Category Archives: Rain

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.

Water Lily After Rain, 2018

black and white wet morning glory after rain

I may have mentioned, it’s been a busy summer, including some travel and doing a lot of work for the Post Pond photos show in Lyme NH. I used my camera a fair amount, but I didn’t deal with any of the image files at all. I just put them on disk as the summer tore along, and even the initial bifurcation process that determines the backup strategy (for better vs maybe less good images) wasn’t even done. So I hadn’t even backed up about half the summer’s camera work until today. (I need to rework my backup strategy, as any bottleneck in the way of getting it done quickly and regularly it is not OK.)

Going through the images, I found a lot more good images than I remembered. Good to have something to look forward to: sorting them out, bringing them out into the world.

Usually an image that makes it onto the site, into print, goes through a rather long process. I have ways to bounce even moderately good images back into my memory over and over, and I cull out the ones I don’t want to see again. Usually an image needs to haunt me for a while, sometimes to literally enter my dreams. For example one of this summer’s images was in my dreams last night, and so I might work on presenting that one next. Or something might bump into the line ahead of it.

This one though, pop! I saw it, saw it’s potential. (asked my wife, my second eyes, who agreed). It needed a crop to a 4×5 aspect ratio to really work. Tonally, it needed just enough contrast to pop and have the tones and forms create their pattern in a distinctive way, without losing the subtlety of tone. A little tricky, that.

This was exposed through a somewhat legendary vintage manual lens, Olympus OM 50/2, which is not one I would have picked for this exposure. It’s a lens with only a six bladed aperture, which produces some of the most beautiful of lens renderings when it works out, and some of the worst when it doesn’t. Usually it can be very nice wide open but not so nice stopped down past f4. This was stopped down. I was walking around with just the one prime lens on the camera and not a full bag or two. That I didn’t go get another lens shows I didn’t really see the potential of this exposure. But that’s OK.

I just read some interviews with Saul Leiter, a photographer I love more and more, and especially after reading these interviews. In one interview he said he used the lens he had with him (he of course used single focal-length prime lenses), even when he might have preferred another lens, and that is that. It worked out. He said Picasso did it with paint colors as well, using the paint he had, even when he might have picked another color. Saul Leiter and Picasso worked with what they had, turned the constraints into the working method that succeeded. (In Tibetan Buddhism we say that confusion itself is the path, the only path, to wisdom. How could there be another path than the one we walk on?)

And so it is with life: we have our lenses with which we view the world, our colors, our karma, and it’s not always what we would prefer. To some extent we can change the lenses, change what we are working with, but we have to keep working within limitations of our own tendencies, limitations, resources — and the vagaries of the world. The world does what it pleases, and we work with it as best we can. We don’t always like that, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.

Photography is interesting right now, on the day it is clear that a misogynist, drunk, liar, and probable sexual assaulter will be confirmed to the supreme court. Today when the weight of one attack after another on decency, honesty, values, hope for the American system, fairness for women, kindness for all — a day when that hope seems rather dim. Photography keeps me going on days like these, even when its importance seems diminished by the significance of global and national political disasters — things which will increase the amount of suffering in the world, for sure. After I heard that Susan Collins would vote to confirm the scumbag Kavanaugh, I went out with my cameras for a bit.

How to respond to this crisis of our time?

I think there are a lot of reasonable responses, including political activism. Sorry if I lose the few Republicans that are reading right now as fans, but: everyone vote. If you care about decency and you are in the US, vote for Democrats; vote in the midterm elections.

Besides voting, and even if you aren’t going to vote for a Democrat, the best thing you can do is to cultivate your own intelligence, compassion, openness, clarity of mind, kindness. Feel the anger that is natural when things we hold dear are falling apart, but don’t let that anger control your behavior. Sure, we feel anger, but let it pass through like a wave. Work with the world we are given as best you can. Walk the path of confusion in such a way that it manifests as wisdom and clarity. I do that with meditation, and my practice of photography is not by any means a substitute for meditation, but it helps. So I keep on.

