The Shadow of Venus
I shall point my camera at that which escapes ordinary notice, the simple things and moments…
A long time ago, in my twenties, I somehow arrived at the idea that things are beautiful in proportion to their ephemerality. It was a beautiful idea that has ironically endured. As it turned out, just about everything else has ceased to endure. There is only change and impermanence.
What could be more beguiling, brief, and unphotographable, than the spell of Aphrodite the goddess of love and her beautiful graces? The lyrics for “My Funny Valentine,” a song I came to know through the calming trumpet and voice of Chet Baker, illustrate this sentiment.
My funny Valentine
Sweet comic Valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you're my favorite work of art
Perhaps only the shadow of Venus is photographable, may be made visible, making the ephemeral concrete. How very strange. Photography etches fragments of time and space, causing transitory appearances to endure in a static dimension of depiction. And what is beauty? It disappears like the clean air gone to smog; like the leaves and needles of the trees, it turns to mulch beneath our feet. As the world turns, the cycles repeat themselves, and nothing stays the same except for the photograph - the shadow of Venus.
Death is not beautiful. I do not question this fact. Perhaps for a highly realized being who has transcended the duality of ugly and beautiful, death is just a concept, but for us it’s just sad. It would be foolish to deny the fact that all things born must die. Indeed, the contemplation of impermanence is one of the foundations of turning the mind away from worldly obsessions, and towards authentic dharma practice. Yet it is also true that denying the fact of impermanence by attempting to make objects built to last forever will inevitably result in disappointment. There is something really tacky about structures that lose their sheen, when gloss was really the only thing they ever had going for them. Few things these days are built to age gracefully, although some things do despite the lack of intention, like the old wind-up toy car I had as a boy. One thing I really like about the traditional Japanese aesthetic is that it embraces the idea of change and impermanence, as well as rustic imperfection. Contemporary Japanese pop has lost this treasure.
So what should I point my camera at? All things are impermanent, and empty of an autonomous identity if scrutinized deeply. We live in a culture that denies this with unflagging regularity. Still, things fall apart. Should I record this process, even as my recording seeks to preserve that which will not last? Even the perception of a photograph cannot last beyond the unfindable moment of cognition. My answer is this: I shall point my camera at that which escapes ordinary notice, the simple things and moments, without hopes of preserving something that never really ever existed as a solid entity, but rather as an aggregate of relationships in flux. I have no interest to photograph out of fear of losing something, out of grasping to that which cannot last. Rather, I aspire to engage in photography as an affirmation of indexing the process of awareness within the present moment. Such an approach to photography requires a quieting of the mind, a receptiveness unfettered by preconceptions. In that state of receptivity possible pictures present themselves. In a manner similar to Duchamp’s readymade, yet without the bad boy anti-aesthetic rhetoric, the ordinary ephemeral stuff of everyday life is elevated to aesthetic significance, which is to say acknowledged as beautiful and meaningful beyond concept. Perhaps, it will open up the eyes of others to the beauty that surrounds them, perhaps it won’t. Inevitably, to frame the world means to leave out most of it, and to arrange what one includes. So there is a degree of making order out of chaos unless the process of art making is indeterminate, that is to say, determined by chance procedures. Just as a photograph is always framed, in music there is always duration. Reality, however, is beginningless, endless, and unframed. There is always a frame, until, perhaps, when enlightenment is attained. Until then, I compose by moving forward and back, right and left, up and down, until I can’t move anymore without making the sense of harmony worse. A good friend of mine recommends taking that final moment before clicking the shutter to pause and reflect. I would add a caution not to think too much until after you take the picture. It is reasonable to ask what goes in the frame, but the fun part is in the looking.
