Yugen Studio


On 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 understand.

Is beauty cool or warm?
Through art, we pursue beauty.
Is photography art?
An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world.
What is a photographer?

Camera, Beauty, Sitting

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.

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
--Christopher Isherwood

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 the image?

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 of beauty.

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.”


Aphrodite: The Grace of Philosophy: An Interlude

“dea certe!”
(certainly a goddess)

The unclothed body is autobiography.
--Billy Collins '
Winter Syntax’

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 truth.

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.

“Art is the beauty of spirit.”
--Ken Wilber

For Plato, the forms were perfection.
According to the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

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.

“Aesthetically, the miracle is that the world exists.”

Photography is Now

By definition, photography is painting with light.
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 not know.

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 I know.
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.]