You, a fan of photography, or if you found this by being a fan of waterlilies — look! Open! Appreciate this beautiful world, and see the light inside the dark.

Famous Purple Raincoat; Fuchsias in Spring Greenhouse

Pink Fuchsias, Purple Raincoat, Greenhouse

As much as I try to know my gear and what it will do, this image was a delightful surprise.

I think of my lenses — almost all prime (not zoom) and manual focus, often vintage — in two broad categories: Zeissy or Anti-Zeiss. As I may have mentioned before the Zeissy lenses are aggressively sharp and contrasty, often generally at the expense of smooth rendering. I’ve been surprised before, as in the success of this image of lights in a botanic garden at night. But generally the Zeissy lenses are not what I think of when I want something smooth and dreamy.

I was out on errands, and my bag had only these sharp and aggressively contrasty lenses in it. On this rainy dreamy day, I found myself in the soft light of a greenhouse and wanted a rather dreamier rendering. I tried a lens I’ve had for about four months, and I thought I knew it. It’s an old Zeiss Contax G film-era lens, which, in my experience, is one of the sharpest and most aggressively contrasty lenses I own. I decided to try it at wide aperture and hope for the best. The viewfinder looked good.

When I looked at the file, I was surprised at the smooth dreamy rendering. In fact, I liked the image so much I decided to go back to this and other greenhouses with some of my “bokeh” smooth lenses to get an even better image. I may have managed that; maybe not. I think for what I wanted of this image, this old lens pulled through surprisingly well!

New Ice and Rain, 2013 II

new ice and rain, vermont

About this time of year, about this kind of weather. Yes, late November has its own beauty. That year, 2013, there was more ice on our pond though. This year, 2016, of course has been record warmth, and that seems to be continuing.

This image is funny, because its big sister has been out in the world catching eyes for some years now.
new ice and rain, vermont
It has sold prints, gotten into juried exhibitions; it is even collected by a museum. But somehow today’s image, made at the same time, never caught my eye until now. In part this appreciation has come about with a shift to the full frame digital camera a year ago, and the use of premium vintage lenses with nice bokeh over the last six months. Which is to say that I have a greater appreciation for areas of an image that are not in focus, not covered by the depth of field. I like images with shallower depth of field a lot more than I used to, and in fact I’ve been making images with razor thin depth of field with beautiful bokeh as a lot of my work these days.

I guess I thought the not-quite-sharp foreground and background were more of a problem with this image than the other one. Glad I didn’t delete the file. We don’t always appreciate the best until we evolve, sometimes. Not positive, only time will tell, but I think it’s as good as its companion, in a different way.

This image is available as a print here:

http://www.lehet.com/photo/details/new_ice_and_rain_gsc_1418.html

Japanese Iris During/After Rain, Waterlilies

Japanese Iris and Waterlilies

It’s always a mysterious process how I end up creating and selecting what may be the best of my photos (or the mystery may in fact be so deep that the best ones go unpublished). Sometimes everything just comes together — bam! — the way people think photography works. “I just go click.” Umm, not so often, but sometimes sorta, if I’m well prepared.

In this case I had a concept in my mind, which of course made everything hard. I had seen that Japanese Iris blooming on the bank of the pond, so big and saturated and dancing in and out of dapples of light. Of course I photographed it. But when we had a stretch of rainy weather in June, I got this idea. I don’t know if the composition is really influenced by Ukiyo-e (Floating World) woodblock prints of Japan. I’ve spent lots and lots of time viewing those prints, online and in person, and I think I’ve internalized some of the style.

So, unfortunately, I had something in my mind as I kept going back and squatting in the weeds in the rain and just-after rain and trying different lenses and apertures. I made a lot of exposures, and a lot of them were good; though there were many flavors of the composition — different rain and different depth of field and lens character.

Here are two of the many, the same scene, different flavors. After the rain

Japanese Iris and Waterlilies

These images can be viewed in a cleaner and higher resolution presentation, and they are for sale as prints:

Japanese Iris in Rain

After Rain