Zen and the Magic of Photography: Learning to See and to Be through Photography Hardcover – Apr 7 2010
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About the Author
Wayne Rowe is a professional photographer and professor of photography in the Communication Department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He began his career illustrating high school and college textbooks for Harper & Row Publishers, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., and Glencoe/McGraw-Hill. His photographic specialties include interior, product, advertising, travel, and editorial/magazine photography. His editorial and interior photography has appeared in Architectural Digest, Art & Antiques Magazine, California Homes, Holiday Magazine, Interiors Magazine, and Contract Magazine. Dr. Rowe has taught photography in the California State University System for almost 30 years, with teaching specialties in basic photography, lighting, photojournalism, digital photography, and a General Education course in understanding and appreciating the photographic image. His unusual book is based on his hands-on experiences in photography and upon the sudden realization that he had been experiencing Zen through photography and photography through Zen throughout his career without being consciously aware of it. He has written this book to share the source of his photographic creativity and visual awareness with others.
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The author of Zen and the Magic of Photography, Wayne Rowe, is a brave writer to attempt to convey such an ethereal concept to paper. Exploring Zen and Satori and how it is related to exceptional photography isn't easy.
Some of Rowe's primary points:
Zen: Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism, translated from the Chinese word Chán to Japanese. This word is in turn derived from the Sanskrit dhyana, which means "meditation."
Zen emphasizes experiential prajña, particularly as realized in the form of meditation, in the attainment of enlightenment. As such, it de-emphasizes theoretical knowledge in favor of direct, experiential realization through meditation and dharma practice.
The establishment of Zen is traditionally credited to be in China, the Shaolin Temple, by the South Indian Pallava prince-turned-monk Bodhidharma, who came to China to teach a "special transmission outside scriptures" which "did not stand upon words." The emergence of Zen as a distinct school of Buddhism was first documented in China in the 7th century AD. It is thought to have developed as an amalgam of various currents in Mahayana Buddhist thought.
Satori: is a Japanese Buddhist term for "enlightenment." The word literally means "understanding." "Satori" translates as a flash of sudden awareness, or individual enlightenment, and while satori is from the Zen Buddhist tradition, enlightenment can be simultaneously considered "the first step" or embarkation toward nirvana.
Satori is typically juxtaposed with a related term known as kensho, which translates as "seeing one's nature." Kensho experiences tend to be briefer glimpses, while satori is considered to be a deeper spiritual experience. Satori is an intuitive experience and has been described as being similar to awakening one day with an additional pair of arms, and only later learning how to use them.
Studium: According to Barthes, studium is an extension of our field of knowledge and cultural information. It is by studium that we take an interest in photos that refer to a classical body of cultural information . . . ." Studium, Latin. Zeal , eagerness, application, enthusiasm; devotion to, goodwill towards a person or cause; application to learning, study.
Punctum: According to Barthes, punctum "will break or punctuate the studium. Punctum has the power to expand and provoke satori."
Latin term meaning puncture or wound, used by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980), to describe how he feels touched by certain photographs, because of incidental details which trigger emotionally charged personal associations, unrelated to the meaning of photographs as culturally determined.
As a whole, the book is lovely. I was a bit put off in the beginning by British-style punctuation. The periods and commas were outside the quotation marks. In American punctuation, commas and periods are always inside the quotation marks. Rowe also used many ellipses and they were periods with no spacing and three instead of four in the body of a sentence. This may be another British-style convention. Yes, I know this is picayune, but it still bothered me at first. I mean, we are talking about Zen and awareness. Not to worry, after a couple dozen pages, I got over it.
Basic Ideas in the book:
1. Open yourself to the light, images and reality around you.
2. Open yourself to feeling. Look with your capacity to feel and you will experience and become part of the NOW, Reality, Being: the "isness" of the moment. Always follow your feelings.
3.Experiencing real moments will lead you to a culminating moment of Satori'a moment when you hear the light; the image sings; and form content, and feeling are one.
4. You will, by virtue of being in the moment, improve the quality of your art.
5. The more you actively look, the more the action will become intuitive and natural, subconscious and effortless: and that with practice, you eye will be intuitively and subconsciously drown to the light, and the light will be drawn to your eye.
I was especially pleased with the author's style of using detailed illustrations of his ideas. For instance, using a 1955 photo of James, there is an in-depth analysis of the symbolism in the photo. Truly, I've looked at this photo many times in passing and I saw nothing more than the superficial information that I acquired with a quick glance.
When I had finished reading, I saw the photo in a completely different light. In fact, it was as though I was seeing it for the very first time. The ultimate result for me is that I see more thoroughly and compose more carefully. It is an ongoing process.
Rowe discusses his concepts in relationship to many great photographers: W. Eugene Smith, Ansel Adams, Lucien Clergue, Ernest Haas, Edward Weston, Manual Alvarez Bravo, Joel Meyerowitz, Minor White and others. On the other hand, he uses many Pop Culture movie references. In the conclusion of Part II of the book he says, "Zen and the Magic of Photography has stressed the interconnections between three forms of the photographic image: the still photograph, the photo essay, and the motion picture." The author pulls together threads that many photographers may never have considered. Whether or not you agree with all or most of Rowe's conclusions, his ideas and illustrations are provocative and interesting. Admit it, isn't that what we, as artists and craftsmen need, often need the most: fresh ideas, approaches and exciting and inspiring perspectives?
