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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Photography: An Eightfold Path Toward Self-Discovery

I have titled this piece with the same title as a recent essay on The Luminous Landscape, an essay which had a great title, and basically the same dumb, lazy, "stages of the photographer" content as a million other clickbait pieces on the web. I was so disappointed in it, I decided to write the article it should have been. This is it.

I'm going to borrow some ideas, well, really, I'm going to borrow some words from Buddhism. The eightfold path is a Buddhist concept of which I do not pretend to have a particularly good understanding. Anything I say which particularly aligns with actual Buddhist teaching and thought should be considered an accident. I'm going to borrow some language, essentially the English titles of the 8 components or aspects of the path.

Then I'm going to stretch my philosophy of, my approach to, photography and Art-making, out on these words, this scaffolding of ideas if you will, to dry. It really doesn't matter how one chooses to dissect a philosophy of this sort. I could probably borrow some ideas from the Apache, or from Judaism, and get a quite different looking but equally useful view of the thing. Today, I am using these words from Buddhist teachings.

The eight aspects of the path are:

Right View
Right Intention
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

In all cases "Right" means proper, correct, fit. The conceit is that the eight aspects support and enable one another. Each aspect represents something you can think about and do by itself, and in the context of all the others. Taken all together, you might be able to take better pictures. Or at any rate, something more like the pictures you want to take.

Without further ado:

Right View

There's a double meaning here in the English translation, which I will ruthlessly exploit. On the one hand, a right view is an attitude, the right attitude. On the other hand we can consider it the thing that occurs just before a successful shutter-press, the right (literal) seeing from the right vantage and so on. We'll consider, for now, the first one. The right mental state.

I want to take meaningful pictures near here which embody, in some sense, the pacific northwest, present and past.

Right Intention

The intent to do what you're striving for. Many of us wish to be firemen, few of us take steps or plan to.

I plan to step out once a week, at least, to try to take these pictures.

Right Speech

Since, for healthy people, photography is neither a lifestyle nor a religion, this one needs a bit of massage, it probably ought not to be about talking to other people. However, we can usefully consider our internal voices. The Inner Game books all talk about the voice in your head that's negative, how it's surprisingly problematic, and how to quell it. This comes out a bit like pep-talking yourself, but there it is. It's probably more useful than you think.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can... take meaningful pictures.

Right Action

Do it. Go take pictures. But also behave in a way that makes that possible. Arrange your activities to support, or ay any rate not defeat, the photography. Perhaps it's no use scheduling a 2-4pm on Sunday time slot to go shoot when you're planning to work out from 1-2pm, and you'll be beat. As the voice in your mind should align with and support the photography, so must your actions in life.

Shoot after a nap. Nap before shooting. Make time to have a nap. Get chores done early, so as to have time for a nap.

Right Livelihood

Again, photography is neither a lifestyle nor a religion, so this one needs a bit of massage. It's unreasonable for everyone to select their work to align perfectly with the desire to make good photographs. Still, you can try to arrange your lifestyle to better suit. Budget as necessary. Schedule vacation time as necessary. Buy a car that's compatible with your desired photographic actions. Whatever is necessary.

Move to 4 day workweek to free up time, in general, so that children, chores, naps, and also photography all fit in better.

Right Effort

This is performing the work of photography is a productive way that is aligned with your goals. I've talked ad infinitum about my process, such as it is, and for me, that is right effort. Take the pictures, but not stupidly. Use whatever methods work for you to productively search for the right pictures, the ones you want.

Shoot with my idea of the pacific northwest clearly in mind. Sort the results and devise a modified shooting plan to attack the same subjects again and again, with new, more refined, more specific ideas about framing, camera position, and all the rest. Use inspiration-generating methods to inform the process.

Right Mindfulness

Being engaged with the subjects, not shooting just because you have time free. Be in the right frame of mind to work on the problems you've identified. Be plugged in.

I don't shoot unless I have a plan, unless I have devised a useful next step. Sometimes the next step is to simply go shoot and see what happens, but not always. If there's no productive shooting plan, seek inspiration instead with books, naps, and skull sweat. Explicitly create engagement with the idea and the pictures, by explicit methods.

Right Concentration

Focus on the plan. Keep in mind your goal, and whatever you are currently attempting as an approach to them. Concentrate on what matters.

When shooting, focus on the shooting. Don't dawdle around, move to the next spot. Remember what I'm doing differently this time, and do that.

The first two, view, and intention might be seen as aligning our outlook to our goals. The next three, speech, action, and livelihood might be considered to align our selves and our lives with our goals. Not, as in the case of Buddhism, to re-create our lives around the goal, but simply to make space for the goal. The last three, effort, mindfulness, and concentration, work within that space we've made, explicitly working to realize our goals.

