match then descriptive "zen photography," but also our own work, and perhaps discuss what makes a photo "zen." I think it's quite arbitrary; if you look at John Daido Loori's work, it's certainly zen, because he was a zen practitioner, but from what I've seen I wouldn't say it's all inspired by zen esthetic. It certainly has a lot of influence from his mentor Minor White, whose work is very interesting, but not really zen.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    -----
    I know nothing.

  5. #5
    I just started leafing through The Practice of Contemplative Photography. The introduction confirms what I thought: it's about getting images instinctively (which I think is fine) but there doesn't seem to be any grounding in specific esthetics. I think that's what I want to do: combine the two.

    The authors mention a number of great photographers as examples, but what's interesting is that they are all photographers who are either dead or very old. In other words, they ignore any photographers (at least in their list in the intro) who came up in what one could call the second wave of art photography. They cite Stieglitz, Weston, Modotti, Kertez, Strand, Cartier-Bresson, and Adams as their masters; they ignore, say, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Diane Arbus, and many others who helped change the art world's idea of photography.

    I see where they're going. The photos in the book by the authors fit a certain style of minimalist photography that has actually been banalized in recent years; a lot of it is almost clichéd simplicity. It's not that they are bad photos; it's just that there is nothing special about them. So the goal of the book is to - I'm speculating - photography meditatively.

    One contradiction stands out, in the intro, and that's the idea that shooting "subjects" is conventional. Yet all the great photographers shot "subjects."

    Anyway, I'm not surprised that, after seeing a lot of their photos online, the book goes in this direction. It's interesting that it's nearly ten years old, and that, at the time, minimalist photography wasn't as common. I don't think they influenced much, but they were on the crest of a style that was becoming somewhat mainstream.

    Here's one photo in the book that I think fits with the zen esthetic; it's also a photo that the person I mentioned, regarding the podcast, owns.

    martinique.jpeg

    It's both minimalistic, and it asks questions. It's undefined, vague, yet very clear. I think this is a good exemplar of what I'm aiming at.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    -----
    I know nothing.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Onka View Post
    Does this kind of thing fit the definition Kirk? It's a native peach we believe that is budding and blossoming now in our winter. It has grown by itself within a cattle run leading to a cattle crush and ramp in our paddock. I guess a cow provided the seed a bunch of years back. Its resilience is what I admire about this tree. When someone needs a yard, run and ramp they come around, cut the tree at its base so the cattle can walk through then it grows back. Pretty amazing I reckon.
    As an idea, it's interesting, but I wouldn't know much about it if you didn't explain it. I think photography needs to explain itself. Also, the photo is quite busy; I'm not sure what my eye is supposed to look at.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    -----
    I know nothing.

  7. #7
    Kirk,

    Nice photos!

    I take (and have for a very long time) taken pictures of wildlife. Always trying to get the best close ups that display the beauty of the animal. I take lots of photos of reptiles (both an interest and easier for closeups). I have never approached it consciously with the lens of Zen. However I will follow this thread to gain a different perspective.

    I came of age in a time when Ansel Adams demonstrated the beauty of photography and got me interested in the camera.


    Look forward to what is shared here.

    Doshin
    St

  8. #8
    Member Onka's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kirkmc View Post
    As an idea, it's interesting, but I wouldn't know much about it if you didn't explain it. I think photography needs to explain itself. Also, the photo is quite busy; I'm not sure what my eye is supposed to look at.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    Gassho
    Onka
    st

    Sent from my SM-A205YN using Tapatalk
    穏 On (Calm)
    火 Ka (Fires)
    aka Anna Kissed
    Resident Anarchist.
    Pronouns:She/Her They/Them.
    Life's too serious to be taken seriously.
    No Gods. No Masters.

  9. #9
    I was reading about the 7 elements of the zen/Japanese aesthetic recently but in terms of design. I hadn't thought of how they could be applied to photography. I've just started picking up my camera again so will try to implement them and see what happens.