In this diminutive volume, Wayne Rowe has defined for us what we must all strive for when making great images. That is the Zen of the moment. The here and now. Created by what is termed Sartori, or sudden enlightenment, Zen is the capturing of that most important element in the image-making process. Allowing the image to define that point in time as the quintessential moment. The moment of Zen.
To point up the exact opposite of the message of this book, take note around you during your daily rounds and see the people who are talking on the phone or texting someone with little regard as to where they are, who is there with them, or what is going on around them. We witness this phenomenon every day.
As far as timing is concerned, this little book, Zen and the Magic of Photography, is more important than ever. It's almost as if author Wayne Rowe has seized the moment at just the right time in history. It can encourage us to be made aware that we can lose ourselves in the past and future, while giving up the present.
The relationship between still photography and film is, according to our author, inextricably linked. As author Rowe points out in examples of several iconic movies, scenes played by great method actors Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront", and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause", are graphic examples of an artist being in the here and now (Zen). These great actors become part of the scene as though they were actually living the experience in real life, therefore the scene becomes greater than that which was written and directed. Our author has included several scene shots along with explanations of why the scenes work as well as they do. For you film buffs out there, you will be enchanted. For photographers these scenes will create a checklist for you to put up against your own work for comparison and study.
The idea about filming great scenes goes for iconic images created by still photographers who put themselves wholly into the scene they are photographing, looking for enlightenment (Satori). Taking note of small, sometimes mundane, details in the scene along with the larger picture can create moments of Satori, which in turn, creates an image that is greater than the sum of its parts. Our author has included several iconic images with explanations and examples of how and why these images achieve the status they deserve.
The last several pages of the book are dedicated to the author's own images in full page and half page presentations. He invites you to find the Satori and Zen in his work. Wayne Rowe is definitely an excellent photographer as his images attest. His love of photography and recognition of the Zen in this art form are what have driven him to share with us his discovery and understanding of this phenomenon he calls the Zen and the Magic of Photography.
There are many lessons to be learned from this book. The main message is to be yourself, be in the moment, and be true to what you see and especially feel about the images you take. Good advice from a great photographer is something that should never be taken lightly. Will this book help you create better images? We believe it will. Try it and see. What have you to lose?
MyMac rating: 8 out of 10
The author begins with a Zen parable about a man who finds himself in a situation without exit. There is nothing else but wait for the inevitable death. Should he fight a hopeless fight? Should he cry in despair? Should he try an impossible bargain for his life? Instead, the man, seeing a beautifully strawberry, picks one and another and another, enjoying their beauty and taste.
One earlier reviewer of this book had a quarrel with the book's treatment of Zen etc. Who knows--maybe he even had a point if you want to see the book as some textbook representation of Zen. But is there such a thing in the first place? I've never been especially interested in Eastern philosophy, but I always liked its mysticism. I never had much use for such philosophy in epistemology or ontology, even in ethics, but I always liked it when I thought about aesthetics. It remained me of the words of Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras: "Life is like games: some come as wrestlers to fight, others come to enrich themselves selling things, but the best come to watch." Art is like games, too. Some come to wrestle with the matter, some sell their ware, and others watch the arts. The Ancients did not use the words `aesthetic experience,' but they knew the concept. It was watching, it was seeing. For Aristotle it was that moment of enchantment, more, the moment of being hypnotized, as the Odysseus' sailors hypnotized by the Sirens.
Perhaps the `enlightenment' of Zen is not the same as the aesthetic experience described by the Greeks, but in both there is this detachment from the other reality. Intentionally or not, Professor Rowe connects the two by referring to French postmodernist philosopher Roland Barthes' book "Camera Lucida." Barthes divides aesthetic experience into `studium' and `punctum.' The `studium' is the one that appeals to intellect and knowledge. For me that was always the real philosophy, but art is different. It is the `punctum' that counts, that puncture that creates enchantment and aesthetic experience.
In one of the struggles in western philosophy, if I could use Barthes' classification as a metaphor (only as a metaphor), the `studium' is the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment (don't confuse it with the Zen enlightenment). The `punctum' is the Romantic Movement. For the Romantics it was the emotional self-awareness, not the reason that helped man to understand the condition of society and improve it. Although I agree with Bertrand Russell, "man is not a solitary animal, and so long as social life survives, [the Romantic Movement] self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics," I think that perhaps that self-realization can be the supreme principle in art. Art is not a social activity. An aesthetic experience is a solitary act. And so is the act of creation. And if the creation is individualistic, it must depend on the individual's feelings and intuition. Professor Rowe writes about them as inseparable parts of creation. Of course both can lead to traditional photography as much as to avant-garde creations. That would make the definition of art even more difficult. But then again: what is new? Many proposed to abandon altogether the quest for definition of art: "It is an attempt to define what cannot be defined." One could push the boundaries as far, for example, as the proponents of Art Brut did, to recognize the creation of the insane, of the criminal mind, of children. Interestingly, and that should be no surprise, some of the early connections between art and madness were made by the Romantics...
So, the reflections could go on... What exactly is art? What is photography? What is an aesthetic experience? What is creation? I don't think the book was intended to begin a discussion on the key questions of aesthetics, but author's reflections on photography, Zen, satori, etc definitely could lead to such debate.