Category Archives: Musings

Hope, Fear, and Photography in Pandemic Time

Couple at Boudhanath, Nepal
Couple at Boudhanath Stupa, 2013

In the Tibetan Buddhist context in which I practice, hope and fear are considered to be essentially two sides of the same coin. I don’t know the original Pali Canon teachings well enough to know if the teaching goes all the way back through Buddhist history. I assume so.

From the point of view of ego clinging, hope and fear are so closely related they might as well be the same thing.

To be clear, this is not about the kind of hope that might be connected with a larger view of compassion:
May all beings have happiness and the root of happiness
May all beings be free of suffering and its causes
etc

Compared to greater aspirations of compassion, normal hope is inextricably connected to apprehension. I want things to work out for me. I don’t want to lose what I have. The “I” in those sentences is doing a lot of work. There is a kind of an “I” that Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls the “Mere I,” but our normal “I” is more or less made out of hope and fear. The hope that I get what I want and get to keep everything together is essentially the same as the fear that I will lose it, not get what I want. Take a step back and they are the same, but get caught in them and they seem to have very different flavors. Being caught in hope or fear obliterates a greater awareness, a bigger view, whichever flavor manifests. 

So now in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the balance has shifted from hope toward fear in general. Certainly it has for me. By now the fear is less acute — social distancing has helped a lot and in general we feel safer than we did at first, maybe, depending on where we live, our situation. 

When I’m not caught in the fear of our current time — and make no mistake, sometimes I am — I find it’s oddly a bit helpful to have shifted a little bit from hope, at least in my photography.

I may have mentioned that some of the most fruitful times in my development as a photographer have been in times when I had little hope that making exposures would yield anything, when working with a camera was more of a pure exploration, more like play. I think most of my worst pictures were from the time I was most serious, when I used a view camera and big film and worked in my own darkroom. Though I have well over a hundred pounds of silver-infused paper and film, I have few images made that way posted on my website now. By contrast I made great progress in the time when I had no darkroom and digital cameras were new and sucked so badly that there was no chance of making a great print or selling something from that work. It was freeing and fun. As digital cameras got better, and then really good, the continuum of hope-for-success has shifted with the quality. And make no mistake, with the better cameras and the better (and sometimes quite old) lenses I’m using now, better results are easier to come by. I just have to keep some sense of that freedom, stepping back from some kind of hope for fruition. Right now, with the world imploding, that hope is easier to let go of.

Hope does sometimes put wind in the sails, it keeps one going. In a pursuit like photography — a mix of the worldly and the realm of light and mind and awareness —  hope sometimes makes the whole thing possible on a long term basis. But it also blocks the light of open possibility. Hope stands in front of the lens like a big oaf. Hope gets behind you like a big oaf and gives you a shove forward. It’s up to us to keep our balance after that shove, to move so it’s not blocking our vision.

Now, in this dark time, all the galleries are closed. Who knows when they will be open, when people will feel brave enough to go in them and have money to spend on prints? And still I work on photography, more free from the burden of hope. Sometimes I spend time — lots and lots of hours these days pass uncounted — hiding from the fear in the realm of glowing pixels, looking through my lightroom catalog, seeing what potential I can tease out of images already exposed. 

I care less about the current state of art photography. I am enjoying making beautiful photos these days, though I make other kinds. But what I need, and what I’m happy to bring into the world, is something very beautiful. It’s a different emphasis for sure.

I think of “How to Cook Your Life,” the Zen book by Uchiyama and Dogen. 

In this book, after some discussion of how food might be prepared by the cook in the monastery,  Uchiyama describes the existential situation. We don’t know what will happen in the night, and yet the cook prepares for the meal the next day.

“In preparing the meal for the following day as tonight’s work, there is no goal for tomorrow being established. Yet our direction for right now is clear: prepare tomorrow’s gruel. Here is where our awakening to the impermanence of all things becomes manifest, while at the same time our activity manifests our recognition of the law of cause and effect.”

Right now we really don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We keep working if we can.

Working in the Face of Change and Death

Birches and Fall Foliage, wide aperture

These times — facing the pandemic — are shaking everything up. As with all suffering, the sharp point of this current period in the world brings us to change, uncertainty, a lot of emotional material, and literally existential questions — and the chance for a kind of waking up. Any of us might die from this COVID-19 virus unless we are children. We might lose parents or other loved ones. We face economic catastrophe. Everything we have known is subject to change, and that change is upon us.

