Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness
Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre has been called the bible of existentialism. It’s a long, difficult book to read, and depending on who you ask, it’s either a work of pure genius, complete nonsense or both.

It might be worthwhile to look at some other things that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in order to understand existentialism and his perspective in general.

For example, he said: “All I really want to do is go to the book store, drink coffee and read.” Back in his day book stores didn’t even have Wi-Fi, so you know he was serious.

Another thing that’s crucial to understanding the man and his philosophy is this: “I do not think therefore I am a mustache.” Well, obviously.

And possibly the most important thing he ever said is: “Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.”

This is especially true of most outdoor photography unless you plan to shoot wide open, convert to black and white, and call it something obscure like being and nothingness.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Failure to launch
Failure to launch

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist best known for creating his hierarchy of needs. Of the five needs, the first four are referred to as deficiency needs, and are said to motivate people when they are unmet.

One day I was passing through Bird In Hand, and saw one of the hot air balloons filling up as they do most summer afternoons. I decided that I needed a great photograph of it and I was motivated. The light was good, it was warm, and they were launching three at the same time. I was as excited as a donkey on Donkey Derby Day (it’s an Irish thing).

There was plenty of time so I took a few test shots, checked the exposure and the camera suddenly died. Not having the extra battery with me, I stayed to watch for a while, pretending that it was enough just to see three balloons floating into the gorgeous blue sky, but it wasn’t, my needs were unmet.

The fifth need is self-actualization, and he estimated that only two percent of people would ever reach that state.

He is also known for Maslow’s hammer, popularly phrased as “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Or in my case, if all you have is a dead camera, go home, eat dinner and try again another time.

Beginner’s Mind

Simple pleasures
Simple pleasures

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes; “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

What he calls beginner’s mind refers to doing something without thinking about achieving anything, which could be recognition, likes on a Facebook page, or a tweet by the President and a free room for life in one of his hotels.

Last night I spent two frustrating hours taking photos of colored pencils for a piece I wanted to write called selective focus. It was to be about the way we get caught up in our own bullshit by the way we think, and what we think about. So of course the photo had to be tack sharp, it had to be perfect.

Finally I decided the whole thing was pointless and gave up, putting the pencils in an old cigar box along with some crayons I had for another project on color. I looked over and saw something that was random and perfect and nothing special (also the title of a fantastic book by Charlotte Joko Beck).

I took six photos for the simple reason that I thought it was cool. Yes, I shot RAW and JPEG in manual on a tripod, but people don’t change overnight. And it was absolutely perfect in its own way! It’s a simple photo of crayons in an old cigar box given to me by my father 20 years ago.

So at 2 am last night I had an epiphany and it was free, there is true joy in doing something just because its fun. I can’t wait to tell this to my therapist next week when I pay my bill. She might tell me that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I have a feeling she’ll read more into this than there really is.

A Mushrooming Perspective

Enoki Mushrooms
Enoki Mushrooms

These are Enoki mushrooms I shot one day experimenting with still life photography. If you’ve never seen them, it’s hard to appreciate just how small they are, the whole package easily fit in the palm of my hand. Up close though they look very different, which brings up the matter of perspective.

We think that things such as birth, old age, sickness and death are a big deal, but of course those things are unavoidable. Now I’ve already been born, many times I was sick, and at 57 I’m rounding third base into old age, but death I’m not too comfortable with.

So I ask myself, self, how can I put everything into perspective? How can I accept the four noble truths, my own mortality, and the fact that I didn’t win Powerball again?

Michael A. singer, author of The Untethered Soul wrote: “You’re just standing on one little ball of dirt and spinning around one of the stars. From that perspective, do you really care what people think about your clothes or your car?”

He makes a very good point, but that philosophy goes out the window when you’re flirting with the gorgeous blonde at the Mercedes dealership.

Many, many years before that, before people had cars, or even paperback books, Marcus Aurelius, an Emperor of Rome, is reported to have said: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

Well you really can’t argue with that kind of clarity, but he wasn’t photographing tiny mushrooms from two inches away, trying to get everything tack sharp, properly exposed and correct the white balance because he used the wrong color lights.

Note to self: buy bigger mushrooms next time, daylight balanced bulbs, and learn to use the perspective warp tool in Photoshop.

The Search for Truth

Long’s Park Heron
Long’s Park Heron

This is one of the Herons that live at Long’s Park, and the possible murderer of the goldfish I wrote about in an earlier post. He seems to be searching for something, although it’s more likely to be a snack than the truth.

