Zen And the Art of Landscape Photography

| March 12, 2016

The most interesting aspect of these arts of Zen, as D. T. Suzuki has said, is that they don’t exist for the sole purpose of creating a work of art, but they are rather a method for opening the creative process. They comprise means of training the mind and of living our lives. ~John Daido Loori

A friend recently referred me to a book discussing Zen and creativity. What I know of Zen comes primarily from the writings of D.T. Suzuki, and rather than offer my own limited understanding, I recommend his books to anyone interested in the topic. Creativity, on the other hand, is a topic I’ve been following for some time, both as an artist and as an avid reader of scientific publications. Many discussions linking ancient philosophies with present day practices often try to muscle the latter into the rituals and language of the former, and the book my friend referred me to is no exception. Such books often are written by practitioners and masters of such disciplines who then apply them to art or to other areas of life, but in my mind there is also much to be gained from going in the opposite direction: start with art, and identify valuable and applicable lessons in the philosophy, without becoming mired in esoteric dogma and terminology.

The first idea that struck me about Zen’s approach to art is that art is regarded not as a means of making things, but rather as a means of experiencing things. In other words, the primary reason to engage in art making is not the end result, be it an image or some other artifact, but rather the inner experience of creative expression; which also becomes a means for the artist to communicate to others some of the thoughts and emotions that moved him or her to create. Such an attitude stands almost in stark contrast to the result-oriented work ethic instilled in western society, which is more concerned with external effects: productivity, volume, profitability, etc. When considered alongside recent findings in psychology, and particularly the psychology of happiness, it is clear that the inner rewards of making art and of engaging in creative activities are indeed more powerful and enduring than short-lived spikes ensuing out of popularity or sales. Paraphrasing words I heard from a scientist, who is also a Buddhist: it turns out that Eastern philosophies are better than Western ones at predicting what will make us happy.

Another aspect of Zen I find interesting is the way the philosophy is passed on from teacher to student. Zen defies definition and as such cannot be taught as a set of facts or techniques; it requires training the mind to respond in natural and intuitive ways, rather than analyze and reason. Zen masters always lead by example and, other than the teaching of various Buddhist practices, the essence of Zen is taught by challenging the student, sometimes in very unexpected ways, to react to things without forethought or preconception. Photographic workshops almost always take the opposite approach: visiting prescribed locations at predetermined auspicious times when “good” images are to be had; describing and practicing camera and processing techniques toward specific and known outcomes, etc. Indeed, such skills are needed in order to make a photograph, but once they are are learned to a sufficient degree, I find a more Zen-like approach to be profoundly more useful and satisfying: rather than seek specific outcomes, find places and subjects you are interested in, and let the images come to you; encounter subjects and situations and, when they elicit a response, articulate your response to them visually, in an intuitive and unfiltered way.

As I sometimes tell workshop attendees, the biggest down side of photographing Mesa Arch at sunrise is that you end up with an image of Mesa Arch at sunrise. If you don’t stop to consider what other options and approaches are available to you, you may not fully appreciate what you are missing. Allowing yourself the privilege of giving visual expression to your most intimate and personal inspirations, as part of experiencing something unexpected and emotionally moving, may open your eyes to great personal revelations, and to what I believe to be the most elevating rewards that photography has to offer. A similar concept in Zen is called Satori. To accomplish such states, think of making your photographs convey something of who you are, innately and without pretense, rather than what something or someone outside of you is, or what you believe that others may wish to see.

In my own experience, the most effective and moving way of relating to an inner experience when encountering a subject or scene that moves you to create, is to quiet and focus the mind on the experience, and to reign in errant thoughts and distractions. Zen meditation, known as Zazen, trains the mind to become quiet and focused, which is not easy and requires prolonged practice to accomplish. The psychological state known as flow, also related to creativity (and more recently linked with what is known as the brain’s default mode network, which can be thought of as the brain’s inner conversations with itself, when not focused on the outside world), affects the artist in much the same way that meditation does. Time seems to disappear, distractions and anxieties are set aside, and the mind becomes calm and clear. Once experienced, the benefit of such states becomes eminently obvious, but it is difficult to explain to those who do not have firsthand experience with them. Those who practice photography in a rushed and calculated way, or when distracted by other people and thoughts, may never know how much deeper and more rewarding their experience may be by letting go of such things; by not worrying about a “keeper” or any other outcome, slowing down and being mindful of the experience in all its dimensions—inner and outer, emotional and physical; and suspending considerations of other concerns when engaged in creative work.

