Long time readers will know that I am moderately obsessed with various ideas around the notion of "being present" in, perhaps, a Zen Buddhist way, or in the quasi-religious practices of various first nations like the Navajo concept of the "smooth mind" and the Polynesian navigators. These are all variations on the theme of dismissing thoughts concerned with the past, the future, with externalities, in order to focus on the here and now.
Miksang, the zen photography technique, is recognizably just weaponizing the methods of zen walking meditation to the purpose of photography, and examples of it lay bare the essential problem here, about which I will have more to say shortly.
I firmly believe that something like these methods is necessary to take good individual pictures with any sort of reliability. In rough terms, you need to see what is truly there in order to make a good picture of it, and in order for that to happen you have to be exquisitely present. So, something that stills your interior monologues, that centers you in the here and now, is more or less a necessary technique.
The problem that most work produced through the methods of miksang makes so clear is that the pictures are not connected to anything, and are largely vacuous exercises in form.
The wonder of photography is that it is real. The photograph selects an instant in time and a little window on the world, but when we look at the photo of the tree, we believe in the forest just outside the frame profoundly, because the forest just outside the frame was actually there. Photography's power, as photography rather than simply as any old picture-making method, comes precisely from this reality, from that forest just outside the frame and from the events that occurred just before and just after the shutter snapped open for an instant.
In order to make powerful photographs, or collections of photographs, it is this power that we must use, because it is the lone tool that is in the box, ultimately.
If your ambition extends no further than to make visually striking photographs, well, more power to you and you probably need read no further. If, like me, your ambition extends further, to do more with your pictures, I may have something for you.
Indulge me and allow me to use the word "story" very broadly in this piece. Perhaps it's a literal, linear, story you want to tell. Or a series of facts and situations. But perhaps instead you have in mind something larger than a visual appeal, but ineffable, something you cannot even put in to words. A feeling, a sensation, a non-verbal gestalt of ideas and emotion. Call this larger purpose, whatever it is, the "story."
The story is carried by the interconnections of your photographs, with one another and with the world they imply. Photography's strength is in those connections, drawn from the underlying reality from which the photos are snatched. Even if your story is a marketing campaign, that is still a real car, a real model, with a real half-smile playing across her lips. While she may not truly love the car, her reality makes it easier for you to visualize yourself at her side, one hand on the car door, and keys in the other. If you're telling a gritty story of war and violence, that is a real gun, that is a real fire, that is a real bomb crater or at least a real hole. And so on.
In order to make these pictures, you have to be aware of the larger story and the world into which it is embedded. You cannot simply be lost in this instant, this moment. You cannot just wander the streets, amnesiac, drifting contemplatively from moment to moment, and construct a story. Or at least, I don't see how that would work. You need to retain the context, at least roughly, of what you are trying to accomplish.
The story may change as you work on it, of course. It is organic, it grows, shrinks, and changes form up to the very last moment when ink hits paper. But present it must be in order to inform, to direct, the photography.
And this, truly, is the dilemma. In order to make photographs, we must be simultaneously deeply aware of the forest, and be completely oblivious to the forest.