Category Archives: Meditation

Boxes Made of Butter

Four Birch Reflections on New Blue Ice

Of course, the shape of the photograph is important. I had stopped seeing panoramas and making them so much, partly because I was having trouble framing them so it would work. Using sturdier frames and better framing technique, and cutting my own glass I’m able to frame them in a sturdy way and without going (as) broke doing it. So I’m seeing them and printing them again. Yay! I’ll be hanging 3 panoramas at an upcoming show at the Eversource headquarters in Manchester NH through the spring, and also some different ones in the gallery in hallway 4F at Dartmouth Hitchcock medical center in Lebanon NH through April and May.

Part of what I like about the pano format is the way the eye can move in a different way. There is something a bit more free, call it “vast” feeling about the space, for me.

Compare to the extreme opposite, a square composition (which I also love, and used a lot in the days when I had added the use of a medium format film camera along with my 4 x 5 view camera main-axe. In this composition, as in many squares, the eye moves back in, it’s tighter, it feels more boxed-in. Which is OK. It’s always a box of some sort.

Dewy Garlic Scape with Roses

I think somehow the sense of composition within a box has a subtle pointer to outside of the box. It points to a bigger scene, and the boxed-in detail evokes a larger space. Since that larger space is here undefined, the space is purely mind. Our mind is bigger than the box.

When I was in college, I remember talking to a friend about people who were “in the boxes” and “out of the boxes.” (Where are you now, Steph?) In the boxes was our way of referring to purely conceptual, standard, and habitual ways of thinking. There was plenty of in the boxes thinking at Dartmouth when I was a student there. Out of the boxes was more emotional, less habitual, open to new experience and ideas. It was rather rarer. The thing is, you need the boxes in this world. We need concepts, defined ideas, a reality that works in its framework. But ultimately the truth has its home out of the boxes as well.

Since those days I’ve become a meditator and a Buddhist; I’ve lived a lot of my life in conceptual terms, I’ve composed photographs that exist in their limited spaces. But I’ve also rested in what Tibetan Buddhists would call “space,” embraced the view of emptiness. My teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche literally talked about the framing I’ve done here. To paraphrase (I’m working from memory of a retreat with him), “You need some boxes. That’s why we give you lots of boxes (concepts). But let’s have the boxes be made of butter, so they melt.” (We need to go beyond concept).

These new (and new-ish) photos are available for sale:

Foliage Reflection Riverside Rocks

Four Birch Reflections in New Blue Ice

Dewy Garlic Scape and Roses

Orange Foliage Reflections Puddles, Riverbank Rock

Balance: Doing and Not Doing

Balance Boy Photo

As a meditator, I’ve spent a lot of hours sitting on my butt and not-doing. Sometimes that is a very hard thing to do (or not do). The value though is to cultivate another side of our experience: being.

Lately I’ve been gearing up and rather overwhelmed by all that I have to actually do. I have a lot of prints to make, a lot of framing and matting, a couple of shows to conceptualize, which are due to hang all to soon.

So now when I sit to meditate I’ve got that itchy got-to-do-some-things feeling that is the bane of every beginning meditator and sometimes well seasoned ones as well, as I’m discovering.

So of course I’m writing this here because it relates to photography. As a photographer, you’ve got to “do.” If you didn’t have a camera with you, no photographs would happen. You’ve got to use the thing, and maybe you are even hauling lenses around, making a special trip, using a tripod — and then all the other work of sorting, evaluating, maybe printing matting and framing if you want those photos to escape the confines of a monitor and spend some time out in the physical world. Lots of work, lots of doing.

But the thing is, there is also some pure being that seems to be involved. In fact as a young man looking at successful photographs of famous photographers in galleries and art books, what struck me often in the most successful ones was a quality of presence. The photographer fully inhabited some kind of mood, situation, manifestation of light, life, humanity, experience, even maybe something like “transcendence.” Qualities like insight and wisdom, wit, brilliance manifested in those photos, and those don’t come just from doing. They are coming from someplace else.

This is why working with a tripod is sometimes helpful. It slows you down. You stand there with your camera ready, you might work with it quite busily, but there is also some extra time and space in the situation. But the time is not so linear when working with a camera, and fully being is not a linear function like a physical commodity. You can fit a lot of that being into the moment before the shutter trips, while it trips, and just after. That moment stretches out and pulls from eternity, pulls some eternity into our experience.