Lastly, in learning to meditate and quiet the mind, one also learns to manage involuntary thoughts and distractions that arise naturally but that can also be consciously set aside for a period. Beginners often attempt to silence and ignore such thoughts and to banish them from the mind, almost always unsuccessfully. More experienced meditators know to acknowledge the thought, rather than attempt to ignore it; examine it, then consciously set it aside and refocus the mind and start over. This approach of acknowledge-and-let-go (sometimes known in other forms of meditation as catch-and-release) can be immensely useful in today’s world of constant distraction and multitasking. The competitive culture of so many photographic communities, when not properly approached, may make the practice of photography far less enjoyable and expressive than it can be when practiced primarily for the experience, rather than social interaction. In both making and presenting  art, especially in social contexts, you may find it very liberating to acknowledge in advance that others may or may not like it; may or may not find it better or worse than that of someone else’s; may or may not accept or understand your chosen methods, motivations or personal sensibilities. We are social creatures and such considerations affect and stress us by default. But when explicitly acknowledged and let go of, you are in a very real sense also setting yourself free—free to be who you are and to express yourself in the most meaningful way that you can. And the rewards for doing so, while difficult to explain to one yet to experience them, can be deeply rewarding in ways that no award or recognition can amount to.

One of Many Dawns

Liked it? Take a second to support me on Patreon!

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (20)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Dave Benson says:

    This reflection brings back such incredible memories of living the Visionary Workshop… Thanks for a review… keeps the mind focussed on the journey…

  2. Tif Holmes says:

    “[T]he biggest down side of photographing Mesa Arch at sunrise is that you end up with an image of Mesa Arch at sunrise.”

    A little bit like a koan, eh?

  3. Well said, Guy. Enjoyed working with you in Desth Valley, and looking forward to seeing you again in Moab.

  4. Gary Wagner says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and words on creativity and making art. I find them very helpful to better understand the art making journey and destination.

  5. Zen is very simple. It is connecting with your world in a very esoteric way. And it’s benefits stretch beyond the creation of art. Simply put it is listening “to the universe”. Religions are based on it, art forms, martial arts, etc are all excelled at when a person learns to let the ego’s words flow by and listen to the smaller voice that will never shout over your own.

    I have a day job still in technology. I am very non techy, but I keep excelling at what I do. I fix things more from instinct…and less from technological understanding and am often credited in fixing things that should not have a fix. I don’t mean to drone on, just that the thing that allows me to do that, is the same thing that “taps me on the shoulder” when I am out on an adventure with my camera.

    People think I am nuts when I try to explain it…but it never fails me when I use that as my sail, and not my ego voice. And when I follow it, I always get more than I ever expected.

    Great article!!!!


    • Guy Tal says:

      Thank you Roman!

      In the words of Alan Watts:

      “… in practice we are all bewitched by words. We confuse them with the real world, and try to live in the real world as if it were the world of words. As a consequence, we are dismayed and dumbfounded when they do not fit. The more we try to live in the world of words, the more we feel isolated and alone, the more all the joy and liveliness of things is exchanged for mere certainty and security.”

  6. Very informative as always. Really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Lori Ryerson says:

    In my experience in those workshop situations you described, Guy, I’ve found that some students are more of the impression, “I paid for this workshop, the teacher brought us to the Mesa Arch, I guess the teacher expects that I will go home with a shot of this, so that’s what I’d better shoot today if I’m going to get my money’s worth from the course.” LOL.

    Lately, it seems to me that you’ve been writing about things that parallel the process of aging. Most especially around age 50, there is a known shift in priorities for many (yup, there’s a lotta documentation on this). I can certainly speak to it personally. We come to realize that there’s no longer more ahead of us than there is behind. And so, in the natural order of the universe, we start turning our minds to how we can leave a legacy, a better place, rather than how we can build our brand or reputations or bank accounts.

    We reach a stage where we no longer care how we are perceived by others, we cease to compare our work to someone else’s, because it’s more important to remain true to our own selves and ideals, and compete only with ourselves (am I better today than I was yesterday?). We pare down our friends, because authenticity has become more important than volume. We pare down our commitments because we realize we only want to be involved in things that are meaningful (to us), rather than fulfill the expectations of others about what one “should” be doing. Perhaps this is the real life version of “acknowledge and let go”?

    Actors and athletes have, for years, invoked various forms of meditation, or clearing of their minds, in order to focus on what is important, which to me essentially all comes down to being in the moment. Being present. But everyone must come to it in their own time and fashion, so I make no judgements on how they get there.

    I am actually coming to believe, more and more, that there are certain things that simply should NOT be photographed, that it is more important that I not separate myself from the experience by filtering it through a lens. Rather than worrying about getting “that shot”, lately, at this stage of my world, it’s becoming more important to just be there. My brain will record the image, and sometimes, that’s more than enough for me.

    • Brian Welzenbach says:

      “I am actually coming to believe, more and more, that there are certain things that simply should NOT be photographed…”

      There are so many incredible things in the world that, for various reasons, can’t be translated into effective photographs. Often, these things will pass us by if we are too obsessed with “getting the shot”. Photography can open our eyes to a lot of things that we might not have noticed before. This is especially true with the nuances of light. However, photography can also give us tunnel vision if we aren’t careful.