To this Buddhist, that paragraph above is not so far out of the ordinary view of things: everything is impermanent, subject to change. Our solid sense of the world is a delusion; it is all more like sand than rock. We could die at any time. Still, facing change of this magnitude is in fact different for most of us. To paraphrase Pema Chodron — I don’t remember which talk or book this comes from — “We all know we are going to die. But it’s different when you are really facing it.”

So what do we do, what do I do, facing this degree of change and uncertainty, fear, anger, and other strong emotions? In part, we keep on through the day, doing what we need to do. We practice kindness as much as possible. But it’s also important to feel what we feel to the extent of our capacity. The emotional states triggered by our current situation of an unstoppable pandemic are not going to be pleasant, but it’s also important to appreciate moments that are OK. The waking up opportunity of a time like this, as all times, is in the balance between experiencing fully to the extent of our capacity while not going numb in overwhelm or denial.

In my life there have been some extended breaks in which I have thrown myself into the pursuit of samsara, lost my pursuit of awakening. But really, waking up has been my life’s work, and I’ve tried to impart this transmission to everyone. As a parent, I almost always tried to keep a view that I was passing along a flame of awareness. In all my relationships I try to keep a sense of awakeness. I am beyond grateful for everyone in my life who has been willing to share this awake presence with me. Anyway, this moment brings me to a point. I’m trying to be fully aware before I die.

This is a photography blog, and I am a photographer. So what am I doing in this realm? Outlet for my work is very minimal, with a contracting economy, gallery visits down to near zero. Throughout last year I worked with great purpose toward putting prints into the physical world. This time is different. I don’t work on a piece with the sense that it will be hanging on a wall soon. I just do it.

I have more time to devote to the “darkroom” side of my work, time I didn’t have while printing, framing, and matting. I am working like mad. And for what purpose? Because it is what I do, what I do best. And I think the new work is getting better very quickly in this time of the sharp-point.

Doing the photography is a bit funny. According to my beliefs, my practice, we should fully feel, experience life fully. But this is sometimes too much for me. The news is dark, I am angry at our leaders for not taking timely action and for lying to us, which has led to this being a catastrophe from which many Americans will die. I am furious that Trump did not take action when he first knew, adopting an approach of wishful thinking instead of decisive and informed action. I am afraid I will lose people I love, that I will not get to see my friends for an extended period — and maybe never again. I am frustrated that there is so little I can do to help the world. So yes, it is important to feel these things, but also it is good to take a break from them. I lose myself in my work, long periods refining my Lightroom catalog and working on images in photoshop. It’s part of the balance, being awake — but not being overwhelmed.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long. I’m excited about my new work. I’m working on a lot more of it. I’m grateful to all who have shared my spark of awareness and put theirs next to mine. Two matches together make a bigger flame. May you all be well.

Cattails in Rain, Panorama crop

Exciting New Project – “Semi-panos”

I’ve been rather pent up in creating new work. I’ve been working with a camera quite a bit less in recent months as I’ve been so busy with production, with the business of selling photographs. However, my method of “tickling” interesting images from my catalog is relentless, popping images into my awareness and compelling some attention.

I’ve done panoramas for several years, compelled at first by the prospect of getting more resolution from my early digital cameras, and also to include broad landscapes in places like Iceland. I printed them large, both because I had the resolution and often the sense of space demanded it. It made a canvas with opportunity to create both a sense of big space and also a play with negative space, emptiness. Here are a few of my panoramas that have made great big prints and demonstrating these principles:

One Cow, Thirteen Haybales, Iceland
One Cow Thirteen Haybales, Iceland

and

Rock Puddle and Connecticut River Foliage Reflections Panorama

But besides my approach to panoramas that is more “traditional” to photography, I have, since I can remember, appreciated panoramas in Oriental art. I think some of that comes through in both of these, the negative space in the top one, the overall composition of the bottom one.

Both Chinese and Japanese art has understood for millenia that a panorama image affords a different kind of visual pattern from a rectangular image. The eye moves differently, and therefore so does the mind, the emotional resonance. It’s easy to find:

Chinese

and Japanese (Hiroshige):

Hiroshige Woodblock

In the above, Hiroshige example, another important point is introduced: a vertical panorama composition. Very effective in a lot of oriental art.

So, the thing I’ve been working on is that since I’ve had high resolution cameras, I have enough resolution to create a panorama without stitching multiple exposures. I can re-vision images that I made as a rectangular image. And of course in photography all I can capture is the rectangle, even if what I see of interest is a square or a more narrow area of interest or composition, a sub-rectangle. I don’t print these as large. I’m calling them “semi-panos” to designate that they are from one file, whether a medium or high resolution file. I won’t print them as large — some of my panoramas could be quite large, especially with my newer large format printer. But what I’m working on is more intimate, and will be printed smaller.

