Zen and The Art of Photography

In his introduction to Reading Photographs (1) Ainslie Ellis calls for the audience to bring their whole creative attention to a photograph as “then, and only then, something remarkable can happen”. He argues that in a world of mass beliefs, which are assumed and interpreted for us, the great danger is to approach photography with well formulated ideas of what we like, anticipating our emotional response or predicting the social messages the photograph will convey and thereby, rather than giving it our full creative attention, we are diverted by our preconceptions. A idea worth bearing in mind when approaching a course module on reading photographs; can we study the academic processes of interpreting photography yet still approach each image with our mind a blank canvas upon which we create our reactions?

Ellis’ short essay quickly diverted me from my reading plan as he encouraged me to re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (2) a book I first read in the 70s. Ellis argues that Pirsig should be compulsory reading for anyone “foolish” enough to teach photography as it helps us to understand the meaning of, what the Greeks called, aretê, a word that implies excellence in the context of the wholeness of life, an efficiency not in one thing but in life itself. I might return to Pirsig when I finish the re-read but in the meantime, to help to explain Ellis’ point, I will use the  quotation he selected from a book that inspired Pirsig,  Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel (3), which recounts Herrigel’s experiences learning archery in pre-war Japan; eventually after many trials and tribulations:

“I’m afraid I don’t understand anything more at all, even the simplest things have got in a muddle. Is it “I” who draw the bow, or is it the bow which draws me into the state of highest tension? Do “I” hit the goal, or does the goal hit me? Is “It” spiritual when seen by the eyes of the body and corporeal when seen by the eyes of the sprit – or both or neither? Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes clear and straight forward and so ridiculously simple.”

Ellis is not the only person to see the connection between Zen, archery and photography, Cartier-Bresson, who  is quoted as saying:

“It was Braque who gave me Zen and the Art of Archery. That was in 1943 (i), after he had been captured by the Germans, and managed on his third try to escape.” “It’s a manual of photography, I don’t take photographs. It is the photograph which has to take me.” (4)

Cartier-Bresson often mentions the book in interviews but it is not clear whether Zen in the Art of Archery hugely influenced him or whether the philosophical approach he had already formed seamlessly fitted into the obvious analogy of the archer, bow and target and the photographer, camera and subject and the the necessity for these to become one. His work in the 30s and 40s bears his hallmark as strongly as his work after 1943 so I suspect the book confirmed rather than changed his thinking. We know that the decisive moment was at the heart of his philosophy:

“Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (5)

Jean Clair, at one time the Director of the Musée Picasso, writes (6) that the decisive moment is what Homer called Kairos, a word often associated with archery in the Iliad. It has a complex meaning that is both spacial and temporal describing the ability of the archer to intuitively select the right moment to release the arrow to hit exactly the right spot.

So do aretê and kairos perfectly describe Cartier-Bresson’s work and can this be directly related to Herrigel’s insights of Zen? Motivated by Ellis’ references I read Zen in the Art of Archery (3) to try and answer this question and, perhaps more relevantly, to decide whether finding these attributes in a photograph were an important aspect of reading an image.

Zen in the Art of Archery (ii)

Originally published in 1948 (i) this short book can be read in an evening but there is a difference between reading and understanding and an even wider gap between understanding and implementation.

In fact, if one accepted this book as a manual of photography, we might take many years to take our first photograph as the path defined calls for a mystical relationship to be formed between the photographer, camera and subject that demands years of practice. Herrigel describes, what most people would define, as a form of mental and physical torture that is more reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau’s relationship with Cato Fong (iii) than an archery or, indeed a photography course.

Rather than encouraging the less mystical among us to seek a state of Zen Herrigel is quite discouraging regarding how difficult it is to train our mind to be capable of firing an arrow and hitting the target. This little book describes something in excess of six years of training, in which the first four years didn’t include firing an arrow.

But, once I accepted that spending a year learning to breath in a particular way is unlikely to be achievable and that the spiritual state required of Herrigel’s archer is too lofty an ambition there are a few pointers contained here that can be carried forward into the practice of photography.

“This, then, is what counts: a lightning reaction which has no further need of conscious observation. In this respect at least the pupil makes himself independent of all conscious purpose.”

