Zen and the Art of Photography

Zen and the Art of Photography

Blame it on Henri Cartier-Bresson

A couple months ago I read a biography book about famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. They mentioned another book that was really the beginning for HCB in his search for the decisive moment. That really ticked my curiosity and I decided to look for this hard to find little book titled “Le Zen dans l’art chevaleresque du tir à l’arc” or “Zen in the art of archery“ by E. Herrigel (Bungaku Hakushi), with an intro by Professor D.T. Suzuki and translated from German "Zen In der kunst des bogenschiessens”. After some research I finally found a little shop selling this book through Amazon and I ordered it right away.

For some reasons I wanted to be “ready” for this book, so I waited until I had some quality time available for it and it’s only today, more than a year later, that I decided to give it all my attention. I knew in advance it was this kind of thing that requires quietness, peace of mind and openness to be receptive. It’s a short read with only 106 pages but I savoured every single word of it. The author describes all the steps you need to go through in archery, but not from a technical point of view (that belongs to archery as a discipline or sport). Instead he describes what is happening in the mind of the archer in search of zen, considering the act of archery more as a spiritual ceremony.

Throughout the book I made the link to photography and the decisive moment best described by HCB as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” There is quite a lot to learn from this book if we make a parallel with any of our favorite activity or leisure. As long as it is something we want to execute perfectly, with all our love and attention. It’s got to be perfect, mindfully executed, regardless of the result, because the result as a performance is not important. It’s the process of doing things with dedication and respect that counts and makes us grow.

Just do it, no expectations

Another aspect I found revealing and inspiring is about expectations and goals. By focusing on what the result should be, or if we are doing it the right way, we slow down our creativity by imposing unnecessary pressure and fear of failure. That’s not how art should be. And it’s unfortunately the reality for many artists who do not allow enough space and freedom for their creativity. Of course it is easier to say then done, but the truth is if you create something without self-imposed limits, the results will be incredibly better. The rest will follow. That alone, as an artist, is worth it’s weight in gold. Just slow down, enjoy what you’re doing, do it with all your hearth and expect nothing more than personal satisfaction for doing it.

One last interesting comment I read from Master Kenzo Awa is about success and failure. He says it’s a known fact that we should never be sad because of our failures. And inversely, there is no reason for us getting excited by our successes! Going back and forth between those two emotions is counterproductive and we should instead train ourselves to recognise and appreciate success as if it was reached by someone else, and then move on.

Wait, there is more

I strongly recommend this book to anyone, whatever you’re doing, any discipline, and any level. Professor D.T. Suzuki, who did the intro, is also the author of a very popular book titled “Essais sur le bouddhisme Zen” (french) or “Essays in Zen Buddhism” (english) . There are 3 tomes and I found a copy on Amazon that includes all of them into one book (1248 pages!). I’m ordering it as soon as I’m done writing this post for the blog. Hmmm.. Photography as never been so inspiring! How can’t I just want to grab my Leica and go out shooting?

And BTW, If you have read my recent post on Matcha, just to let you know this present post has been mostly written with it. Everything went fine except one little glitch with text disappearing. I isolated this issue to be related to Dropbox sync documents only. Saving the text file locally to the iPad fixed it right away. I suspect the syncing module in Matcha is a bit flaky for now and I’ll wait for the next release to confirm that.

O.K., now let's go online and order a copy of "Essais sur le bouddhisme Zen" by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki.

Good Light!


© Normand Primeau