Maybe, through some balance of being and doing, you can pull some eternity out of wherever it lives and get it to bleed out through what you make in with that balance. Whatever it is you can manifest with that balance, doing and being, can manifest qualities beyond pure commodity and show insight, wit, wisdom, compassion, humanity and bring some non linear value and eternity into a ticking clock commodity world.

Clarity

Stone Wall, Ferns, Dandelions,Vermont

First, let me get out of the way that I don’t mean to write about “clarity” as a slider in Photoshop, Lightroom, or other post-processing software. I will digress and write about that a little bit to get it out of the way. Also, to clarify: I did not use this slider or effect on this image. If I ever do use it, it is very sparing.

That post-processing form of “clarity” is a subtle to not-subtle distortion of tonal values. The effect changes the tone not just at the edge, as “sharpening” algorithms do. It changes a whole block of tonality, which may have the effect of changing our perception of the detail of an image. While it is sometimes helpful, I tend to not like it or its over-use very much. The resultant images often look “crunchy” and over-wrought. Here is an interesting example of it, which I often show to students if I’m teaching Lightroom or Photoshop. First, a set of pure tones, unprocessed. We may perceive edge effects just because of the way we are wired, but the tones are solid:

Straight up

Next, here is the same set of tones with “clarity” applied in Adobe Lightroom:c

Clarity applied

You can see above that the sense of edges between the tones is enhanced, but the purity and actual clarity of the tones is distorted in favor of a sort of 3-d effect here. The clarity slider – be careful!

The clarity I think about is our perceptual clarity, how we see, a quality of one’s mind.

In the path of becoming a decent photographer, there are stages in developing clarity of vision.

First off, it’s a challenge to see what the world looks like instead of what one imagines it to be. This is the primary challenge: seeing through our own preconceptions. There is so much to see in any scene in front of our eyes, and instead of doing our best to really look at it, as a baseline, we are content to seeing a bit and then creating our own fantasy image of what we see. We might not really see the shape of a tree, but instead we are satisfied that it has a trunk and then some leaves, as a child will often draw a tree as a brown stick with a green circle on top. Light, shadow, shapes, texture; it’s a lot of work to see what’s really there, and we don’t make the effort unchallenged.

The second stage of gaining some clarity as a photographer is actually seeing what is in the viewfinder, and imagining what that looks like as a flat thing – a photograph. The common example is making a portrait whenthe subject has a tree or pole in the background. In a print it will look like the pole is growing out of the subjects head — or at least it is a distracting break from the shape of a person and a head, to have the sharp vertical in the same place.

After we can not only see the world clearly and visualize it as a photograph, with no extraneous or distracting or unexpected elements, we can start to think about how the viewer’s eye will move through it, as through a painting. Curves, shapes, depth, texture, in and out. A work of art works better when it creates a dance for the eye, moving around the frame.

And as these other aspects are developing, we can develop clarity in the realm of human resonance. How does it feel? Is that feeling profound? Might it be shared among viewers? Can something beyond words be communicated, a sense of presence, of… something?

And behind it all… the mind. In a way we can develop or “improve” aspects of clarity, but in another sense we are just getting in touch with something that is already there. In a way there is nothing to improve. My Buddhist teacher says that clarity of mind, like awareness and some other intrinsic qualities, just is. It’s there — all we have to do is access it. How do we do that? It’s a practice, and all of the above helps, but meditation may be the most helpful practice. Also helpful to have a teacher who can point out this aspect of mind, any people you can hang out with who have access to their clarity.


Nothing Whatsoever, But Anything Can Arise

Hawk Over Lake Champlain, Vermont

Above: Hawk over Lake Champlain

Photography and meditation — and art, aesthetics, and seeing altogether as an intersection with meditation keeps coming up in my thoughts. So one might wonder, “What is the aesthetic of meditation? The vision? What is the substance of meditation in this regard?”

None. No substance. Nothing whatsoever.

It’s interesting that different Buddhist cultures have evolved their own aesthetic within their dharma culture — dharma art — which is almost always beautiful and evocative. The interesting thing is how different that art is from culture to culture, even as the practice itself may not be all that different at its core. It’s not that doing a particular meditation practice leads, nor should it lead, to a specific state of mind that creates a vision.

