Defining the spirit of art photography and bringing together Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eckhart Tolle


I decided to pull together and develop some pieces about photography.  Hence my new 'investigative journal' seeking the essence, the spirit, of photography – and the impact of discovered in-sights, and out-sights, on my photography, my consciousness and spirit.

It will inevitably also ‘touch base’ with some painting, sculpture, video and film.

My working definition of art says;

Art is culturally, and personally, significant meaning, skilfully

encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium.

(RP’s working definition  – after a definition by Richard Anderson quoted in Freeland (2001 p. 77))

My definition of photography is inevitably the same, but what is special and defining about photography?

The great master Henri Cartier-Bresson said;

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.

My working definition of art plus HCB’s definition will have to do for now.

However Cartier-Bresson’s definition may not stand up as a general definition.  It doesn’t work so well with great innovatory fine art photographers like Calum Colvin or Cindy Sherman

Both Colvin and Sherman can take days or weeks or months to compose a set of their images.

HCBs definition is about how he was as a photographer, the process he worked with, and the strange set of rules he imposed on himself – including  demanding the black edge on his prints to show that it was a full-frame and not cropped.  He was largely a street photographer, a hunter of the magic moment when camera and eye and heart were in perfect, and geometric, alignment.

Of course his definition and the rules by which he worked reflect each other.

How slippery it is to try and define photography is felt very strongly when we read the wonderful book The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer.

To put my cards on the table – I suspect the spirit of photography can only be understood against the background of an understanding of the human spirit, something I undertook in my doctorate – summary is HERE.

What does the spirit of photography have to do with spirituality in its broadest sense?  Photographs are moments captured, fixed, plucked out of time and given eternality (or at least as long as the paper and chemicals last).  Spirituality in its mystical heart is beyond religion and culture.  It is about how we learn through stillness to unhook ourselves from the pain of past regret and future longing.  To take a photograph is to assert the now, only to become conscious that in all outward particulars the photograph is changing because it is an object back in the flow we call time.  But really the only reason a photograph changes is because we change.  We learn to read with more compassion, more in-sight, more wholeness.  Try it with pictures of yourself, your parents and family.

If there isn’t more compassion, more in-sight, more wholeness there is some serious work to do!  I hear that the guru Ram Dass says if you think you have made real progress spiritually try going home to live with your parents for a week or two.

When we ‘take’ a photograph that works we are participating in the very essence of human challenge, the challenge to live in the present without being thrown by the ‘radio interference’ of past regret or future longing – two kinds of ‘if only’.

Positive photographs point through surface particulars to this human, spiritual reality.

Negative photographs are ones taken in desperation to keep that which is slipping by, because we can’t face living in the now.

A great source to inspire us in this is Eckhart Tolle, especially his book Stillness.  One example;

When you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself.  When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.

Your innermost sense of self, of who you are, is inseparable from stillness.  This is the I Am that is deeper than name and form.

All great art nourishes most in these great universals.

In seeking to go deeper into photography, and other arts, – as celebration, as ‘connecting with’, as personal creativity – my special focus then will inevitably be a humanistic one.  It will be on photography’s place in the very process of being and becoming human, in the flow of the human spirit, and the gathering of eternal moments, along the tao of life.


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