I’ve already printed a few in the last year:

New Ice and Birch Reflections Semi-Pano
Eight Birch Reflections, Autum, Leaf Splash Circle

I don’t have these below for sale on the site, or really fully realized in many cases, but I’m growing a large collection I’ve already cropped and flagged to work on. In process:

Weeds

Jewelweed, Monarda, Dew
Jewelweed, Mondarda, Dew

I’ve been fascinated by weeds for a long time, as a gardener, as a landowner, as a meditator. Weeds pop up with such exuberance, live in spite of all odds with strength and fortitude. We might consider them “bad,” but that is just a matter of perspective. They are often very beautiful in their way, and have virtue whether growing or as compost.

The photo above features the mid summer phase of Jewelweed, also known as “touch me not” because of it’s exploding seed pods. I remember seeing it at my grandmother’s farm as a child; back then it was both beautiful to me and providential, as it grew along the shady creeks I used to like to explore while looking for salamanders and frogs. In the right kind of ground and a bit of shade, it grows like mad. It is extremely beautiful in all phases of its life, with leaves that collect dew in an interesting way, luminous semi-transparent stems, and orange flowers with different phases from bud to seed. I wonder if I would plant it on purpose if it didn’t come up on its own. Of course it is a weed, we must pull most of it, even if we’ll never get it all. And then in the background of this photo the clear red in the background is Monarda, Bee Balm, which we consider a garden plant and not technically a weed. You can buy Bee Balm at the garden center. But it is as weedy as the jewelweed. They both create a beautiful display with only the effort of keeping them somewhat contained and not displacing more fragile forms of life.

As a gardener, of course, I fight weeds, but it is co-existence more than a battle I win. I will never eradicate all weeds. I only have so much time, strength, and stamina to cut and pull them. So there are always weeds in my garden. And as a photographer, sometimes I consider them to be a blessing as well as a curse. They can be beautiful in their way. I have also come to bad places by indulging weeds for too long, letting them slide because they have beauty. My garden now is plagued with years worth of seeds from White Campion and Johnny Jump Ups, plants I considered to be harmless and beautiful. I did not fight them much for some years, so they have put down so many seeds and are really hard to eradicate. I now I consider them a higher priority ongoing problem.

As a long term meditator I also have dealt with the idea of “mind weeds.” I remember reading a passage from Suzuki Roshi a long time ago, long before I really knew what he was talking about. If you work with an awareness practice directly with mind for a while, it is clear though. We want some kind of purity of mind, but what we encounter is instead our actual mind, often more like a monkey’s mind than any ideal one might start out with. The Suzuki Roshi quote comes from a talk in 1965: “We say ‘pulling out the weed’.  We make it nourishment of the plant.  We pull the weed and bury the weed near the plant to make it nourishment of the plant.  So even though you have some difficulty in your practice….even though you have some waves while you are sitting, those weeds itself will help you.  So we should not be bothered by the weeds you have in your mind.  We should be rather grateful to the weeds you have in your mind because eventually will enrich your practice.” A version of this came up later, from Chogyam Trungpa, just as provocative; at the time I first heard it, I also didn’t know exactly what the meaning was behind his pithy words: “No neurosis, no enlightenment.” Really he is saying something a lot like his friend Suzuki Roshi. Our actual life, our actual experience is the path. There is no other path.

The idea in working with mind, as in a garden, as in all of our life — where unwanted circumstances always arise with the vigor of weeds — we take this all as the path itself. There is no other life than this imperfect life, no other garden than this one with weeds.

The Continuing Evolution of Printing and Seeing

Hawaii Wave and Mist

This is one of the oldest digital images on my site, and I’ve finally developed my eye and abilities to print it in a way that pleases me very much. When I look back at the time after I made this exposure, over a dozen years ago, this digital file serves as a sort of signpost, stationary through moving time and change. It’s the same image, but everything has changed, including how the image manifests on paper.

At the time I opened the shutter, seasick on a boat, to let some Hawaiian misty light onto that relatively crude DSLR sensor, I was a different photographer and a very different printer. I probably see everything differently from that time — my vision has developed overall along with my mind and life and practices. But my printing has developed quite a lot; I hesitate to say it has changed the most of all in my photography of all the ways I see.

When I was new at digital printing I got a high-ish end Epson pro grade printer and some fine art paper. I was looking for sharpness. I did not yet have good control of color, of how to get the color in my mind and on the screen to show up on the paper. Besides the technical details of evolving a color managed workflow, I think it had to do with fear. I was wasting expensive paper and ink, and rarely getting it right, so I lacked courage to just assert my vision. It’s a little hard to explain, but if you look at Van Gogh’s brush strokes up close in a museum, they are very brave. I had some courage before that in the darkroom, but probably not as much as I have now. Early ink-jet printing I had very little courage.