Roughly thirty five years ago I was in a topless bar ordering my third scotch. An old man sitting next to me, making love to his tonic and gin, looked at me and asked: “What is truth?” I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.

Hakuin Ekaku, one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism, is reported to have said; “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away.”

Yes…of course. And if I didn’t quit drinking, I’ve have a few Yoichi Single Malts at the Seventh Heaven in Tokyo, and think about that for a while.

The Four Things

Penn Croft Alpacas
Penn Croft Alpacas

Ming Thein is a professional photographer extraordinaire, an Oxford graduate (at 16), a physicist, and a man that takes his craft very seriously. One of his many useful and practical theories is something he calls the four things.

He says; “There are four things to consider in making an image that works: light, subject, composition and the idea.” So this is how I saw the four things yesterday at the Penn Croft Alpaca farm in Lancaster.

The light was pretty good, bright but cloudy which is perfect for photographing white animals. The subject was Alpacas, those cartoon like creatures that can bring a smile to the face of an ax murderer. Composition was tricky, because I wanted a group shot with them all facing the same way. And the idea was to take a decent photo of alpacas on a cloudy day in a group.

It began well and they seemed much friendlier than usual, many shots were taken and most were well composed and sharp, but somewhat boring. Then something exciting started happening with their friends on the other side of the fence. Either an orgy or a fight, it was hard to tell, but they all went over and watched. A few more photos were shot and I knew I had what I wanted.

So does considering the four things make an image that works? Maybe. For my next experiment I will explore composition considering the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, diagonal lines and the golden spiral. Or I can just go out and take pictures.

Impermanence

Snowdrops
Snowdrops

Every spring I visit the Garden Of Five Senses in Lancaster County Central Park to see the snowdrops. They come up in February and within a very short time bloom into the most amazing flowers I’ve ever seen, with small bell shaped pedals with just a touch of green on them. Then a couple of weeks later they’re gone, completely gone, as if they were never there.

It’s easy to see changes over time but to watch them happen this fast is really something to appreciate. Of course, people don’t want to be reminded of impermanence so it’s usually a passing thought, then another thought pops in like what’s for lunch?

Charlotte Joko Beck, author of Everyday Zen said this; “Intelligent Practice always deals with just one thing: the fear at the base of human existence, the fear that I am not. And of course I am not, but the last thing I want to know is that. I am impermanence itself in a rapidly changing human form that appears solid. I fear to see what I am: an ever changing energy field. I don’t want to be that.”

Depending on how far you really get into this whole nothingness thing, you’ll find it either terrifying or enlightening, or both.

Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying wrote; “I shall never forget when Dudjom Rinpoche, in a moment of intimacy, leaned toward me and said in his soft, hoarse, slightly high-pitched voice: “You know, don’t you, that actually all these things around us go away, just go away . . .”

Alrighty then, what’s for lunch?

How To Save a Bad Photo

Save Me!
Save Me!

There are as many ways to save a bad photo as there are ways to scale a fish. If you’re shooting RAW, you can play with the file in Lightroom, Photoshop, HDR software or all three in whatever sequence floats your boat. Of course you can do this with a JPEG as well but let’s not get into that.

Then, if you’re not satisfied with the results you can very easily use a Photoshop filter for creative and/or possibly artistic results. Amaze your friends and family and insist that this was your plan the whole time. But deep down inside you’ll know the real truth. But what is the truth?

There is a very famous poem written by the third patriarch of Zen, Seng-ts’an, called the Hsin-Hsin Ming. In this poem Seng-ts’an writes these lines: “Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.”

In terms of photography this means either nothing or everything. The truth in this case, is that you took a photo that didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Life goes on, but wait…

At this point you’ve not only tried converting to black and white but you did it in a thousand different ways. There is actually a book called From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black and White Conversion Technique Known to Man. I browsed through it once in Barnes & Noble and almost had to call my therapist.

The best technique to save a bad photo is to convince yourself that it’s not really a bad photo. No one besides you is going to zoom in on the original at 100% (or more), study the histogram, or hit the O key in Lightroom to cycle through different grid options like the rule of thirds, the golden ratio and the golden spiral.

I photographed this Alpaca at a farm near Poole Forge on a cloudy day. The light was bad, he was far away, and my composition was terrible. I convinced myself that despite everything it’s not really a bad photo (after cropping and B&W conversion). Despite the fact that he spit a mouthful of chewed up grass and hit me right in the face from 15 feet away, I consider the afternoon and photo memorable if not perfect. Adorable isn’t he?

Al Paca
Al Paca