In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path is the last of the Noble Truths, the one that leads us to the end of suffering. Don’t worry, one night’s stay at a Buddhist temple on a beautiful mountain and participating in zazen and copying the Heart sutra haven’t made me go all bananas all of a sudden, but it is a fact that Zen art does resonate with me and who can say no to developing insight into the true nature of reality when we’re talking about photography. It is something that I’ve always found difficult to achieve: looking at things differently from others, simplifying the composition and finding the essence of it. Don’t the photos that win prizes and acclaim excel in exactly that?
The Eightfold Path is traditionally written down like this:
These are not stages that need to be reached one after the other like the steps of becoming a sage or a list of commandments, these are the practices that describe how an aware photographer behaves and reacts to challenges. These are things that need to be practiced in unison for us to improve ourselves. It is tempting to cherry-pick the ones that would obviously apply to photography but let’s show Right Effort and include all the precepts.
Over the next few weeks I’ll explore Eightfold Path and how I would apply it to my photography.
Having lived around London for several years and having carried my camera on me for many an impromptu photo walk, I usually went to the South Bank if I didn’t go to the Battersea area. I liked the space you have on the banks of the River Thames and the chances for some easy street photography with the tourists and the performers.
So, many times I have walked underneath Waterloo Bridge being intrigued by the underside of the bridge or by the skateboarders on the Southbank Skatepark, but little did I know that a far more interesting place lies just on the other side of the river: Somerset House.
Somerset House has regular photo exhibitions, free access and a free guided tour. The most well known photography subjects in Somerset House are the Stamp Office staircase and the Nelson staircase.
On my 35mm camera I had brought a 20mm lens to be able to get as much as possible inside the frame. The first time I visited I had loaded Ilford HP5+ at EI 400 which was perfect. The next time I visited I had loaded Fuji Acros 100 at EI 100 and that almost was a mistake as it was darker than you would expect.
Whether they are clichés in post-processing like the use of selective colours, over the top tone mapped HDR images, the indiscriminate use of post processing filters, too much saturation or vignetting, etc. etc. or the clichés in subjects like sunsets, flowers, pets, extreme long exposures of buildings or Victorian piers on the beach, etc. etc., there is a risk that people are tired of looking at the results. On several blogs I see negative comments on nice and well composed photos with the only rebuke that the photo is a cliché and no other comment is given. That’s just silly.
To tell you the truth, I don’t mind looking at clichés, I don’t mind taking a photo that would be considered a cliché. Of course, a photo from the same location and the same angle and exposure as everybody else’s will not be satisfactory to most including me and I think anybody who is serious about photography would get bored of those photos pretty quickly and start exploring other areas of photography. Once you get past the phase of photo postcards, there are libraries of photo books and gigabytes of examples online available of classic photography. But imitating the masters yields clichés. Indeed, passing an imitation off as the bees knees is not a good idea and it is always good to know when you are imitating somebody, but trying to figure out how a certain photo that appeals to you is made by exploring and copying the techniques used is just common sense. With a bit of luck one can stand on the shoulders of giants and take the next step.
To me, the problem is not the imitation or the cliché, but to me the problem is the repetition, not moving on and starting to imitate oneself. And I don’t think that only starting photographers are guilty of that.
Sun Ra and his Arkestra at the North Sea Jazz Festival – Saturday 17 July 1982.
A Sun Ra concert is something you will remember for the rest of your life: it is a mix between a big-band free-jazz concert, a religious ceremony and a trip to outer space. Long before UFO abduction stories had been heard of, Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount) had become convinced that his roots lay on the planet Saturn which he visited by spaceship and he developed “cosmic” philosophies and lyrical poetry as he preached “awareness” and peace above all in his music. No need to point out that the concert of Sun Ra and his Arkestra that I visited on the Roof Garden scene at the North Sea Jazz Festival 1982 was quite the spectacle with the space music, poem recitals and space costumes.