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Diamond Challenge

"An artist is also a member of art's audience, and as such shares our interests; but finally he is interested in something else. He is interested in demonstrating to himself, by the authority of his work, that his world is not an illusion, not an invention of the imagination, but rather a real world, of which he is therefore a real part. So if we ask the question what did Ansel Adams do for us? one useful answer would be: nothing; he did it all for himself."

John Szarkowski

I recently had the pleasure to visit LACMA and see the exhibition "Ansel Adams at 100". Upon reading the prominently displayed statement above I felt inspired to scrawl beneath it the words "Oh really?" My friend Steve, standing beside me, uttered my own emerging thoughts: "Now that's pretty self-indulgent". Indeed Mr. Szarkowski seems to be taking the position that self-indulgence is the necessary prerequisite for self-expression, which is, presumably what art is supposed to be. That same evening, I read Szarkowski's essay in the catalog and was surprised to see that he ended his commentary with that same statement which had so taken us aback. So, I begin with the end, and in so doing wish to examine this art world myth in light of the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, translated as The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, or better known simply as The Diamond Sutra in the Buddhist Mahayana tradition. This endeavor will inevitably be tempered by my own experience as an artist, photography teacher, and Buddhist practitioner.

It is not unreasonable to say that photographers who explore in the field subtract and isolate fragments of the world, but not always for the same reasons. Not everyone has the burning need to compensate for their existential insecurity through photography. The camera can be a bridge between the outer and inner world of the photographer as much as it can be a buffer. There are only a few things that can be asserted about photographs that are beyond argument. A photograph is a fixed surface marked with light. A photograph is simultaneously a trace and a transformation of appearances. A photograph is a construction. Beyond that any of the following are sometimes true: a photograph can be a record, a depiction, a celebration of light and form, a praise of shadows, decoration, a fetish, an indexical sign, or simply curiosities to be used cognitively for proof, pleasure, persuasion, remembering, forgetting, or devotion. The photograph merges fact and artifact. Yet in light of all this Szarkowski insists that Adams was first and foremost "interested in demonstrating to himself, by the authority of his work, that his world is not an illusion, not an invention of the imagination, but rather a real world, of which he is therefore a real part." In actual fact, Adams liked to be in the mountains, where his romantic reverie could take flight. I really doubt he had a problem convincing himself or anyone else that both he and the world were real. Nor do I suppose that he ever embarked upon the challenge of acquiring the wisdom that can be neither obtained nor abandoned, that is to say, coming into the intimate understanding that

All composed things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightening,
That is how to meditate on them,
that is how to observe them.

In the light of this comparison John Szarkowski strikes me as about as far away as one can get from the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, author of the previous gatha from the Diamond Sutra. It would seem, rather that John Szarkowski through the work of curating and commenting on Ansel Adams is actually doing so to prove his own existence, or perhaps relevance in today's photo art community. The Photographer's Eye was Szarkowski's formalist manifesto from the sixties, and it is now long behind us except as a convenient historical reference for a now outdated way of thinking.

Formalism takes cathartic self-expression as a given. From the point of view of the artist the focus is not on examining the passions, but to rather steep in the intensity of the one's own neurotic, and sometimes psychotic egoism. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition self cherishing is regarded as the root of all folly. We are capable of making work for both self and others. The two biggest problems with formalism are that it leaves the poles of observer and cultural context out of the triangulation of meaning generated interdependently with the image. Today's photo art world is left with three crummy critical choices: formalism, which essentializes the image and heroifies the artist; subjectivism, which essentializes the observer and mystifies the artist; and a warmed over postmodernism, which essentializes culture and, in theory, but not practice deflates the artist. The challenge we all face is not to get caught by what we think is real. We may say these approaches are true for the individual viewer, but not necessarily universally true.

As both an artist and a member of art's audience pictures fulfill personal agendas. We may do work for ourselves, but as soon as it enters a public space it participates in larger, sometimes overlapping discourses, be they amateur, professional, the fine print, or new genres. Inevitably the competing categories of the contemplative vs. informational come into play, yet we can muddle the dividing line. Where then can reality be found?

Someone who looks for me in form
or seeks me in sound
is on a mistaken path
and cannot see the Tatagatha.

So states the memorable gatha from section twenty-six of The Diamond Sutra. In his excellent commentary Thich Nhat Hahn wrote "The meaning of Tatagata is 'does not come from anywhere and does not go anywhere'."

Diamond Challenge, 2001