ON HARNESSING THE UNCONSCIOUS
I have come to believe that there are discoverable relationships between seemingly diverse art mediums and the philosophies that surround them. I offer this statement as an excuse to set up the following set of thoughts, including musings about writing and photography. Hopefully I have hooked you into reading further.
During the 1930's German philosopher Dr. Eugene Herrigel traveled to Japan to study archery and in the process gain a better understanding of the concept of Zen.
Archery as Zen! You say. Stay with me.
At the end of six years of study with a master archer Herrigel wrote a small book titled ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY. In less than 90 pages he outlined his struggle to understand and master the bow and in doing so was guided through the veil of his western mind set to a better understanding of Zen as a way of understanding and being.
Herrigel learned that the goal of the Zen archer was not in the drawing of the bow or shooting of the arrow into a target, but in the process of learning itself as a way to train the mind. He was taught to transcend the motions required for archery and instead immerse himself in a state of understanding that made his archery an "artless" art growing out of intuition rather than technique.
One of the goals of his training was to learn to clear his mind of everything but the "act" itself. One state of mind necessary to gain this mastery was through reaching a kind of "childishness" that was restored through long years of training in "self-forgetfulness".
Herrigel's trial by archery offers a guide of sorts to an understanding of the creative process involved in writing and photography. Through his Zen Master he learned to master the tools of archery so completely that they ceased to be a conscious consideration when he utilized those tools.
Writer/teacher Dorthea Brande taught creative writing during the 1920's and during that time explored the role of the unconscious and intuition in the writing process. Brande suggested ways to quiet the mind and free the process of the conscious search for creativity from the noise of daily activity. Part of this self discipline was through the recapturing of what Brande called the "innocence of eye" or re-learning to be a "stranger in their own familiar streets".
Like the Zen Master's repetitive exercises for self-control through bowmanship, Brande was a firm believer in observing a strict discipline of routine for writing. In the classroom Brande challenged her students to learn to "harness their writing arm to their unconscious; re-enter the world of wordless daydreams" and let the body relax and learn to let the unconscious come forward.
During the 1950's photographer/teacher/philosopher Minor White led classes at Rochester Institute of Technology through similar exercises in introspection designed to focus his student's powers of seeing through photography. White challenged his students to look harder at photographs for what they might represent rather than what they might be. His classes revolved around reaching a mental attitude where "all things gave up the secret of their life". According to White the best state of visual receptiveness for meaningful photography was a "blank-like" condition of non-perception of ideas. He believed the mind must be tranquil and open to any visual suggestion.
Brande suggested utilizing this same state of mind by writing during the early hours of the morning, preferably an hour or so before the student normally got up so as to utilize the creative part of the mind before the concerns of the day clouded creativity. White taught his students to practice photographic seeing all through the day, whether they were carrying a camera or not. The idea was to constantly keep the mind alert to new ideas through the habit of looking hard at daily reality. White also tasked his students to look at and learn to read photographs for the content they contained, either through the intent of the photographer or from their own individual interpretation. Learning to read the work of other photographers would ultimately sharpen and refine the students ability to respond to the visual world around them. Central to White's theories about photography was the idea of visual "equivalents", a concept first introduced by Alfred Steiglitz during the 1920's. White believed that photographs that acted as equivalents were metaphors for something the photographer felt when the picture was made.
Possibly the single most famous description of the photographic act was made by French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson. "To me photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression." Cartier-Bresson's description was ultimately shortened down to "The decisive moment", and used to explain a whole generation of street photographer's work. John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art wrote in his book PHOTOGRAPHY UNTIL NOW that "photographs are made not essentially by hand but by eye with a machine that records with unforgiving candor the quality of mind informed by that eye. Photographer Garry Winogrand explained it even more simply when he wrote, "Photography is about how things look photographed".
Both the concept of Zen and the act of photographing would seem to reside in the unspoken world of intuition and yet both require the cognitive world of the printed word to be given more universal expression. In turn the written word also enjoys a close relationship with intuition and in turn through this intuitive response to writing as art an easy relationship with the practice of Zen. The sound of one hand clapping? Perhaps.
Writer Ernest Hemingway once alluded to the intuitive in his art when he said he used the typewriter but often preferred to write by hand because that physical act put his mind in closer contact with the paper. Intuitive creativity is fragile stuff that is not always user friendly, disappearing in puffs before the "thing itself" can take some concrete form.
Most of us can remember instances of waking in the early morning hours with the solution to a problem or idea in our mind and then slipping back off to sleep resolving to remember, and then waking to the nagging memory of a "solution", and not remembering what it was. One good reason to sleep with a pad and pencil nearby.
For the photographer the creative act...the "it" of the process usually happens very quickly. Moments of recognition, Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moments", happen very quickly and are generally not repeatable. Street photographers work in the world of the animate and split seconds that pass quickly. Their goal is to snatch these moments from the narrative flow of reality and freeze them in some meaningful way.
Landscape photographers deal with the inanimate which is more concerned with quality, quantity, and direction of light, rather than moments in time. Here the subject matter may stand still or be repeated until the photograph works.
The writer usually enjoys the benefit of reflection or hindsight and physical duration of their subject matter. The writer can record narrative time as moments, like the photographer, or in layers of narrative that can move backward or forward in time. For both the act of seeing is principal to recording that narrative ,and within that narrative the recognition of something extraordinary.
Jazz musicians practice scales until the knowledge of those scales becomes melded within their unconscious. These same scales then become part of that musician's solo improvisations...flights of sound that are born in an instant even if the musician has never played a particular composition before.
The photographer learns camera technique so completely that it is then discarded from conscious thought while working within a visual situation. Like Hemingway's handwritten literary composition, the act of visual recognition has a shorter route to traverse when passing from the eye to the brain and back to the camera shutter.
Photographer/teacher Jerry Uelsmann once wrote a colleague about his early days as a student at Rochester Institute of Technology and his inability to asked the right questions of his teacher Minor White. Uelsmann wondered if possibly an artist couldn't understand another artist`s poetic experience (in this case White's) when he (Uelsmann) hadn't had one himself at the time. Poetic experience, creative insight...Zen inspired intuition. I believe so. Whether you believe it or not will have to remain a part of your own journey