Beinn Eighe in winter from Loch Clair, Torridon, Scottish Highlands

Zen and the Art of Photographic Appreciation

In my deeply philosophical state of mind in recent times, I’ve been reflecting on what photography is really all about.

And one question in particular has been on my mind: What is the difference between a marvellous photograph, and a photograph of something marvellous?

When people comment on photographs, for example on Flickr (often with a one-word hyperbole like “awesome” ) or in a judging session at the camera club, to what does their comment refer? Are they commenting on the subject matter or the image?

Marvellous photographs, or photographs of marvellous things?

Yr Aran, Snowdonia National Park

Yr Aran, Snowdonia National Park

A good example of photographs of marvellous things would be the countless images I’ve seen of places like the Himalaya. One could argue that it is difficult to make unimpressive pictures in the Himalaya, because the place is impressive. Yet some photographers definitely create images, marvellous images, that have more soul than others.

I think the Himalaya are marvellous mountains, but what is special to me is ordinary to others, and the scale of variance is infinite.

Subject novelty or familiarity can lead to confused distinctions between marvellous photos and marvellous things. I’ve seen critics rave about an image of a child in India, yet be completely unmoved by an image of a child in Brighton. Why? The photograph may have the same style of expression, but the former is often somehow adjudged more interesting, and that subject interest assigned to the photograph.

With all of my scenic work, I have often been conscious that all I did was show up, and make a photograph of some ‘awesome’ event. I might have applied some photographic skill to orchestrate things onto my frame, but the subject took care of itself. So is it entirely in the eye of the beholder? What role does the photographer really play? Where’s my soul in the deal?

I asked the headline question of some friends. Here are some answers:

“A marvellous photograph is one that allows me to be touched inside deeply.”

“The ordinary photo asks me out. The marvellous photo takes me out.”

“The photographer.”

“Where the energy comes from, the photographer or the subject. “

Zen and the Art of Photographic Appreciation

All of these answers hint at the heart of the matter, a place visited by Robert M. Pirsig (1974) in the seminal book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

According to Pirsig, quality does not reside in the object; quality resides in the moment of interaction between the object and the viewer. In our discussion, thereby, quality is not inherent in the photograph, nor in the viewer’s definitions of quality, but in the interaction between them. So the power of an image must surely come from the meanings, emotions, feelings evoked in the viewer by the act of viewing the photograph.

Which suggests that everything must be ‘in the eye of the beholder’.

How, then, can the photographer have input? Is it possible that the photographer’s energy and soul, the quality in the interaction between photographer and original object, can be transferred into the interaction between photograph and viewer? If so, does the photograph, as a representation of the interaction between photographer and object, have inherent quality – a marvellous photograph?

I would suggest that a marvellous photograph exists when there is synergy in the quality of interaction throughout the process: where photographer has invested skill and energy and soul and passion and orchestration into the making of the image, and where that happens to be understood, appreciated and felt by the viewer. That is, there are two ‘quality’ interactions, not just that between viewer and photograph, but also between photographer and subject / object, and the marvellous photograph represents them both.

2013_365032 - Acre of Diamonds

An Acre of Diamonds

In the absence of a soulful interaction between photographer and subject, it is less likely that the viewer will be truly moved by the picture. A straight ‘snap’ stands only to chance that the viewer will happen to consider the content to be marvellous.

However, my 365 Project Infinity work has taught me that, by interacting with ‘ordinary’ things in a present and extraordinary way, by putting in some soul, I can make photographs of ‘ordinary things’ that have the power to touch people. This is perhaps because the viewer can sense the quality of my interaction.

One of my great mentors said: “the best photography comes from the heart”. Gaston Rebuffat said: “To be able really to see, it is not enough to open the eyes; one must first open one’s heart”. Both ideas seem to apply equally to photographer and viewer.

… Ken

PS: The quality of this article is in the moment of your interaction with it … It is written exactly as it fell out of my mind, with no alterations. My thoughts on it might change as I interact with it as a reader. It was written and first published on TTL in 2010.

References Pirsig RM (1974), “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, ISBN-10: 0099322617, ISBN-13: 978-0099322610 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: 25th Anniversary Edition