Zen and the Art of Motordrive (thoughts on teaching/part 2)

Continued from previous post: In those workshops, I work to get the students to do many things such as assemble a set of images with a point of view or to use light and shadow to improve their images. First, they must master the machine in their hands, the camera. Much of the time is spent on buttons and settings. F-stops and shutter speeds dominate the conversations.

It takes more than one class, but occasionally the more dedicated ones understand. They accept that they have to learn their cameras, any cameras, like they know the tools they use in their “paying” professions. Many of my students are accomplished in other fields before turning to photography. Surgeons have their scalpels, lawyers their words and mathematicians their numbers. We have our cameras, which in the best hands become intuitively operated extensions of the photographer.

They need to practice and to practice again. They eventually arrive at a Zen-like moment, when they instinctively, rapidly and even unconsciously can make the camera to do exactly what they want. It is hard, focused, critical work, requiring patience. I know from the feedback I get from my students that I do not usually get them to a Zen-like state. But I do usually get them on the road to that goal, and knowing which road to take is half the battle.

Many people teach classes where the words “Zen” and “photography” are intertwined. From students and workshop directors, I hear over and over how these teachers focus on meditation, spirituality and the like. They also tell me that few of these instructors get their students any closer to the kind of real mastery that Zen requires.

The students that I speak with after these so-called Zen focused classes tell remarkably similar stories about the lessons learned. They say the one bit of guidance they appreciate is to “turn off the motor drive”. In theory it is not bad advice if it gets them to contemplate their photographic compositions more deliberately. But switching off one setting is not the kind of disciplined work that any serious Zen practitioner has to master.

That idea, practicing a skill till you reach a Zen-like mastery came up again recently. I was encountering still another teaching style in the motorcycle riding class that I had to pass to get my motorcycle license. Though I had ridden for years when I was young, I was completely out of practice. The course was both a legal requirement and a welcome refresher course.

I doubt that the instructor would tolerate me describing him as a Zen practitioner. Rather, he was a heavy-set, middle-aged guy, teaching us a few skills and trying to keep us from getting hurt. Each technique that he demonstrated reminded us how effortless his execution was. Every time he glided to a stop afterwards, he silently highlighted how much practice lay ahead of us. I am not sure he would have thought of it, but it was clear he had absorbed all the lessons of all of his teachers and predecessors.

For him (and for me) riding a motorcycle required an intuitive, Zen-like command of the controls. So these days I continue my photography, trying to hold onto the Zen level skills I have developed over decades. I have decades ahead of practice on the motorcycle, to reach anything near a similar state of mastery.

I actually think the motorcycle has improved my photography. Riding requires an exponentially higher level of awareness of what’s around you. It also requires an intensity of focus and the ability to react to anything that happens. But unlike in photography, where the consequences of failure are only a lousy photograph, the consequences of failure on a motorcycle are so much higher.

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