A Flash of the Mind

July 14, 2023

"Hyrangea after Rain (2022) by Eric Rennie

Photography had been around for nearly a century before it began to be taken seriously as an art form.   Photographers were essentially viewed as skilled craftsmen. They worked with mechanical devices, after all.  And while it took some expertise to operate a camera, especially in the early days, the only talent required was knowing when to press the shutter.  Nowadays, of course, any idiot who knows enough to remove the lens cap can take technically competent pictures, because cameras are basically nothing more than a computer with a lens attached to it.  Smart phones make it even easier to take pictures, and people do so bythe trillion.  As anyone who has scrolled through the images posted on social media will tell you, most aren't worth a second look; indeed, many aren't even worth a first look.  Granted, they're usually not intended as works of art.  Most are essentially snapshots that might once have been destined for family albums but are now immortalized in cyberspace.

So what separates a work of art from more pedestrian imagery?  Hint: it has little to do with the camera per se— and never did.  Sure, fancy lenses might come in handy if you’re photographing wildlife or sporting events.  But there are plenty of hobbyists loaded down with expensive equipment who think this alone will guarantee exceptional results.  It rarely does.  Nor does mastery of Photoshop or other add-ons for digitally manipulating images after they are taken.

The masters of photography will tell you, as Alfred Eisenstaedt did, "The important thing is not the camera but the eye."  The pioneering street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson chimed in: “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera. They are made with the eye, heart and head.”  Walker Evans, best known for his Depression-era photographs of Alabama share croppers, put it this way: “Photography isn’t a matter of taking pictures. It’s a matter of having an eye.”

What does it mean to have an eye?  For a marksman, visual acuity is everything; not so much with a photographer.  An eagle can spot a mouse from three miles away, but that doesn’t mean an eagle would take a decent picture, even if the bird knew how to operate a camera.  Having perfect vision is no more a guarantee of taking a good picture than owning an expensive camera.  As Cartier-Bresson noted, photographs are made with the heart and the head, was well as with the eye.  For purposes of discussion, we might refer to this collectively as the mind’s eye.

In the end, it all boils down to knowing where to point the camera and when to press the shutter.  There are rules of thumb about what makes a good picture: composition, framing, depth of field, exposure and the like.  But in practice, your subject is rarely going to hold still while you run down a checklist.  Even if you are shooting a landscape, the light can change from one moment to the next.  When heaven and earth are in alignment — in this case, photographer and subject — you have to be ready to capture what Cartier-Bresson referred to as the “decisive moment.” He said, “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”

With a camera, it’s all or nothing,” Walker Evans added. “You either get what you’re after at once, or what you do has to be worthless. The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine.”  There is a certain amount of hand-eye coordination involved, which comes with practice.  Granted, there may also be a bit of luck involved.  But essentially, the whole business of knowing when to press the shutter comes down to that little interior spark that Evans calls a “flash of mind.”

It occurs to me that the practice of Zen archery has much to teach us about how all this works.  Years ago, long before I had taken up photography, I read a little book called Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel.  Herrigel was a German philosophy professor who taught in Japan before World War II and studied archery there under a Zen master.  As might be expected, the Zen approach to this discipline was full of apparent contradictions.  Herrigel was told that letting go of the string correctly could not be mastered until he had first learned to let go of himself.  Even more inscrutably, he was taught that to hit the target, he must learn to stop aiming.  "How can the shot be loosed if 'I' do not do it?" a bewildered Herrigel asked.   His teacher's reply: "'It' shoots.”

I am no Zen master, and I take enough bad pictures never to think of myself as a master photographer.  But I know a good picture when I see one, and I have taken enough myself to understand what it is required.  I can imagine a Zen photography teacher telling a pupil that to take a good picture he must first let go of himself.  “How can I shoot a good picture if ‘I’ do not do it?” the bewildered pupil asks.  And the Zen master’s reply: “‘It’ shoots.” That’s what it comes down to in the end: When heaven and earth are aligned, and a flash of mind occurs, the picture takes itself.     


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