To offer one contrast, Zen art tends to be quite spare and open, while Tibetan Buddhist art is over-the-top vivid. It is true that vajrayana practice in the Tibetan tradition is based on experiencing vividness through the senses, while Zen practice — from the little I know of it — does not emphasize sensory vividness during sitting practice. Still, generally eyes are open during meditation in both traditions, and a root in the Mahayana gives both Zen and Tibetan practice many similarities in terms of the view.

I won’t go through all Buddhist traditions and compare aesthetics, because that isn’t the point here. The point is that the practice is not creating a solid state of mind or a solid material vision, but rather an empty space, an experience of space, from which possibilities may arise. As photographers, as artists, as practitioners, as humans, we are enriched when we can let experience and phenomenon arise without fixation or aversion, without clinging or aggression — and without the dullness of ignorance.

That approach to experience may in fact influence the art quite a bit.

The title of this page is a quote my teacher likes repeat in regard to Dzogchen practice, as he learned it in his Tibetan lineage. The essence of the experience is nothing at all, but anything may arise — and you can bet something will. This is echoed by meditation instruction from a very different teacher in a different tradition and a country distant from Tibet: Ajahn Chah said something like, “Sit in a chair in the middle of an empty room. See who comes to visit.”

As a photographer I can keep a camera handy to interpret the changing dance of phenomena and light in front of the lens. That is tricky enough. As a human experiencing life in general it is a little trickier, but the same thing, to stay open to whatever arises and let it pass without aggression or clinging, aware that everything changes like the weather and passes through a bigger space like clouds in the sky.

A bit more on meditation and photography

Orange Begonias through screen in rain

I’ve written about meditation and photography some, maybe too much. I keep trying to make things clearer, but I’m afraid there may be misunderstandings. There are certainly misunderstandings, but I hope they at least don’t get worse on account of me. Probably, at times, I’m making things worse. And of course I am a mere practitioner, so if you are interested in how the mind works and what is going on with meditation, I encourage you to seek out a qualified meditation teacher. (I’d strongly suggest a Buddhist teacher, even if you are uninterested in Buddhist trappings or notions. The 2500 year tradition provides a detailed map of the terrain of working with the mind rather than a mere technique, as you will get in a a secular approach).

First, meditation is its own practice, a kind of not-doing, mostly, done on a cushion or a chair. There are many approaches to it, and some are perhaps more active than others, whether on that cushion or while actually doing something. But the important point is that basis of it is working with mind and awareness itself, directly, and not dressing that up or confusing it with some worldly or materialistic pursuit. Photography, of course, is different. You are doing something, often with a different motivation than purely working with mind.

So, this relates to photography in a couple of ways I’m aware of. Meditation, if one works with it consistently over time, may have some impact on our awareness, clarifying our perception. This could also include perception of our emotional world, so the resonances in photography, what we may feel as a result of a made image, may become clearer as well. We may see better, and we may feel more. Less numbness means more engagement.

Then it goes the other way as well, with photography having its own impacts on our vision, awareness, and emotional development. This is where the connection with meditation gets confusing to many, as well as to me sometimes. There is an aspect to practicing photography that puts us in touch with opening our awareness of the world and also the emotional realm — how we resonate with the world. This can function and feel a lot like meditation. I think if done with awareness of what’s going on, there can be something like meditation going on in the practice of photography — sometimes.

I think there is a big difference in some ways that are important. Meditation, at least Buddhist meditation, is non-material, not goal-oriinented. It is a pure practice. As such, it is extremely radical and transforming, a dissolving force applied to the concept of selfish-self and ego altogether. It’s important for the meditation to be pure that way, not done with what Suzuki Roshi calls “gaining idea.”

Photography is quite different. As a photographer, we want to make “our own” good image. In some way this effort is attached to our ego. There may be something pure in our desire to see and perceive and do the work to increase our awareness and resonance and openness. There may also be something that is — from a Buddhist perspective and from the perspective of reducing ego-clinging — sometimes less productive in this regard.