    In terms of photographers, I guess Hiroshi Sugimoto springs to mind, especially his seascapes. You can almost picture Dogen writing about the boat and the sea in them.

    I know you said William Eggleston isn't thought to embody the aesthetic in his work but I think there's a sort of 'suburban zen' feel to some of his work, particularly if you were to look at some of it in black and white.

    Gassho

    Heiso
    StLah

    Sent from my E5823 using Tapatalk

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Heiso View Post
    I was reading about the 7 elements of the zen/Japanese aesthetic recently but in terms of design. I hadn't thought of how they could be applied to photography. I've just started picking up my camera again so will try to implement them and see what happens.

    In terms of photographers, I guess Hiroshi Sugimoto springs to mind, especially his seascapes. You can almost picture Dogen writing about the boat and the sea in them.

    I know you said William Eggleston isn't thought to embody the aesthetic in his work but I think there's a sort of 'suburban zen' feel to some of his work, particularly if you were to look at some of it in black and white.
    Yes, Sugimoto does have that sort of feel, but he seascapes are all the same. If you see one or two, they're interesting, but I have a book of them, and they're quite tedious. As for Eggleston, I saw a documentary about him, and it showed how he takes pictures. He's quite instinctive, and, for that part of his work, I'd say he could be called "sort-of-zen," but there is no overriding esthetic in his work other than colors and shapes. He said that he looks at his photos upside down to see if they work, that for him, all photos are more or less abstract. (Of course, that's a bit of an exaggeration; while he doesn't often shoot photos of people, the ones he did shoot are in no way abstract). He only shot a small number of photos in black and white, and for him, it's the colors that are important.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    AboutToSit
    -----
    I know nothing.

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by kirkmc View Post
    Yes, Sugimoto does have that sort of feel, but he seascapes are all the same. If you see one or two, they're interesting, but I have a book of them, and they're quite tedious. As for Eggleston, I saw a documentary about him, and it showed how he takes pictures. He's quite instinctive, and, for that part of his work, I'd say he could be called "sort-of-zen," but there is no overriding esthetic in his work other than colors and shapes. He said that he looks at his photos upside down to see if they work, that for him, all photos are more or less abstract. (Of course, that's a bit of an exaggeration; while he doesn't often shoot photos of people, the ones he did shoot are in no way abstract). He only shot a small number of photos in black and white, and for him, it's the colors that are important.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    AboutToSit
    Kirk, you have broken my heart! Sugimoto is one of my most beloved photographers and his Seascapes have had the greatest influence on me. Give me that tedious book!

    Going back to the other books mentioned however, I do agree with you about the Contemplative photography book which I have, although I haven't looked at it in the last 5 years ; I found a lot of it very contrived. At the time I knew nothing about Zen or the aesthetics and I agree that this book doesn't reflect those ideas. What it did do was give me greater confidence in what I had been thinking were my weird snaps of what my eye picks up on.
    I have a couple of the Daido Loori books too and yes, agree, these are part of a different journey.
    I'm looking back through some of my photos through the 7 aesthetics lens, and reflecting on whether there's ultimately a difference between unconsciously capturing a concept and consciously seeking to represent it. I'd like to work with both and see what happens.
    Gassho
    Meitou
    Sattoday

    Also interesting to note how much more spontaneous my approach is since my camera broke and I'm using a quite cheap phone.
    命 Mei - life
    島 Tou - island

  12. #12
    Re Sugimoto: When I had first seen a few of his horizon photos in a magazine, I found them interesting. I bought the book, and they really are tedious. A half dozen of them are interesting; 200 of them are not. Sorry. :-o

    As for spontaneous, I would argue that one needs to learn to use the tool one has - whichever camera it is - so taking pictures is not about knobs and dials, but about composition. That's really easy to do with a smartphone; it's a lot harder with a "real" camera, because there's so much to learn. Which is why I always suggest that people really learn to use their cameras, so when they're shooting they aren't distracted by changing settings.

    If you're interested, I co-host a podcast about photography: https://www.photoactive.co

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    -----
    I know nothing.