Early in my photography I had an epiphany about the malleability of photography as a medium. I was in college, working a very little bit in the college pottery in stolen moments and the darkroom in other stolen moments, and also as extra curricular reading trying to understand a book about the Zone System for black and white photography. Maybe the book wasn’t so good. Partly, as a Dartmouth student, it was hard to find bandwidth in stolen moments like that. Then one night I had a dream where the negative was conflated with the pottery clay — it was malleable like that, could be bent and worked. It was like I could smush the tones around with my fingers. Darkroom photography is far less tangibly squishy than digital photography is — you have to work methodically for any departures from defaults. I think that dream changed everything. Sometimes that happens in my photography — I’l have a dream about something strange that is in the realm of photography, and then I see differently. I still have a back-burner project I’m working on based on a dream with yellows and form and texture a few years ago.

A couple of years later from that struggle with the zone system I did a workshop with Ansel Adam’s then-assistant, John Sexton, where we got to learn Ansel’s technique and see prints of his develop from straight print all the way through final print as he changed paper, chemistry, dodging, and burning. So I worked that way in the darkroom after that more than I had before, the Zone System very clear — with more courage in my brush strokes as it were.

So anyway, over a decade later, I’m revisiting this print above with amazing results. I actually had a print I had made over a decade ago of this image in my tiny office, flopping around clipped to a 16 x 20 mat board, in the way. It wasn’t on the wall, one of those things I just really should put away — it was in the way. But I think I kept it out, maybe, so it could work on me, provoke my dissatisfaction so I could evolve. I was not completely satisfied with it. I liked it, but… but… but…

I guess in some way I had been pulling back the string of a bow. Tension. I was developing my technique and vision. So a couple of weeks ago I just let the arrow fly from that bow and re-imagined the way this gets printed. I don’t know if I kept the old file or remember exactly what I changed in the color and tones, but I know in the printing I moved from a semi-gloss paper, probably the baryta paper I often favor for some prints, to an etching paper surface. Something about the way this Canson Etching paper takes these colors and renders these tones and details. Wow.

Direct Experience, Not Conceptual

Flowering Trees, Tulips, and White Hat
Flowering Trees, Tulips, and White Hat, 2019

I’ve just made some spectacular prints of this new photo on Canson Aquarelle Watercolor paper. The 15 x 20 print is especially drop-dead gorgeous, but they all are good. Purchase here.

One commonality between my practice of photography and practice/experience of Buddhist meditation is a practice and aspiration to experience directly and non-conceptually. This applies to perceptions, emotional experience, logical process, physical sensation. It’s a trick that will take a lifetime. I won’t go into the Buddhist philosophy and practice behind this, assuming you are on the site for photography. And there are better Buddhist teachers than me.

So in photography, a conceptual approach might be fine. Many photographers have succeeded with a conceptual basis for their approach. In my opinion, quite often these often fail. There are photos in major modern photography galleries of, say, a tree with cheese doodles stuck around the trunk with toothpicks. Then in the blurb it will say the artist is exploring the post-industrial relationship to nature, or something like that. It doesn’t work for me, but then they are in those galleries and I am not, and probably won’t be.

I find though that as I work in any situation different levels of conceptual approach, in one way or another, will creep in. I think ideally working with a camera might be like a master jazz musician improvising on an instrument, that kind of transparency, being able to instantly hit the notes without thinking about it. The musician might think, “what if I went into that dark key right here?” — and that is a kind of conceptualizing that works in the service of the playing. I will think, “What if I tried that old Olympus 90 at a wide aperture?” — and I know what kind of a “key” I will be playing in then. You’ve got to think, think on your feet. Just don’t over-think and make it a formula or purely a concept.

So in the case of the photo above, I had gotten to some extent into the conceptual weeds. I was working with this composition: the branch of the flowering tree in the foreground with a shallow depth of field, the tulips and large background flowering tree beyond the focal plane. Trouble is that people kept coming into the composition, sometimes looking good with umbrellas, sometimes with that clunky tourist vibe. I was usually waiting for them to pass out of whatever frame I had. I had come to be pretty boxed in by the concept of what I thought I wanted to be working with. But then this woman popped into my viewfinder — the orange shirt echoing the tulips, looking up, the round hat perfect. I wish I had been able to work more quickly and fluidly with her there. I did what I did, and I was glad to have made this and a few other exposures of that situation.

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.