Ultimately, we hope to arrive at that Right View in the sense we set aside, the sense of seeing the right frame at the right time, and then we press the button. And we do it again, and again.

All aspects support and enable one another. By quelling the negative interior voice, we help support and enable concentration, and so on, through all 28 pairs of aspects, and all other groupings.

The attentive reader may note that this is a basic self-help program of sorts, and would probably be just as effective at improving your tennis game, or your business, or your cardio-vascular health, as is is at improving your photography. There's a bunch of ways to do these things, and they all come down to being mindful of what you want, and of doing what is needful to make that happen. It's useful to break it down this way and that way until some particular way of looking at it helps. Maybe this one will help you! It's a funny old world, innit?

This is a somewhat broader program than what I actually do right now, but having laid it out in this fashion, I'm going to attempt to apply it. My Pacific-Northwest project is somewhat stalled out, and re-focusing is probably a good idea. I'll report back if anything interesting happens.



  1. Ummm.....it might be worth the time to really look at these concepts. Also the whole process of experience.
    An area of Buddhism that really does illuminate some of the photographic process is the Five Aggregates.

    The five khandhas are bundles or piles of form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness

    Worth Reading...


  2. I more modern presentation...


  3. Thanks! Buddhism always makes me feel a little on edge, as I always feel like anything I've understood, I have understood wrong, and the real truth is something else entirely! I do sniff around it a bit from time to time, though.

    Thanks for the links!

  4. I took the liberty of writing a tl:dr version of your fine piece. Here it is!

    Right View: The view from my 50mm prime lens!
    Right Intention: I want to go take some AWESOME photos!
    Right Speech: "Hey honey, I'm headed out on a photo walk!"
    Right Action : I cleaned the lens and loaded a big memory card!
    Right Livelihood: I work in IT…duh!
    Right Effort : I payed attention today!
    Right Mindfulness: I knew if I kept shooting, I'd be rewarded!
    Right Concentration: I kept a good eye on the meter and the focus!

    1. Genius! A couple more steps and we'll get it down to 'my' and then we'll really have something!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I was just telling someone about the inner game books. Strange coincidencees...

  6. This is a nice plan to actually go out and take pictures regularly, but the difference with what professional artists actually do is worth noting. Compared to, say, Robert Frank's project "The Americans", your message lacks content and form.

    Let me illustrate: when Frank went out to photograph America, he had a precise message in head: to demonstrate that America was not the land of milk, honey and infinite opportunities post-war Europeans thought it was. It was not to simply "shoot Americans" and see from there how it would look, but to shoot them to illustrate that very message he had in mind. You plan to go there shooting the pacific northwest, but you do not have a content for that message yet. What could it be? Do you want to demonstrate that it is a dreadful place to live with ruined economy/ecology or, on the contrary, to demonstrate it is a picturesque vacation spot (I have no idea, I have never been there, I am just making up examples)? That would be the content.

    Next: the form. All artists plan the final form of their message first. Will it be a book, an exhibition or something else. About how many pictures? If it is a series of pictures, how are they going to be linked (e.g., with a common theme, or maybe with text in a book or as a filmic presentation)? Color or B&W? If color, what color palette will be used? For color and B&W: what common aspect will they have (contrast, light, grain, etc...)? For Robert Frank, form would be: "book, pictures linked to one another by analogies in composition but contrast in successive subjects, B&W, contrast and grain from small format high speed film (in the analog era, "aspect" often simply meant choosing a format and film type, we have less limitations with digital).

    Another example to make you understand content and form: Lewis Baltz, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. The content would be along the lines "The US is replacing natural landscapes as known from Ansel Adams by suburban sprawl". The form was "Exhibition, large pictures, B&W, sharp all over (infinite depth of field and sharpness were the reason why he chose to use a 24x36 with technical pan film), all compositions level with the horizon, wide angle, taken from elevated points".

    1. Actually, I do have a very clear idea for the Pacific Northwest project, both in terms of what I want to say and how I plan to present it

      Those details are orthogonal to the remarks I'm making in this specific essay, so I didn't go in to them.

      I've written quite a lot about generating and refining ideas, about inspiration, about that whole process. This essay isn't that, though. It's about the self management to execute those things.

  7. As a creed for business life, this is what some of us try to follow on a regular basis, though with slight modification ("Right livelihood" is a given, as it needs to be the basis for the rest of the self-management. I'm in Sales and have selected that as my livelihood; I manage the rest of my working life around that premise).
    Applying this to photography is something I have considered only very loosely before; my photography is really poor, as I have not sufficient coherent steps to MANAGE the what and the why.
    Should prevent much earache from my wife in the future, as she's my fiercest critic!!
    Thanks, Andrew; you've made my day!!