Photography is my discipline for learning to be fully present to the world. When I take up the camera, I go exploring, tuning my senses to things that I might otherwise pass by in busyness and habit. It is an act of devotion to the real that frees me from constricted awareness and bondage to the illusions that so easily creep into daily life. It has taken quite awhile for me to arrive here, and along the way I have succumbed to a few temptations.
When I began photographing, I fell for the temptation of believing that there was a perfect camera, lens, or tripod which, if I found and bought it, would catapult my pedestrian photographs to greatness. And surely, there is a benefit to finding the right gear that suits your photographic style. To make good photographs, you need the right tools the same way a master woodworker needs the right tools to make great furniture. But camera gear does not make good photographs. Attentive photographers do.
I next fell for the temptation of believing that I could only make good photographs in exotic, picturesque places. I've walked along many miles of desert, forest, and beach, and I've made some good photographs along the way. To make good photographs, you regularly need the stimulation of new environments that evoke wonder, delight, and experimentation. But picturesque places do not make good photographs. Attentive photographers do.
And finally, I succumbed to the temptation of believing that strict adherence to rules of graphic design and composition would transform my photographs into great ones. So, I learned the rule of thirds, mastered the color wheel, faithfully sought out leading lines, and attuned myself to the siren song of the s-curve. And I learned that such design and compositional techniques do, in fact, enhance the visual poetics of my photographs. But such techniques do not make good photographs. Attentive photographers do.
Tools, travel, technique -- these are things that belong to what the ancient collection of Taoist writings known as the Chuang-tzu calls Little Understanding. Little Understanding is largely technical in nature and it is indispensable to creativity. But there's another kind of knowledge, the kind the Chuang-tzu calls Great Understanding. Great Understanding is creative vision born out of unconstricted attentiveness to one's environment. It is intuitive, unforced, spontaneous, and responsive to surprise. It is attuned to the mystery in the ordinary. Great Understanding involves heightened awareness of the evanescent and fleeting character of each moment of existence, and it lingers there, seeking not to own, possess, or control things. It lingers there to participate in and enjoy communion with things, but then lets them pass away as they inevitably must.*
I was reminded of the importance of Great Understanding again this week when I walked out to my car on the driveway. In the ten-second walk from my front door to the car, I was struck by the sullen, grey morning skies and the piles of leaves that the wind had blown into my front yard. I noticed the raindrops from early morning still on some of these leaves, and I was especially intrigued, for reasons I cannot fully explain, by the ginkgo leaves. And so, I reached for my camera and lost myself for an hour in the Great Understanding of the leaves.
Raindrops on a Ginkgo Leaf is one morning's triumph over old temptations and a savoring of Great Understanding.
*I am indebted to Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro's The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2001; pp. 10-12) for this discussion of Little and Great Understanding.