Zen and the Magic of Photography

"Shadow of a Gondilier by Ernst Haas.
“Shadow of a Gondolier by Ernst Haas.

I recently reviewed Zen and the Magic of Photography, by Wayne Rowe, and shortly after I had the opportunity to interview the author.  He’s been teaching photography in the Cal State University system since the early sixties.  In 1967, his professional career got a break when he began illustrating text books for Harper and Row.  He first developed an interest in zen while he was a college student.  I caught up with him in California and we spoke by phone.

Wayne Rowe
Wayne Rowe

You’d been into photography for a number of years before you made a conscious connection with zen.  What attracted you to zen?

When I was in college I got attracted to this idea of zen.  ‘Cause you’re under pressure and I was always kinda postponing living. I’ve got all these things I’ve gotta get done and they kept piling up on me and I said, “Well, when I graduate, I can live.” No, then you have other problems and you keep putting off enjoying life.  So, then, when I stumbled on it in college, and I started reading about it, “Wow,” was that attractive!   I’m getting into the moment and “living.”  So, I was attracted to zen in college but I never was really able to get into it.

I read about it and had conceptual, intellectual knowledge about it but that’s not enough.  It’s a little like jazz.  You can know all the history of jazz and how it’s constructed, but there’s the other side, the listening and appreciating. I had done a lot of research on zen and I tried to get into it, but I just couldn’t do it.  It was always in the back of my mind, then as I got deeper into photography, it was at Cal Poly in Pomona, I did an article,  I think it was in 2000-01 I put my thoughts about zen  and the “art” of photography as I put it at that time.  And it kinda came together.

I had met Lucien  Clerque, the French photographer, and I did an article on him. He produced a wordless doctoral dissertation in France.  No words, it was his photos.  Lucien was influenced by Roland Barthes (and Barthes is in my book) – he’s the one that mentions studium and punctum.  Where I talk about what a photo’s got to contain. How a photo can provoke satori, the moment of enlightenment.  That, I found in Barthes’ book, which I got into because of Lucien’s dissertation, and Barthes was his director.  It’s the only time in France that they’ve ever given a doctor’s degree  without words. It’s based on his photos!  That kind of opened up some ideas linking haiku, satori, and photography.  That started it percolating again.

zen-403x400You mentioned earlier that you’d read a good bit about zen. Is there a particular book to which you can point as having a significant influence?

There are several.  A great one that had a big influence on me was Eugen Herrigel. He was a German professor and taught at Heidelberg in Germany. He wrote a book called Zen in the Art of Archery. It’s a short book about his experience and how he came to get into the moment to have this zen and satori experience, through archery.  He learned archery with a zen master.  That taught him zen.  There are different ways of getting into what zen is.  There have been books written about zen and tennis and martial arts; it’s all going into the intuitive side.

How deeply are you into zen? 

What zen is to me, it’s not a religion.  It’s more of an orientation.  Zen, to me, is experiencing intuitive contact with reality.  That’s what it is for me.  The idea of getting into the moment, having significant intuitions into reality — a little bit like you say on your website,  “finding the extraordinary in the ordinary”.  Experiencing the “isness” of things.

Did you pick up on my reference to being “in the moment” in my review of your book when I recommended it?

I sure did!  I thought that was great!  I thought you captured the spirit of what I was trying to get across. [He quotes my comment about photographers using zen in their work “more often and on purpose” from the review.]  In other words, they don’t have to wait until they have this realization that I had, they can be into it consciously themselves and then it becomes more intuitive.

What are you thoughts on “self-actualization”? Realizing your full potential. Being the best you can be.  When you reach a point where there’s no difference in who you are and what you’re doing. That’s it. That is the zen type of thing where the moment, the camera, the subject all becomes one thing and you don’t break it up. In that sense, it’s a little bit like what Herrigel is saying, the archer, the bow, the arrow, the target, they’re all one — there’s no separation.   So you’re doing what you want to do and realizing your full potential.

My book is written to help people improve their visual awareness, intuition, and sensitivity. In other words, to get more out of life.  That’s always been my attitude towards photography when I teach a photo class.  It’s to get students to learn to see more, to be more, and get more out of their living.   And if they never pick up a camera again, it doesn’t matter.  But if they carry that with them, they are more open to things around them, they really start feeling, whether they record it or not on a camera.  They are into being and they’re into seeing.

So for me, photography is the path and the way I can self-actualize or be the best I can be. I learned it through photography and for me, the two (zen and self-actualization)  are the same.   In teaching photography I try to get across the oneness of  this whole thing with what I’m doing and try to get to the students what photography offers to them as a life orientation.  I want it to be something that’s not just F-stops and shutter speeds and mechanical camera, and then when they graduate that’s it.  The whole idea for me in photography is to improve their lives.

How do you do that?  Help them learn how to see, and then through seeing,  they can learn to be. Once you’re into seeing  and they’re into the moment, you’ll become and be the best you can be — that’s self-actualization through the mix of photography and zen.

Do you have a book recommendation regarding zen?

Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery; Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography; John R. Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places – these all represent examples of being “in the moment”.

Which photographers have influenced you the most?Ernst Haas  There are many images of his that I love, but the single most inspiring photo of his is “Shadow of a Gondolier,1955,” it’s satori.


Part 2 of the interview with Wayne Rowe will be published next week.


Please click the book cover image to read more about FCEtier and his novels.

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