  13. #13
    I will have a listen to the podcast, thanks Kirk.

    I was out jogging in local woods after reading this thread and was mentally looking for shots that that I thought would fit the zen aesthetic. I realised it's much easier to recognise it in someone else's work than compose my own. But I guess that's the same for many things


    Gassho,

    Heiso
    StLah

    Sent from my E5823 using Tapatalk

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by Heiso View Post

    I was out jogging in local woods after reading this thread and was mentally looking for shots that that I thought would fit the zen aesthetic. I realised it's much easier to recognise it in someone else's work than compose my own. But I guess that's the same for many things
    What I find is that when I look at a photographer's work a lot - and this can be online or in books - I start to develop an "eye" for what they see. When I then go outside with a camera, that idea remains, and I find it more likely to see interesting things. For me, the best way to learn about photography is to look at photographs. I regularly buy photo books to appreciate the art, and learn what others see.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    -----
    I know nothing.

  15. #15
    I enjoyed your photos Kirk. What strikes me as an interesting photo is a narrative or story that’s being conveyed in a single photo. I did not get that sense looking at your photoS, while I enjoyed them I did not feel a sense that a particular moment was being singled out and expressed. Rather a sense that the object was taken just as it is using many rules of photography. The symmetry of angles you used did give me a sense of “zen”

    Well done

    Gassho, Kyotai
    I am a student at Treeleaf. Please take what I say with a grain of salt. Gassho

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by kirkmc View Post
    Re Sugimoto: When I had first seen a few of his horizon photos in a magazine, I found them interesting. I bought the book, and they really are tedious. A half dozen of them are interesting; 200 of them are not. Sorry. :-o


    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    In your opinion of course. I never tire of looking at them, I feel a strong connection to them, so let's remember how subjective this all is.
    Gassho
    Meitou
    Sattoday lah
    命 Mei - life
    島 Tou - island

  17. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by Kyotai View Post
    I enjoyed your photos Kirk. What strikes me as an interesting photo is a narrative or story that’s being conveyed in a single photo. I did not get that sense looking at your photoS, while I enjoyed them I did not feel a sense that a particular moment was being singled out and expressed. Rather a sense that the object was taken just as it is using many rules of photography. The symmetry of angles you used did give me a sense of “zen”
    That's a very interesting point; I'd never thought about that. It's true that many photos present "story" and that I've read many books and taken courses where the idea of story is important. Of course many don't present story: most portraits, landscapes, and still life photos. What I try to capture is mood and feeling, the "thusness" of objects and scenes. But many photographers who shoot other types of photos also do that: what else is a landscape photo other than capturing a feeling?

    But I think this is a good point:

    "a sense that the object was taken just as it is"

    I'd never considered that, but perhaps that is part of what I'm seeking. Though I would disagree with the idea that they use "many rules of photography." I'm one of those who thinks that there are no rules, especially those that are generally presented as "the rules" of photography.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    -----
    I know nothing.

  18. #18
    Quote Originally Posted by Meitou View Post
    In your opinion of course. I never tire of looking at them, I feel a strong connection to them, so let's remember how subjective this all is.
    Indeed.

    BTW, I'll be interviewing Michael Kenna on my photo podcast again in a couple of weeks, talking specifically about his new Buddha book.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    Last edited by kirkmc; 07-16-2020 at 12:34 PM.
    -----
    I know nothing.

  19. #19
    Quote Originally Posted by kirkmc View Post
    Indeed.

    BTW, I'll be interviewing Michael Kenna on my photo podcast gain in a couple of weeks, talking specifically about his new Buddha book.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    Excellent, I've subscribed so look forward to that one.

    Gassho

    Heiso

    StLah

    Sent from my E5823 using Tapatalk

  20. #20
    Quote Originally Posted by kirkmc View Post
    That's a very interesting point; I'd never thought about that. It's true that many photos present "story" and that I've read many books and taken courses where the idea of story is important. Of course many don't present story: most portraits, landscapes, and still life photos. What I try to capture is mood and feeling, the "thusness" of objects and scenes. But many photographers who shoot other types of photos also do that: what else is a landscape photo other than capturing a feeling?

