“The simply curious doesn’t have the right… Zen, like all mysticism, will only be understood by a mystic who… won’t give into the temptation to obtain by a surreptitious way that which the mystical experience denies” (Translator’s note from ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’)
From Pepe Baeza’s talk I found out that Braque had recommended Henri Cartier-Bresson to read the book ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’ by Eugen Herrigel.
With this article I aim to explain what I call intuitive photography. It’s the style of photography that I’ve practiced most, and ever since I found out that HCB based his photography on Herrigel’s book, I’ve discovered that my attitude behind the camera is based on the same principles as HCB’s but with some differences.
Here are some phrases that could sum up HCB’s ideas about what he called l’imaginaire d’après nature (the imaginary nature), something closely related to Buddhist thought and to Herrigel’s book:
- “Photographing… is to putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.”
- “Above all, I craved to size, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”
- “… we must be lucid about what is going on in the world and honest about what we feel.”
Those who are interested in reading HCB’s full articles can read ‘The Imaginary Nature’ and ‘The Decisive Moment’ in the blog, but I recommend you buy the book.
In Zen, a consequence does not require a cause. Contrary to our illustrated rationalism and our Judeo-Christian roots, Zen is simpler: only ‘now’, only the moment matters.
Although I think I could explain it and you could understand it, none of it will make sense; you have to experience it. And the truth is that you don’t have to lock yourself away in a monastery to live it, just the opposite… neither do you have to be a mystic! The moment transcends Zen.
Through I don’t have a ‘black belt’ in any martial art, I think I have enough experience to know a little about martial arts. The practitioners of a martial art exercise daily to make their movements automatic and synchronized with their breath and a certain attitude. Easy to say, but these three stages (movement, breath, attitude-feeling) can take a student a whole lifetime… a lifetime or an instant. An instant? Yes, but I will leave that for face-to-face debates.
The final goal of the exercises of any martial art is that the warrior, when attacked, doesn’t think and just acts. This act of defense is considered art because the combination of techniques studied for years are chosen automatically by the warrior-artist and are executed without thinking, effortlessly and without any intention; they simply happen. The chosen combination is unique and unrepeatable.
Does anybody think that a dancer calculates every move he makes in a performance? Martial arts, to put it simply, are like a dance or music, a set of abilities so interiorized that they ‘simply happen’… like a guitar solo or like dodging an obstacle while riding a bike.
What do the art of archery, photography (according to HCB), Aikido and hip-hop have in common? It’s using the brain in a non-linguistic manner. Since I’m not an expert in intelligence, maybe these three characteristics will help me explain what I mean:
- Cancelling rationalism or conscious control at the moment of action
- Using the subconscious
- Using spatial intelligence
There’s nothing magical about this matter and the East doesn’t own it; it’s just that we, the Westerners, have swallowed (willingly or not) Descartes with his famous “I think, therefore I exist.” Eastern people know that they also exist while sleeping… luckily some humans haven’t forgotten it.
To make it even more pagan, another example: when we are in a space full of people, sometimes, we especially distinguish one out of all the others, for example, somebody especially attractive; but it’s not that we were looking for him/her. It’s thought that this person does something to be more visible, but it’s not really so. In the majority of cases, our subconscious recognizes this person and he/she draws our attention. The subconscious recognizes a pattern and ‘rings a bell’ although we might’ve been talking about football, politics or photography. Martial arts work this way. Training turns technique into an instinct.
At the time of capture, there are two big problems to be solved: the machine and the art. The machine and all of its technical details require a certain level of learning depending on its complexity. Shooting with a D300 is very different from using a film rangefinder or a Lomo. Any machine, more or less costly, can be mastered with practice. Practice and a certain degree of knowledge in this respect is necessary but only up to the point of not taking up our time when we are shooting, when we are in front of our subject.
It’s infinitely easier to shoot with a camera than to invert the power of an attacker in order to make him fly three meters using just your hands, like in Aikido.
I’ve been asked many times about how I set up my camera and technology fans usually don’t believe me when I say: “In auto mode.” When I’m in the street, my camera is usually in P-mode, ISO-auto and auto focus. My D300 knows more about technique than me. If I leave white balance fixed on “day light”, it’s because of my analogic habit and romanticism more than anything else.
The important thing is to breathe, see, smell, listen, open the subconscious, allowing it to guide me and not to think about the camera.
To compose? No, to breathe. All the rules of composition come from studying how we look at things. Study how your subconscious analyzes an image. Let the subconscious see and you won’t need to know how to get reality into a frame. The first error is thinking that we need to do something. The first thing they teach us about composition is that we cut reality out and stuff it into a frame… a sad relic of pictorialism. Our eyes do not see the universe in its entirety: cutting out is in our nature; we can’t help it. We always choose what we see, to which part of our already limited visual field we pay more attention. Our eyes don’t have zoom but our brain does.
Returning to the pagan example, when a very attractive person comes into the room and our eyesight goes towards him/her, our angle of vision is still the same, we don’t switch eyes, but our attention gets centered and, for an instant, there’s nothing else in the room. Maybe we are captivated by his/her red shirt, the color of his/her eyes, his/her curves or any other detail, but, for an instant, our ‘eyes’ see nothing else.
To achieve this with a camera is the first task of intuitive photography; until this point I coincide with HCB. But then I take things further. I use the same intuition in editing.
How do I choose one out of three almost identical shots? Without thinking, the first thought is the correct one. Once again, I base my decision on the capacity of the subconscious to see more than I can understand.
I’m not trying to say that there’s no need to think; you can think all you want but up to the point of shooting. The mind has to be disconnected during the decisive moment.
Jodi Cobb acknowledges that one of her cover photos for ‘National Geographic’ was a reflex: she didn’t see what he was photographing; he just saw some shadows at a certain moment. Some shadows at a certain moment made the cover of ‘National Geographic’ ̶ that is intuitive photography or imaginary nature.
The photo that’s in the header of this article is one of my intuitive photos. I’m particularly fond of it because I really had no idea what I was doing when I took or selected it. It was my first time at Mac Campus; I was there to give a photography class. After, I wanted to walk around a bit and take some shots as a souvenir. The cables and the connections really drew my attention. Campus Mac is a place where Apple fans can meet other fans, learn, have fun and, ultimately, connect with each other.
Once I got home, I wanted to upload the PDF of the presentation and needed a photo. I was tired and didn’t feel like wrecking my brain, so, without paying much attention, I selected the photo where, by coincidence, everything connects. I’m sure that if I had wanted to choose a photo deliberately, I couldn’t have done it. Have you seen how fast those lines in the screen saver move? What are the chances of almost all of them connecting with a cable? Is this photo a coincidence? To me it isn’t. It’s no coincidence, it’s intuition to let the subconscious take over and find the decisive moment because it’s infinitely faster and capable to see than our reason… and you don’t have to be a Zen monk to experience it. Just let yourself go with the flow.