Zen and the art of landscape photography
The title’s joke is over 30 years old now, as Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance’ dates from the early 1970s. And there must be hundreds of variants of ‘Zen and…’ by now. And still it gives the best possible introduction to my theme of today–sorry it’s been so long since I wrote, but you know how it is with holidays: it’s a time of fun but not a time for serious photography. And time is the essence–the essence of Zen and the essence of photography. Well, of landscape photography anyway. Or maybe I’d better say the negation of time. As Pirsig had it, in his book: when he wanted to get a motorcycle in the 1960s, they were not to be had in the USA, and he ordered a self-assembly kit motorbike in Japan. The manual for putting the thing together was–as then and now only too usual–badly translated. It said that the assembly of the bike “needs great peace of mind”. This meant, of course, “needs patience”. But on another level the bad translation was perfect: you do need “great peace of mind” to achieve something good.
So to make a good landscape picture you need to take time, a lot of time. The point is not if your shutter speed is 1/2000 of a second. The time I mean is time you take to get a feel that says “this is the picture to take”. That message was brought home in an interview in the August copy of Outdoor Photography with Anna Booth, who is an amateur photographer like the rest of us. Yet unlike, for she will be exhibiting 4 by 5 foot (1.2 by 1.5 meter) pictures in the UK. (That is what the magazine promises–the gallery’s website is not running yet.) And the pictures shown in the magazine I find stunning: simple colours, simple patterns of landscape details, and all amazingly sharp. Even in the magazine reproductions you can see that. The sharpness comes from her pictures being taken with a 5×4 inch camera, with real film of course, nothing digital. The magic is not so much in film vs. digital, but in the time needed. You must take time to carry such a big camera around, to set it up on its tripod, and to make sure that everything is correct before you risk to spend a large sheet of film material on a picture. The bulkiness of the camera–and Anna’s own personality, as she says–ensure that she concentrates often on a single spot: “I get hours of pleasure from a single location and, sometime, one shot”. OK, looking around at one spot is a bit of “peace of mind”, but the really interesting remark she makes is that: “it usually takes me a couple of days, before I can start to see any images.” She must reach a state of “peace of mind” before she can really concentrate enough–and then a split second can be enough for the shutter to do its part of the work.
You see now why in this time of year I cannot take serious pictures? Worse than that: do I ever take the time to really let my mind get “peace” in order to become receptive to my environment in a photographic way? On the other hand: do you really need very much time to reach the right, receptive stage of mind? In a tour I did, early this year, of the Buddhist Chung Tai Chan monastery in Taiwan, the nun who showed us around (she is in the picture to the right) told us that an experienced person can meditate in every circumstance and at any time. It is only us, beginners, she added, who need mantras, mandalas, monasteries. The really experienced photographers may see their picture at once, may be able to visualise (to use Ansel Adam’s term) anytime and anywhere. I am like Anna Booth and need time to free my mind from other things to be able to concentrate on the landscape.
The contrast between reaching “great peace of mind” and the split-second action of photography is much like the “way” of Japanese archery, kyudo. Once you have reached the right state of mind, and you master your bow/camera to perfection, making a hit/perfect picture becomes natural, effortless, and certain. Keep trying! One day everything will come together.
And then you will be able to make a much better version of my try of the spirit of the landscape at the foot of Mount Fuji. Until then: enjoy this one!