    But I think this is a good point:

    "a sense that the object was taken just as it is"

    I'd never considered that, but perhaps that is part of what I'm seeking. Though I would disagree with the idea that they use "many rules of photography." I'm one of those who thinks that there are no rules, especially those that are generally presented as "the rules" of photography.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    Well, your photos have many pleasant leading lines and 1/3's, which are certainly rules. But I've always believed that you must first learn the rules before you can start breaking them. True in photography, true in martial arts too.

    Gassho, Kyotai
    ST
    I am a student at Treeleaf. Please take what I say with a grain of salt. Gassho

  21. #21
    Quote Originally Posted by Kyotai View Post
    Well, your photos have many pleasant leading lines and 1/3's, which are certainly rules. But I've always believed that you must first learn the rules before you can start breaking them. True in photography, true in martial arts too.
    I certainly don't consider the "rule" of thirds, which I call the "rule of turds," because there is no justification for it, other than the fact that early DSLRs had 1/3 grid lines. If you look back at the history of photography, it's not something that existed. And there are too many exceptions to make it useful. (If you browse my podcast PhotoActive, you'll see there's an episode where we discussed it.) As for other elements of composition, the "rules" for photography are no different from the rules for painting and other art. I very much like looking at Japanese woodblock prints from the 17th - 19th century, the classic ukiyo-e, for inspiration; their composition was similar to what "works" in photos.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    -----
    I know nothing.

  22. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by kirkmc View Post
    I certainly don't consider the "rule" of thirds, which I call the "rule of turds," because there is no justification for it, other than the fact that early DSLRs had 1/3 grid lines. If you look back at the history of photography, it's not something that existed. And there are too many exceptions to make it useful. (If you browse my podcast PhotoActive, you'll see there's an episode where we discussed it.) As for other elements of composition, the "rules" for photography are no different from the rules for painting and other art. I very much like looking at Japanese woodblock prints from the 17th - 19th century, the classic ukiyo-e, for inspiration; their composition was similar to what "works" in photos.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    Hi Kirk,

    Your podcast is very cool.

    Although artists want to do what they want to do without interference, the audience needs to be considered.

    The audience likes the rule of turds. :-)

    Gassho, Jishin, __/stlah\__

  23. #23
    Quote Originally Posted by kirkmc View Post
    I certainly don't consider the "rule" of thirds, which I call the "rule of turds," because there is no justification for it, other than the fact that early DSLRs had 1/3 grid lines. If you look back at the history of photography, it's not something that existed. And there are too many exceptions to make it useful. (If you browse my podcast PhotoActive, you'll see there's an episode where we discussed it.) As for other elements of composition, the "rules" for photography are no different from the rules for painting and other art. I very much like looking at Japanese woodblock prints from the 17th - 19th century, the classic ukiyo-e, for inspiration; their composition was similar to what "works" in photos.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    Very interesting perspective and podcast as I am about 2/3 the way through it this morning. As a newer amateur photographer, I certainly appreciated learning about rules of photography in the online course that I took as previously I would simply and always place the subject in the center of the photo. I think learning about what is widely and generally considered a pleasing photo (I emphasize generally) is helpful, before going along your photography journey.

    Gassho, Kyotai
    ST
    I am a student at Treeleaf. Please take what I say with a grain of salt. Gassho

  24. #24
    Quote Originally Posted by kirkmc View Post
    Indeed.

    BTW, I'll be interviewing Michael Kenna on my photo podcast again in a couple of weeks, talking specifically about his new Buddha book.

    Gassho,

    Kirk

    sat
    Gratitude

    meitou
    sattodaylah
    命 Mei - life
    島 Tou - island

  25. #25
    I don't know if this is Fukinsei or Zen. They are grapes though.



    Gassho, Jishin, __/stlah\__
    Last edited by Jishin; 07-29-2020 at 02:51 PM.

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