Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The idea of using film as a Zen experience

A professional photographer and pretty good blogger, Doug Munuez, has written a nice piece on his transition from film to digital, the feeling of dissatisfaction that left him with and how using film has restored his sense of balance and fulfilment. He has characterised this as the Zen of Film.

I respectfully disagree. Or more positively, I agree, but only sort of.

I think what the author is reflecting upon is “his” Zen. ‘Zen’, stripped down and condensed is just a way of learning from direct experience rather than on rational creeds or revealed scriptures. Wisdom is passed, not through words, but through a lineage of one-to-one direct transmission of thought from teacher to student. (adapted from a Wiki definition).

From the articles wistful reminiscing on using film since ten, boozy late night development /printing sessions, and the times spent with older mentors its pretty clear that the author experienced this sort of learning with his film development. Whilst I am certain that there would have been theory lessons on the nuts and bolts of photography, the overall theme is of his development in film is one of a slow, lifelong meditative growth.

Conversely, for the author, digital is all theory and rationality. Its not about finding new things to do or believe in, its merely about finding out how to do what he was doing in film using a new technique. Again stealing from wiki: What Zen emphasizes is that the awakening taught by the Buddha came through his meditation practice, not from any words that he read or discovered, and so it is primarily through meditation that others too may awaken to the same insights as the Buddha.” For the author, digital is all words and discoveries hence digital is ultimately unsatisfying. This becomes clear in his choice of words to describe how he uses digital – he always chooses a pejorative to describe digital practices.

So nothing the author has written is wrong – for him.

However, for others (like me) its not so clear. In fact, I sense that for me, it could be the other way round. My only ‘zen’ could be digital – that is my slow meditative practice. Digital is my first path to wisdom through the exploration and contemplation of the world through my experience whereas there is a real risk that film could be nothing but cold rationality and theory, simply learned mechanistic technique to reproduce what I already had.

But I don’t believe it has to be this way, hence I say it “could” be like this for me. I am trying to make both digital and film my ‘zen’. I think the key to this is not trying to replace one with the other but to allow yourself the room to meditate on both. The author of this piece clearly has not done this for digital.

Ultimately, therefore I see this story as a record of failure. When confronted with a challenge (his dissatisfaction with digital) rather than embrace the challenge, allow himself to meditate on that path he has surrendered and reverted to an older, safer way.

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