Personally I feel my own photography has improved a lot as I have done a lot of meditation and studied with amazing Buddhist teachers over the last several years, but that’s just a side-effect, not why I meditate. To the extent that my photos are “Buddhist, meditative photos” I hope any such characterization also finds them to be radical, intense, cutting through — not some kind of new-agey mellow peaceful thing. My intent is more to cut through the solidity of our mis-perception, which is a radical act. Nor is the transformation of my mind the sole object of my photography, though it is there. Photography and meditation are different, but they dovetail.

One thing that is interesting to me and important to point out: most of what we consider the great masters, contemporary and historical, were not meditators. Look at a photo by (in no particular order) Elliot Erwitt, Paul Caponigro, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Fan Ho, Saul Leiter, Ansel Adams, Andre Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson and so many others — looking at their best work one should gasp and wonder “how did they see so well?!” And that is a mystery. They worked and worked, practiced a lot of photography, embraced art as a whole, lived life deeply and in the end it showed in their work. That gasp we do, “How did they see so well?” might be part of that mysterious connection we might make between meditation and photography, but in this case it is not related to meditation as such.

New Ice With Brush Stroke Texture, 2017

New Ice with Brush Stroke Texture, Vermont

This photo looks like I somehow enhanced it to create a painting appearance, especially through the middle of the print and on the left, but that is how the ice looked. I just saw it that way through the lens.

For a larger view or to buy a print, go to this photo’s page

Practice helps us remember what we know, when we are in other situations. This goes for practicing photography, and the same for my meditation practice and dharma studies. It’s hard to practice enough, but it helps if I do. The point isn’t just so one can best inhabit the moment when things are going well, but also when things are going badly.

What is the practice? What helps? Well, keeping what we might call The View. Which is to say an understanding of how reality works. It turns out that photography is a lot like meditation in a lot of ways. Probably meditation is the more important practice, but it’s also interesting to have an action that manifests the same wisdom that we mostly learn through non-action. The active version helps spread the view into life. Then there is mindfulness. Attention. Cultivating, making better and better friends with awareness. Again, this cuts both ways. Sometimes with feet in the fire, it just makes it more intense. But then, strangely, sometimes it helps. It helps to feel the fire. It helps, in photography, to be able to wait until the situation is one to work with.

As a photographer, we are open to experience. Shape, form, light, and other events manifest in various ways, and we make an exposure through a lens. Usually that manifestation is temporary. The exact circumstance and light will not occur again. Our job is to experience and recognize the moment and then keep it together to do what we need to get an exposure to work through the lens. Sometimes nothing much is happening that seems worth photographing, and other times it’s hard to keep up with it. Sometimes, from a photographer’s perspective, the world in front of the lens is lousy, and sometimes fantastic.

Al our life is the same. It comes together in a way that will please us from some perspective; then sometimes the way it comes together is not pleasing, useful, or interesting from our personal perspective. Of course the perspective that finds the world pleasing, or not pleasing, is as temporary as other manifestations. If we are hungry, food is beautiful. If we are overstuffed, it can be repulsive. The world changes, perspective changes, but there is always a relationship between our current perspective, arising and changing, and the outer world, manifesting and changing.

Usually the appearance of new ice on my pond is interesting and pleasing to me as a photographer, plenty of chance for interesting texture, color, abstraction. I know it will be gone soon, melting by noon, or else settling into a more solid and boring form as it becomes an enduring sheet.

I used to try for deep depth of field a lot in this kind of photography, but I am loosening up quite a bit, mostly starting last year. This was exposed through a medium long old Zeiss prime lens with amazing sharpness and also a beautiful quality to the blur when out of focus at a medium aperture.

Back from Ireland, working on Post Pond show

Foot Bridge Over Trout Brook Lyme NH Post Pond

I have new work from Vermont I’m quite excited about, and also I’ve hardly sorted through photos from the Ireland trip, just recently over. But I’ve been focused on working a show of work made in Lyme New Hampshire, which opens on July 12 at Matt Brown’s Gallery in Lyme.

The photo above is relatively recent, made with a modern Zeiss lens and the full frame camera. Maybe more like what I would do now. I’m including a big print of this, Foot Bridge Over Trout Brook in the show as bit of new work done in Lyme.