I am not against working in a series; I simply have trouble right now believing strongly enough in the importance any particular collection of likeness of subject matter to sustain the inertia of my efforts. This is a problem because in today’s art world distribution of one’s work is practically unthinkable unless it is packaged into an obvious series or installation. There is good reason for this, because it shifts the focus away from the photographer’s supposed genius into a more comprehensible focus. Now and then I pick up the scent of a series that remains unfinished, and add to it, and I am truly open to receive an idea out of the depths of mind worth following. Yet I continue to question if the reason for taking a picture should lie in its subject matter alone. This point is really crucial. Barthes famous quote from Camera Lucida “the referent adheres,” is particularly relevant to this question. I have no argument with that, yet I value how the referent was seen and transformed by the photographer into a picture equally if not more so than what it represents. Yet, to be honest, sometimes the subject does overpower other concerns. The portrait I took of my Buddhist teacher, Shenphen Rinpoche, is a case in point. I wanted a picture of him as an object of devotion. I wasn’t interested in a picture of just any stranger. Rinpoche is very difficult to photograph, and I have taken many pictures of him over the years and decades, but few I would call a portrait. I can’t really take credit for my favorite picture of him, except insofar as I was prepared, and my motivation was pure. So, in the final analysis, what makes the image good is something more than what is pictured. What makes a picture “good” is not entirely within the picture, but also involves the observer’s desires, expectations, projections, and the context within which the picture is seen. Image, subjective perception, and cultural context are never experienced in isolation. All artists, whether they are aware of it or not, hinge their next piece based on their past work and the trajectory of their own personal aesthetic or anti-aesthetic history. What might make perfectly good sense to the artist may indeed be incomprehensible to someone else. To complicate matters, we don’t really photograph things at all, but rather the light reflecting off things, and incident light. The quality of that light is vital to a photograph’s poetry.
Also, if the reason for taking a picture lies in self-expression, I need to know: What is this “self” that is doing the expression? This is not a new question. Thirteenth Century Zen Master Eihei Dogen put it this way:
To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no –trace continues endlessly.
What we call the “self” is an aggregate of form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. All of these elements that comprise the self can be broken down to other parts, which can further be reduced right down to their open core. Expression is necessarily either personal or trans-personal. However, most of the time, we are taught and told how to be like everyone else, and fit in. Art school is no different. Yet authentic “expression” requires that we learn how to be ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective, we go beyond feeling good in our own skin, and endeavor to transcend the mistaken notion of an autonomous “self”. All manifestation emerges from the heart of emptiness and luminosity in union, without ever departing. If we are caught by self-centeredness, then our expression will focus on our hopes and fears as they manifest as pride, jealousy, desire, ignorance, greed, and anger and the other afflictive emotions that branch out from these basic ones. It is fair to ask how such an offering would be of any benefit. Expression opens the heart so that others might share in our suffering and dreams, and rarely touches moments that transcend mundane obsessions of self-centeredness, and instead open up to the present moment in all its vivid rawness and poetry.
I also need to answer the question: What universal visual language can be understood objectively? Does such a language of pictorial convention exist, and if so, does stepping out of the circle of convention mean that we will be misunderstood? Art operates within myriad discourses wherein there are many unspoken rules that have been naturalized. On one extreme end of the spectrum of discourses is what I like to call the “county fair discourse” which is cliché, formulaic, and sentimental. On the other end of the spectrum is unconventional art, which is often misunderstood because it doesn’t participate in a clearly defined collective conversation. The work of a maverick artist might be understood years later, but, then again, it might not. I am not complaining, but rather simply stating a problem.
Let’s take a look at using high-contrast in photography to illustrate this question of universal formal principles. There are many possible reasons for employing high contrast in a photograph. For a beginning photography student high contrast might simply “look cool,” primarily because it deviates from the norm. It’s also easy to do, whereas making a print with lots of subtle detail is difficult to do. It is safe to say that many people use high contrast because it’s easy. In the 1970’s high contrast became a style of fine art photography, particularly in the United States, Germany, and Japan. We can use the look of high contrast to create a retro look forty plus years later. Also, in the west, high contrast signifies toughness and grittiness, following in a lineage of photographers such as Robert Frank, William Kline, Danny Lyon, Larry Clark, and Ralph Gibson. In the 1960’s and 70’s in Japan another lineage ran parallel to this, including such artists as Shomei Tomatsu, Daido Moriyama, and many others who were influenced by their American contemporaries. However, in the east, high contrast has historically implied the harmony of seeming opposites, such as in the Chinese yin/yang symbol. In today’s world, where east and west and in-between have mixed in unusual ways, the situation is less black and white than we might have thought. My point is that if we use high contrast, for example, as a signifier of toughness, a way to make a person or place look rough and unfriendly, then we are following a convention of occidental fine art or street photography that is historically conditioned, and hence neither personal nor universal. If we try to transcend convention and pretend that everyone will understand our personal made up reason for high contrast, we may very well find ourselves without an audience that sees into our heart and mind.
