Author: Wayne Rowe
Publisher: Rocky Nook
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
In the first Star Wars movie, Luke Skywalker is piloting a rebel aircraft through enemy fire to deliver the bomb that will destroy the Deathstar. He hears the voice of the Jedi Knight, Obi Wan Kenobi telling him to “use the force” and “let go”. Luke turns off the targeting computer and, following his instincts, accomplishes the mission. I always regarded the instruction as a slightly satirical or ironic comment upon the eastern mysticism, religions and philosophies that guided Luke’s training.
At least since World War II, a segment of the American population has been concerned with finding the way to some kind of perfection through the religions and philosophies of the Far East. Popular interest grew with Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” and more traditional forms were discovered in the pamphlet “Zen in the Art of Archery.” This book was followed by a flurry of “Zen in the Art of…” books, including even “Zen in the Art of the SAT.” There was a best-selling novel called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” even though the story turned not on an interpretation of Zen Buddhism, but rather an interpretation of a book by Plato. Quite often the principles of Zen were wrapped up with the philosophy of the Tao.
The goals of Zen included reaching a state of satori or enlightenment. Satori is similar to what the late Joseph Campbell, author of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, referred to as an epiphany. It might be described quickly as being one with the universe, although it is so much more. To reach this state in Zen, one practices meditation and studies koans, which are stories from the history of Zen. Unfortunately finding satori requires a behavior and outlook significantly different from that found in Western, Type A society.
Now in “Zen and the Magic of Photography”, Wayne Rowe tries to tell us about the application of Zen to photography. Rowe searches a wide range of arts quoting sources as diverse as the poet Rimbaud and movie director Nicholas Ray. He cites Philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr’s I-Thou philosophy and public intellectual Roland Barthes’ distinction concerning photographic impact between stadium and punctum, in some effort to identify satori. Few students of either Niebuhr or Barthes would be likely to follow this road. He also relies heavily upon the analysis of a few great photographs and the behavior of a few famous actors in films (Marlon Brando and James Dean). Essentially what he recommends is using satori to take photographs. But the author confuses satori with being a technique rather than the result of following Zen practice.
The book begins with the question “How can one improve the quality of one’s pictures?” I suspect that if a Zen master had been asked this question in a Zen koan, he would have responded with a slap to the questioner. It is a basic tenet that you can not achieve satori by searching for it.
Amongst other things the author illustrates the value of Satori with haiku, a Japanese form of poetry, that uses a very rigid metric structure of seventeen moras (roughly equivalent to syllables), usually to make a certain point about the seasons. Unfortunately, his haiku do not always follow the form.
Even if Rowe was clear about how to achieve satori, he mistakes ends for means. Satori is not a tool. It is what one uses tools to reach. Unfortunately the author doesn’t suggest any such tools. Moreover, the author’s advice can lead to the philosophy that “if it feels good, it is good”. That viewpoint can lead to poor pictures as well as good pictures, since it completely ignores the rigorous processes that are required to make a good photograph.
The book is illustrated with some of the author’s photographs. I’m certain he felt good about these pictures and the reader may even enjoy them. Like the rest of the book there is not much we will learn from them.
I have no doubt that some photographers may benefit from a real study of Zen Buddhism, but Zen is a religion, not a technique. Confusing the two is not likely to prove helpful to photographers.
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