Though the show will mostly be of work just around Post Pond, I’m also including this old one, just brought live and printed large. It was exposed on 4 x 5 film back in my view camera days, in 1983, when I was a skinny kid with a pony tail. This was exposed at a pond called Pout Pond near where I lived in ’83, schlepped my view camera up there. I haven’t been there since ’84 or so, so I don’t know if it is still wild and undeveloped.
Black Ice, Pout Pond, Lyme Center NH

Then I’m also working up several images, often reworking them. This is one I tried a different file of once, but I never quite was happy with it. Worked it up now, and it’s nice:
Post Pond, Autumn, Reeds, Yellow Curve

On July 12 at 5PM there will be a gallery talk. I will be joined by my friend, poet and writer Jim Schley, and Matt Brown will join in as well. We are going to be talking about time.

I’ve talked about time some. Anyone who knows me knows I have an unconventional sense of time. Time is interesting in photography for a few reasons. Any time I make an exposure, the subject of my attention is instantly destroyed immediately after. Sometimes the actual subject doesn’t last long, but certainly the light, the feeling, the moment will never come again. Have I “captured” that moment? No way! I create a new experience, which will perhaps live on in a series of new moments.

Time is also interesting, I think in that it is a bifurcated experience. We experience Newtonian time, a ball drops to the floor in the time we expect, a car accelerates on the highway according to its capabilities, and we experience that in accord with the real time, often enough. But also, we live in what I’m taking to calling “literary time.” In a novel time is never “real” but subject to the character or narrator’s looking back, looking ahead, paying attention to details as the moments unfold in the story. The reason we can click into this so well when we read a novel is that we experience this way anyway. Anyone who has ever meditated much knows that time shifts and warps with our mindstream. An hour can be a very long time, or fly by. Nothing to do with the clock, when we are with our experience. All very interesting.

Kandinsky Again

I don’t have a formula for composition, obviously. I like simplicity, I like abstraction. I like foggy mystery, but also piercing clarity. I’m happy enough sometimes to simply represent something interesting, but mostly I’m looking to move the eye around a space, and to move the mind with it. More and more (though I always have), I think of art as being a reflection of, or projection of, mind. Mind doesn’t really have a form or shape or color, as any meditator or neuroscientist knows. But somehow I feel like a state of mind (always transitory and fleeting) can have a graphical representation. A lot of modern art is interesting to me not purely because of color and form, but because of Mind. Kandinsky is a different state of mind — when viewing the painting you are in a different state of mind — than say in front of a Rothko.

Photographing ice on a winter stream is always an opportunity to explore a lot of mental states, a lot of chances for simplicity, tranquility, and also more kinetic and energetic situations.

I like this one, for now, because it has about as much energy, form, texture, detail, as I dare squeeze into a photo. The eye moves around the image; it’s not a simple, settled thing. Like Kandinsky paintings, the mind can be this way too. It’s worth spending time with it, whether it is a Rothko or a Kandinsky.

This is a stream in New Hampshire that I particularly like to walk along, because there is a nice trail along it, and the stream is interesting — sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes even a waterfall. The stream is a mind of its own, moving through all the states and shapes and form that a real mind will, and always changing. In winter here, pretty much any day will be different from the next in terms of how a stream like this will look, and of course the light changes through the day too. It is as fleeting as a one day flower, a dandelion head in a breeze, a human mood or set of thoughts.

Eight Wordly Winds

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

The last week has been an interesting one photographically, and of course it always is. To start, I had a very fruitful day early last week, where I exposed the image above. The light, ice, and snow were nice all day, and it wasn’t too cold to spend a 7 hour day out with the camera. I enjoyed it, and I think I made some other good exposures.

Before I move on, what about the same exposure rendered in black and white? Thirty five years ago, when I used 4 x 5 sheet film, it would be a no-brainer: of course it has to be black and white. But I find I love the subtle colors in the image above. A photographic friend once said of me that I make color photographs like I’m working in black and white (I’m not sure it was a compliment from him). But personally I’ll take it as a compliment. For me, form, texture, tone very often take precedence in deciding a composition, but lately color is a bigger influence as well. As an option, here it is below in black and white. I think I’ll put them both on the site for sale until it is clear which is better.

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

Anyway, it was an interesting week, as I said. After this great camera day, I had a let down from a potential vendor of my work. We’ll still see about that. But it felt like a blow. And then I think the next day, or day after that, I got an out-of-the-blue email from the office of one of my Vermont Senators, Bernie Sanders. Yes, Bernie. They asked if I would be so kind as to let them hang some of my Vermont images in their DC office. Umm, yes, I would be flattered.