    • Jim Smith says:

      Well said Lori! I’ve appreciated Guy’s philosophy and approach to truly creative photography for some time. Today’s blog is in my mind the best of an incredible series and you did a great job of enhancing it. Thanks for sharing…

      • Lori Ryerson says:

        Oh, my lord, Jim, you are too generous with that praise. I have followed Guy’s works and words for a number of years. I am thoroughly embarrassed…as if I could “enhance” anything he does??! Taking a leaf out of “Wayne’s World”…I am not worthy LOL! But you are kind, sir, and I thank you.

    • Guy Tal says:

      That is certainly true, Lori, although I would use maturing, rather than aging. Our perceptions are affected by many things, and in many present-day societies maturing occurs at later and later ages as we are allowed to indulge in youthful pursuits and maintain good health longer than before. I have seen a fair number of younger people who possess such realization (and similarly, many people of age who still cling to more dogmatic views).

      Likewise, I’ll say that some things cannot be photographed (I’m uncomfortable with terms like “should” and “should not” in the context of art). My advice to any artist is to focus attention on the experience first, before attempting to translate it into an image or other expression. It always baffles me to run int cantankerous photographers in beautiful places. What’s the point of having a moving image if you did not have a moving experience? I think that photography is most rewarding when used as an extension of an experience. If making a photograph requires compromising (or not having) an otherwise meaningful experience then, at least in my mind, to hell with the photograph.

  8. Rose says:

    Your words resonate with me quite strongly, I like to travel and visit different places rather than go where everyone else goes. Doing Landscapes while travelling forces you into a form of zen because you have to accept the conditions where and when you are there, in that fleeting moment you have to embrace what you have got and make the best of it.

    Now there are some things that I truly want to experience so I leave my camera at home so that I can be in the moment and enjoy being part of the occasion.

    And yet standing in the fading light of day, having possibly enjoyed a stunning sunset, or maybe not. Watching the swallows skim the surface of the water, swans gliding serenely in the warm summer air, yeah thats an experience I wouldn’t have had, if not for my camera leading me there to that moment.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Your last paragraph speaks of mindfulness, and being present and aware, which are supremely important to the creative experience (and coincidentally also celebrated in Zen philosophy).

      I know many who share your views on the benefits of travel, although I often find travel to have the opposite effect on me. Being in unfamiliar places, with just the perceptions of an outsider lacking a more intimate knowledge of, and connection with, my subjects, I find it very difficult to make meaningful images. I see things that are unfamiliar and my mind always wishes I knew more about them and had the time to get to know them better than I could on a short-lived visit.

      As Paul Strand wrote, “there is no such thing as THE way; there is only for each individual, his or her way, which in the last analysis, each one must find for himself in photography and in living.”

  9. attasalina says:

    Love this article. It articulates my process so clearly and it is what I have been considering teaching for sometime. Thank you for the illuminating words. I am working on a book of photography inspired by Buddha and the West. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but we still have to talk and write about what we do which I can find challenging at times. I realize now that I photograph like a meditator, which is amusing to me. Thank you and I love your work!

    “More experienced meditators know to acknowledge the thought, rather than attempt to ignore it; examine it, then consciously set it aside and refocus the mind and start over. This approach of acknowledge-and-let-go (sometimes known in other forms of meditation as catch-and-release) can be immensely useful in today’s world of constant distraction and multitasking.”

  10. Steve says:

    How in the world can you have an article about Zen and meditation and photography with out mentioning Minor White? Good article anyway. Thank you.

  11. Jamey Pyles says:

    Guy, wonderful article, again it speaks to me as so many of your pages do.

    Zazen is the way. We all are on a cosmic journey of un-quantifyable distance and grandeur; somehow each person is indeed on their own journey, and yet it seems although the destination is very unimportant, we are captured by the accomplishment of having done the thing we set out to do. Do or do not! But experience that which you are. What are we but a collection of memories? So much more? A spirit, a soul, a body…. Every moment we live, we are immersed in a universal journey together. The journey itself is so fantastic, it begs to be experienced within Flow, experienced with much space to ponder… The experience begs the individual to let go of “more”
    and “less” and simply, be.

    Photographic, artistic journeys are so wonderful to experience in this meditative state of being. Man and his creativity, under the moody sky. I shall not ask for more!

  12. Thomas Rink says:

    In a similar way, I think a successful photograph can be compared to a Haiku: The expression of an intuitive insight obtained through mindful, unprepossessed observation.

  13. Mahn England says:

    Thanks for yet another interesting post Guy. It reminds me of a story I heard told by Riley Lee, now a grand master of the shakuhachi, about learning to play that instrument:

    At every lesson the master would instruct Riley to listen carefully to what was played, then after practice return to the following lesson and play it for the master. So he practiced until he had the piece exactly as the master had played it but at each lesson he was told that he needed to practice some more because it wasn’t as the master had played it. This continued for some time until in Riley’s frustration he decided not to play it as the master had done but to play it as he felt it should be played. Upon hearing Riley’s playing of the piece the Master exclaimed that, at last, it was played exactly as he had played it.