How we choose to answer the question of belief in a universal visual language, independent of subjective interpretation and context, is where modernism and post-modernism part company. I embrace neither position. Postmodernism claims we can never know reality because it is filtered through representations, particularly language. Indeed, it asserts that there is no reality outside representation. Buddhism, on the other hand, says we can know reality, but we can’t represent it; the ultimate nature is beyond conceptualization. However, we can make decisions as to how our pictures will look, that will determine in part what they mean, because contrary to popular opinion - photography is not an entirely mechanical medium. The process can be extremely controlled, or gently guided. Aside from being competent in one’s craft, it is important to allow oneself to simply not know what one is doing sometimes, while still trusting in the spirit of discovery, and the significance of exploring.
So if the practice of making photographs is not to impart visual information about particular subject matter on one extreme, and simultaneously not for “self”-expression on the other extreme, then why do it? In “Five Traditions of Art History, an Essay” produced as a poster in 1976, Dick Higgins identifies four traditions in addition to “expressive art,” namely, mimetic, pragmatic, objective, and exemplificative. He asserts that we make art “to imitate nature” either in how it looks or as John Cage would have put it “in its manner of operation;” or “to instruct or move the spectator, often via catharsis;” or “as a complete or self-contained statement;” or “as an illustration or example, or embodiment of idea.” In other words, there are many reasons to make art. This pluralistic state of affairs was in place long before post-modernism. The photographer Edward Weston considered art to be self-expressive, so he wasn’t really sure if he was making art because he was trying to get his “self” out of the way so that he could simultaneously see and feel what was before his lens freshly and translate that into a photograph with a minimum of manipulation. In 1934, he wrote:
‘Self-expression,’ is an objectification of one’s deficiencies and inhibitions. In the discipline of camera technique, the artist can become identified with the whole of life and so realize a more complete expression…
I have no manifesto, no allegiance to expression, realism, or whatever. I simply make art in the form of photographs as a practice of mindfulness, and as an offering, as a possible cause of wonder that transcends formula. Otherwise, I do it as a way to preserve and share the shadow of what cannot and will not last, and endeavor to do so with as little grasping as possible. Let awareness be an offering to others. To give to others is meaningful; hence, art is an offering. However, it must be an offering free of intention, wherein giver, giving, and gift are understood as interdependent and inseparable components of a fluid non-dual process, free of conceptualization. Also, the giver must be free of expectations of any kind of return. There should be no performance, no plan, no career involved in the giving.
The craft of making the prints is yet another discipline of simply doing one’s best with what one can afford using the materials at hand. As in good cooking, the craft of traditional photography involves working with quality materials, right temperature, and right timing. There is something very intimate about that way of working, slowly, with the sound of water that I still find engaging in darkroom work. Yet it is rigorous, and can be tiring, so I am also open to the flexibility of digital photography and the interesting papers available for inkjet output. In the final analysis it doesn’t really matter. There are many kinds of boats to cross a river. The question remains: Do we still need the boat when we reach the other shore?
Why wear yourself out indexing the process of awareness? Is it to have a sense of social place and purpose? Is it an affirmation of ego, which is to say, to do it because you’re good at it, and you know it even if immediate praise is not forthcoming? What satisfaction comes from the making of things? There is something to that question worth pursuing. Satisfaction implies the relinquishment of longing, which is a kind of suffering. Yet all artists like to think their best work is still left undone, and the thirst returns. We make images because they insist on being made, and we secretly feel like we have betrayed our calling when we silence that voice of insistence. There is an innate human need to mark that some people feel more acutely than others. I simply aspire that in following the irresistible urge to mark with light, it brings benefit beyond convention, and that it gives more than it takes. Yet if there is no call, then let there be no guilt at resting with things as they are, without nursing the need to do anything at all. We should make pictures by choice, not by compulsion, our out of delusion.