Then another camera day, yesterday. It was a promising camera day, beautiful new snow lacy on all the trees, some rime ice in some places, and nice ice over rivers and streams. The only problem was that about 2/3 of the way through my stamina and camera battery supply, I fell through some ice into a stream, about belly-button height or higher. I was too busy to take careful notes at that moment. The water was ice cold and running fast. It was all I could do to pull myself up on the ledge of ice. (I noticed later I scratched my hands and wrist in that endeavor.) I had a camera backpack and a side-bag full of gear. The side-bag was floating. All the gear stayed dry enough, except the micro four thirds Olympus, not my main camera, but I love it, and on it was a lens I love. They fell in the water as I tried to scramble out. I fished them out and am drying them, though I think the lens is a loss. Besides being quite miserable for some time until I got home and dry, I was pretty bummed out about that lens. The camera, we’ll see. It didn’t seem to take on much water, and it’s quite a weatherproof wonder.

Also this last week, my ancient car, which has had charging system trouble since November, has made it clear that it is still not working. I was nervous climbing up the riverbank to it, soaked through, in about 15 degree F temperatures, not 100% sure it would start. It did. Being that wet and not sure the car would start was damn scary. It’s an 18 year old Volkswagen, which I’ve really loved for all these years, my favorite car ever. But now I think it’s time to get rid of the damn thing.

So, ups, downs, and my mind continues along, stumbling and soaring, as it does.

One Buddhist teaching on this as aspect of life is formulated as “The Eight Worldly Winds,” or often, “The Eight Worldly Dharmas.” In life we sometimes get praise and sometimes blame. Sometimes fame, and sometimes its disrepute. We get things that we want, but then we lose them — we can’t keep anything permanently. So there is always gain and loss. Likewise with pleasure and pain.

Though obviously derived from the Buddha’s teachings, I’m not sure it was formulated and presented as this list of 8 pairs of opposites in his time. I’m guessing as a list it comes from the Nalanda period in India, around the ninth century, but I’m not a real scholar of this, and there is a lot of pseudo scholarship online.

Between the idea of the title of “The Eight Worldy Dharmas” vs “The Eight Worldly Winds,” I like the Winds better. Right at the start, you get the idea. There are these winds always blowing us around. We are pulled and pushed by our attraction, aversion, and ignorance. We can tend to go off to the races every time the winds blow, or we can train to understand that this is just what happens as humans in this world and take our seat to watch the display without getting quite so caught. I like this teaching, this view, because it is basically neutral. Of course, as humans, things happen and then we respond emotionally. No blame. It’s just that we’re better served if we place our allegiance with awareness rather than with the emotional tides.

To purchase prints:
The color version
Black and White

Dewdrops and Blue Flag Iris, or, Figure with Ground

Dewdrop and Four Blue Flag Iris

These are two images made with some old Japanese (Olympus, OM) lenses that are known for the quality of their out of focus rendering. They are not “photoshopped” or manipulated. This is the way the lenses (a different lens for each image) and camera made them.

“Bokeh” is a term coined in Japan to talk about the out of focus or “blurry” area of an image. The reason the word is handy is that we can talk about the characteristics of that out-of-focus quality, and acknowledge that there are various aspects to it, and put what is normally background into something like the foreground, either when we talk about it or when we work on making an image through a lens. There is a lot of talk about “bokeh” on lens geek forums, but usually about the characteristics of particular lenses, how they manifest this quality at different apertures. But at least in the English language, in my reading, I’ve never come across much on the philosophical or even spiritual aspects of this aspect photographs created with certain wide aperture lenses in certain ways

Two Dew Drops, One Blue Flag Iris

.

It’s interesting that the word “bokeh” came from Japan, a traditionally Buddhist country. While modern Japan is very westernized in many ways, there is a strong aesthetic tradition that permeates much of the culture, rooted in Zen. While many Japanese people are not practicing meditators, the philosophy based on meditation and Buddhist teachings still has a strong sway even in these modern times of technology and materialism — technology that can create consumer lenses with certain characteristics. Oddly enough, I wrote a paper on the influence of Zen on Japanese culture and aesthetics in high school, in about 1974. I had forgotten about that paper and studying this topic, until sitting at the keyboard right now. Back then I didn’t have a strong understanding of Buddhism — though I studied it for that paper — and really what it means at a deep level that can permeate everything. I was just interested in it and drawn to the aesthetic, even then as a mid-teenager. Weird.

