Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Course in Photography

I'd like to teach a course in photography—I have taught other courses, but this dream remains unrealized—called The Zen of Photography, or perhaps The Art of Spirit in Photography. It would not be a theoretical class, nor primarily a discussion or philosophical class, it would be practical and experiential. Students would be expected to have read from the reading list before each class, but each class would be practice, an exercise or situation to work with. The class would be about teaching a mindset—a Way of working—grounded in actual practice, not in just talking about ideas. It would also not be a beginning photography course; students would be expected to have some experience and familiarity with their cameras and other tools.

There would be a variety of sessions. The first week would be to familiarize ourselves with the materials at hand, before stepping out to make photos. We might discuss composition and framing; the ethics of staging a scene vs. discovering an existing arrangement; the necessity of slowing down to spend a long time looking before we ever make a single photograph. Some photographs are made quickly, in the moment; for others, one must spend all day waiting for the light to be just right.

A session would be spent outdoors, starting an hour before sunset, and proceeding for two hours after. (I have taught specialized courses in night and low-light photography before.) Another outdoors session might be an afternoon in the woods.

Another would be about portraits: but portraits of anything but people, still designed to do what portraits do at their best, which is to bring out the inner self. How you photograph a river in order to bring out its inner essence? a leaf? a candle? a park bench?

One entire session would be practice in calligraphy, followed by photographs of each other's calligraphy. The brush, the pen, the word, the book, the photo; these are all more connected than we usually realize. A similar session could be devoted to lighting and photographing still-life arrangements of writing materials and books.

The ultimate goal of this course is to get the students to get past all the technical aspects of photography, which is where most students spend most of their time, and get them to experience for themselves the poetry and Tao of photography. To get them to be able to go out and take a camera walk. It's about attitude and worldview and mindset, and how to make photographs both with detachment and as if your very life depended on them. Both are true.

The reading list would include:

Philippe L. Gross & S.I. Shapiro: The Tao of Photography: Seeing beyond seeing

Robert Leverant: Zen in the Art of Photography

José Argüelles: The Transformative Vision: Reflections on the nature and history of human expression

Audrey Toshiko Seo: Enso: Zen circles of enlightenment

Frederick Franck: The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/drawing as meditation. This book is central to the course. It is also best when accompanied by its two companion volumes, all drawn and hardwritten in their original editions by the author:

Frederick Franck: The Awakened Eye

Frederick Franck: Art as a Way: A return to the spiritual roots. This is another key book for the course; it contains basic concepts and attitudes that are valuable beyond saying.

Not Man Apart. A Sierra Club Book with several contributors, one of their best ever. Lines from poet Robinson Jeffers; this is actually a good introduction to Jeffers' poetry, and can serve poetry students as an illustrated Selected Poems of sorts. Photographs of the Big Sur Coast by Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams, and several other top-flight photographers. With an introductory essay by Loren Eiseley.

David Bayles & Ted Orland: Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking

Matsuo Basho: Narrow Road to the Interior (I prefer the Sam Hamill translation.)

John Cage: A Year from Monday

Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet (I prefer the Stephen Mitchell translation.)

Optional further reading would include:

Robert Pirsig: Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (A famous title, but how many of you have actually read the book?)

Dan Millman: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. (Essential grounding in basic concepts. The recent movie helped revive interest in this perennial title.)

Philip Scott Chard: The Healing Earth: Nature's medicine for the troubled soul. (I recommend this book as not just another pretty new age nature book. For one thing, it's better written than most. For another, it contains practical exercises.)

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