Beauty and Other Matters
I have been writing an essay that
addresses beauty, Zen, and photography. What follows below
are my often disjointed thoughts and musings with a smattering
of quotations stirred in. More questions are raised than
answered, which of course makes it much more interesting,
at least to me. I am trying less to prove a point than to
dab at a fresco and gaze for awhile at the richness of color.
To begin, study about Zen should
never be confused with practicing Zen, just as studying
aesthetics should not be confused with being an artist.
This is a truth that I repeatedly forget and remember. The
universe is a warm thing that the stone cold intellect cannot
Is beauty cool or warm?
Through art, we pursue beauty.
Is photography art?
An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual
What is a photographer?
Anyone with a camera can take a picture.
Not everyone with a camera is a photographer.
When I decided to be a photographer,
I had no camera.
So for awhile I became a photographer who took no pictures.
Perhaps this is the best of all ways to begin.
am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording,
Isherwood was the camera. Ignore
the little box before my eyes as you did the man behind
the curtain. The great and powerful Oz was nothing but a
technical creation. Images abound. Say cheese and wade into
the stream of consciousness, the stream of logic. Wittgenstein
loved the flicks; images at 24 frames per second. Thoughts
float through, but beauty lingers.
Where does beauty come from? Where does it go?
I pick up the camera. This is techne,
a machine. I hold it to my face. My eye changes. The world
changes. I am gone. I am outside the world looking in. Framing
it. Why? I love beauty. The camera creates an opportunity
for beauty, a chance. I want to help others to not so much
see what I see but rather feel what I feel when the breath
leaves and the beautiful appears in that opening.
You, the model, are the space where
beauty manifests. You look back at me, the photographer,
half is my face, half is a camera. The gaze you feel is
different, for the objective is different. The relationship
changes. It is a quantum truth. I need your help. Your side
is warmth. My side is techne. I become a conduit to transfer
the beauty of you to a photograph.
Human life is about relationships,
to each other, to ourselves, to trees, clouds, dogs, and
fields, everything. How is that relationship? What does
it feel like? There is me to you. That is one thing. Then
there is me to camera to you, that is another thing. A camera
is a tool that I use to understand you.
The portrait is personal, a reflection.
But who is the subject of the photograph? Is she also the
object? Do the subject and the object become one? “Just
words,” says the Roshi, but whose eyes peer out of
With apologies to Wallace Stevens:
The camera and the eye are one.
The camera, the eye, and the subject are one.
While many would argue that the perception
of a woman as beautiful reduces her to the status of a “thing,”
I believe that beauty should be considered as a kind of
communication – an interaction between two beings.
The surface of the model enters the depths of the viewer.
It is a communication, a conversation. In attributing beauty
to a thing what we are actually experiencing is a special
relation between it and ourselves. We discover it as valuable,
meaningful, pleasurable. In this interchange, the one found
beautiful is honored with a wondrous gift – the attribute
Strike – tear down, as theater
Pose – to ask, as a question
Thus, to strike a pose is to eliminate
the question. How? By sitting, by looking at the camera.
A modeling session is a sitting, as is a meditation session.
You don’t sit for me or yourself, you sit to create,
as an effort toward the beautiful.
Zen and Photography?
I created a studio after having no
doubt taken far too few photographs. To say that is the
“Zen of Photography” is too clever a response,
it rings with the hollowness of too many popularizations
that toss an intentionally obscuring “Zen” into
their title. But I have looked and looked and looked. What
have I seen?
For the Native American, the photograph
is shunned for it is believed to trap her soul. Beauty moves
the soul, but to where? For the Zen adept, there is no soul
to trap, no photo, and not even a camera. I ask the Roshi
are Zen and photography the same or different. He reaches
across to my camera and releases the shutter.
Degas said he didn’t paint
what he saw, but what would enable people to see the thing
he had. The goal of photography as I practice it is to capture
a moment that people cannot always see, even if they are
looking right at it. Capture what cannot be captured; beauty
that exists but we rarely notice. Is that Zen?
On intro night at the Zen center,
“What is Zen” is adroitly danced around. A koan
tells of a man hung by his teeth from a pine branch over
an abyss. His hands were tied. Exhaustion would soon force
him to unclench, and fall free to eternity. But in the meantime
a stranger came along the clifftop above his head, bent
down, and whispered in his ear the question: What is Zen?
I have viewed a few
photos (and created even fewer) that have taken my breath
away. They could be considered intoxicating, truly beyond
words. Perhaps here lies the Zen, or at least as close as
I can get. I cannot help but think that the image is somehow
closer than the word to the ineffable suchness. “Not
closer,” says the Roshi. “Finger pointing at
the moon. Finger is finger.”
The Grace of Philosophy: An Interlude
(certainly a goddess)
unclothed body is autobiography.
--Billy Collins 'Winter
In the East, “dakini”
is a female spirit who accompanied the gods at the highest
levels. In Tibet, she was seen as naked, symbolic of unveiled
In the West, it is Aphrodite who
manifests a passionate corporeality. She is divinity in
shape itself. What is on the surface is her essence; her
face reveals no thought beyond the present. Her true appearance
is beauty, and that beauty is not a means to something else.
Appearance itself is all that is necessary when perceived
through the aesthetic eye unmediated by concept. Cleanse
the doors of perception, according to Blake.
Aphrodite’s beauty unites the
erotic and the sacred, the primal and the spiritual, matter
and spirit. For Plato, the desire to participate in and
enjoy beauty grows more and more spiritual until it is focused
on pure being and has little to do with physical beauty
anymore. When I relate this to the Roshi he begins to sweep
the garden path.
is the beauty of spirit.”
For Plato, the forms were perfection.
According to the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness
To judge something beautiful, is
both emotional and intellectual. Seeing (intellect) vs.
feeling (emotion) beauty. “Are you at Two with the
universe?” asks the Roshi, smiling. Aesthetics is
less a discipline of philosophy than a way of being.
the miracle is that the world exists.”
By definition, photography is painting
Photography is eye poetry.
Photography is an art of waiting.
Photography is a practice, a process,
as is Zen.
The snapping is the instant, the experience, the fruition.
The image is created in the present.
The image is enjoyed in the present, always the present.
When you “take” pictures,
to where do you take them?
Wonder is the famous Socratic moment
of knowing one’s ignorance, of realizing one does
My reading of philosophy is incomplete.
My reading of psychology is incomplete.
But I look,
And I feel,
And I am moved to create.
I think I know what
But because I think,
I cannot know
That this essay has no pictures is
not a lost irony.
[For clarity I have eliminated most
citations; this is a work in progress.
No misrepresentation is intended.]