The aesthetic I’m talking about, of course, is art that places the importance of negative space as an equal, or even more important component of the composition, as the “subject” of the artwork. One famous example of this is the Enso calligraphy of Zen though of course it shows up in countless examples of oriental art. I think it’s less obvious in the Ukiyo-e prints, but the use of negative space is often very important there as well.

I think it’s also interesting that some Japanese lenses seem to have good bokeh or amazingly excellent bokeh, as part of their design, while fewer German lenses (I’m looking at you, Zeiss) might in general be better at sharpness and contrast and in general not quite drawing the out of focus areas quite as beautifully. Though there are of course exceptions; for example this image was made with a vintage Zeiss lens that surprised me in rendering such beautiful out of focus areas. I don’t know Leica lenses, but I guess they are an exception to my cultural rule.

In high school when I studied and observed the influence of Zen on culture, I really had no idea, just a hunch. And for years and years I had no idea at a deep level. After many long meditation retreats and thousand of hours sitting in meditation, I have had some understanding of what is going on here. (I am still far short of the 10,000 hours of meditation practice that some neuroscientists, I think Richard Davidson is one, say is the threshold where the brain really changes pretty drastically, and even shows unique qualities in FMRI machines. The two “happiest men in the world,” Matthieu Ricard and Mingyur Rinpoche, have been studied extensively along with some monks associated the Dalai Lama, showing that over 10,000 hours is a real change point).

I had an experience in one long meditation retreat a decade ago, which lasted for the rest of that retreat, and then has become more reliable over the decade since then, with more retreats and more practice. That experience was in seeing “emptiness,” or Shunyata as it was called in early Buddhist languages. My Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher, a real meditation master also is prone to talk about “space” as well. He once joked, “I’m not talking about made-in-India space. I’m talking about made-in-space space!” So what I experience quite a bit of the time is a shifting allegiance, shifting between what is there, and what is not as apparently sold, between a thing, a thought, an experience — and the space around it. In the case of a mental or emotional experience, which of course is our whole life, the “space around it” is a cognizance bigger than a mere thought or emotion. In that first breakthrough retreat, I conceptualized it as being like one of those figure-ground shifting images, like this one. It is two faces. It is a vase. It all depends on whether you have perceptual allegiance to the foreground or the background, the white or the black.

Figure Ground Paradox Vase Two Faces

(I should be clear that in Buddhist teachings what I’m talking about here as “space” is not merely the negative aspect of matter or thought or whatever. It is all-encompassing, and includes all. So my two-vases/face example is to me more about a shift of allegiance rather than a literal positive/negative. “Space” in this context means an allegiance to everything, the solid, and the not solid, matter and space; all of it.)

This is most important when working with the mind, and I think meditation is the best way to develop this capacity. In the west, therapy can often also facilitate the cultivation of this kind of shift, because the therapist is hopefully helping provide a bigger view beyond what we normally think of as the “solid” aspects of our cognition, perception, and emotional experience. Experiencing nature, or perhaps religion, can also be some sort of access to a sense of space, but most of our experience in the west falls short of a Buddhist understanding of space or emptiness. This capacity is extremely important when working with emotions. When the emotional experience is all there is, then we often suffer from it, or cause others to suffer. The point is that the thought or emotion is just an isolated event, with little actual substance, like a drop of dew — an isolated not-even-really-a-thing that is surrounded by space. Like the dewdrop, it has very little actual substance, and certainly no permanence. While I think art that manifests this quality is often profound in itself, it may be more significant that it is pointing to something bigger, a truth, an experience that is more important and profound than art.

I think since I’ve been meditating more seriously, over the last 15 years, my photography has changed quite a bit, but gradually. And I think it’s only more recently that I have a lot more comfort shifting between the figure and the ground, between what is there and what is not there in a conventional sense. Though in another sense, the ground represents something that is more real than what we normally take as real. That is an exploration I will leave for the reader.