Unreal Nature

March 4, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… The purpose of this seismic confrontation is “to destroy the specious ‘reality’ in our minds so that we can see directly.”

This is from the essay ‘Zen Camera: Merton and My Father’ by Chris Meatyard found in Meatyard / Merton: Merton / Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton (2013):

… Photographs tangibly link the present to very precise moments of heritage, serving as a matrix for visual as well as conceptual memory. Contemplative photography, on the other hand, provides a mental, visual awareness which helps to express the process of an individual giving up his own identity in favor of a greater collective identity. The act of the contemplative can be reasserted and rediscovered in the contemporary technology of photography in a way that goes beyond much of the production of conventional painters and sculptors. Contemplative photography extends the traditional role of the artist and permits a kind of visual reformation with a broader, less elitist medium for spiritual expression — for Merton, we sense, an expression of the will of God.


… Photography, he felt, could inspire a reassessment, a dialogue, between the inner self and the skin of mechanism wihch technologists busily perfect as man’s new, but eternal image — a dialogue which can evolve into a more fulfilling emergence of human potential.

The problems of photography stayed with Merton for many years. At the time of his death he was just beginning to formulate the terms of a solution. The photographic image he regarded as a mental tool, like language. the “best photography” conveys “thought” — “not so much what you saw as what you thought you saw.”

… As an artist’s son, Merton makes this observation: “The integrity of an artist lifts [him] above the level of the world without delivering him from it.”

… Certain aspects of the structure of the photographic process appear mechanically parallel to elements of monastic life. The monk’s cell is similar to the empty dark chamber of the camera. The monk’s inner focus and exposure to a transfiguring light, his latent retainment and gradual development of a mystical experience, is coincidental to the process of exposure and development of a photographic negative or print. The early literature of monastic mysticism developed a vocabulary of Neoplatonic negativism to express an inner vision of the “uncreated light” and a “darkness clearer than light” expounded by such writers as Dionysius the Areopagite (6th century), Gregorious Palamas (c. 1296-1359), and Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1327). Aware of this tradition and the coincidence of terms, one of the most pertinent and informative structural components of the photographic process for Merton, is the way in which light is converted into a black emulsion on transparent film so that a new exposure is needed to transfer and fulfill the image’s intended form.

… For Merton contemplative photography is an awareness of our particular imminent judgment. With photography, we confront this limit of knowledge, the Unmasked, the Unspeakable, in seeing the desirable photograph through the camera yet choosing not to take it. The medium of the photography is essentially a mechanism of choice.

The biographer John Howard Griffin said Merton had no interest at all in “ordinary” photography and that he seemed to use it as an instrument or focus for “contemplation.” The act of contemplation itself, as Merton defined it, is an existential abandonment of all prior terms or ideologies. The conceptual ideal of contemplative photography is a focused goal for meditation and it only survives the act of contemplation as an imagistic metaphor. The medium of photography can expose the suffering of one’s identity, and we can apply contemplative insight toward attentive personal revisions of the visible world.

… While the essence of photography is its minimal and abstract grasp of reality, it is more commonly assumed to be a medium of pure factualization. Yet, as Zen makes us aware, once a fact is isolated from the stream of reality, it becomes a representation, an illusion, a contradiction.

Merton saw in Meatyard’s photographs a contemporary and pervasive vehicle for communicating the Zen experience. Meatyard’s photography contains what Merton termed “the classic Zen material”:

Curious anecdotes, strange happenings, cryptic declarations, explosions of illogical humor, not to mention contradictions, inconsistencies, eccentric and even absurd behavior, and all for what? … [T]he paradox and violence of Zen teaching and practice is aimed at blasting the foundations of ready explanation and comforting symbol out from under the disciple’s supposed “experience” …

The purpose of this seismic confrontation is “to destroy the specious ‘reality’ in our minds so that we can see directly.” When we plunge into photography with this awareness we can begin to contemplate the full, stark contrast of our detachment from reality against the implicit confidence in facts with which we are born.




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