If we shake off the mysticism that Herrigel loved (iv) the Japanese teachers of archery simply taught that “one must learn proper shooting technique, and then after sufficient skill is acquired one will be able to shoot naturally without thinking about it.” (7) An idea that translates well for photography; how often is the student so consumed with remembering how to adjust the aperture and what aperture they need that they miss the shot?

Awa Kenzō, Herrigel’s “Great Master”, took this idea to another level which he characterised as being “austere training in which one masters the study of humanity”. Yamada Shōji (7) explains that this put Awa at odds with his contemporaries who were “harshly critical” of his techniques and begins to add layers of complexity to, what for me, is a simple and fundamental idea. Know your camera and basic technique to a  degree that they are used instinctively; see the subject, adjust the camera, point the camera and get the shot without conscious thought or at least with only thoughts of the final image. I wasn’t born to be a mystic so Awa’s idea that we must put a lifetime’s exertion into one shot seems an extreme, unteachable and fundamentally impractical idea. (iv)

I have quoted several ideas from Yamada Shōji’s essay on Herrigel and Awa which argues that Herrigel was deluded in believing that Zen was at the heart of all Japanese art and that there is no evidence that Awa had ever studied Zen or was in anyway the adept that Herrigel repeatedly refers to. Shōji argues that Awa’s focus was to turn archery into a religion (iv) and that, in essence, his teachings should be taken with a pinch of salt. Anyway, rather that repeating Shōji well argued points, suffice to say that Herrigel’s book is neither a treatise on archery nor a correct representation of a complex and ancient set of beliefs and practices.

Unfortunately, a million hippies and Carter-Bresson appear to have been misled in believing this book describes a way forward to enlightenment or that it will reveal great insights into photography.

Aretê and Kairos

So, having rather brutally jettisoned the mystical baggage does the lack of Zen in Cartier-Bresson’s work diminish  it in any way? Well obviously not. At the core of his approach to photography we find two fundamentals. He perfected his technique and his art, he was so absorbed with his subjects that he became part of the moment he was capturing so like Herrigel’s archer he became one with the subject. If Aretê implies excellence in the context of the wholeness of life, an efficiency not in one thing but in life itself then one might argue that the great photographers, including Cartier-Bresson came close. This is not to argue that their skills transcend photography but more that the photography they practice is so complete and universal that it becomes a metaphor for the wholeness of life.

Kairos is easier to argue, the decisive moment is Cartier-Besson’s defining legacy, a legacy that the greatest street photographers have adopted and carried forward. Whether we look at Winogrand, Kertész, Frank, Erwitt or Maier the common feature of their best work is their instinct for selecting exactly the right moment to release the arrow to hit exactly the right spot, namely Kairos.

This little diversion leads me to the conclusion that when reading photographs we should look for evidence that the photographer is in tune with the world they are photographing, that they are in a state of Aretê that transcends the technical act of photographing a moment. A great photograph captures the time that leads to and from the moment and shows us far more than the information within the frame, a wider window on humanity.  In essence RobertRobert the captured moment is perfect in both the spacial and temporal dimension.

Notes on Text

(i) Cartier-Bresson may have been given a transcript of a 1936 lecture by Eugen Herrigel rather than the book. I can find no evidence of it being published as a book before or during the war. In the preface to Zen in the Art of Archery Herrigel refers to this lecture which was given to the German-Japanese Society in Berlin and appeared (presumably in German) in the magazine Nippon under the title of “The Chivalrous Art of Archery” . It was translated into Dutch and Japanese in 1937 and 1938 but Herrigel himself explains that “having made further spiritual progress during the past ten years” he rewrote the lecture and this was subsequently published in book form in German in 1948 and English in 1953.

(ii) There was a risk that my entry into this module of the course could be delayed for many weeks whilst I collected and read the many books that describe, Zen or Photography or both. This might be an interesting intellectual exercise but I needed to draw a line after Archery and Motorcycle Maintenance and return to the programme.

(iii) Cato Fong was ordered to attack Clouseau when he least expected it to keep him sharp; a story that possibly took its inspiration from a story told by Herrigel of the methods by which the Japanese sword masters trained their students, catching them by surprise and hitting them with a stick until they learnt to sense an attack was coming.

(iv) It should be born in mind that Herrigel tells us in the introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery that he went to Japan specifically to find Zen; the cynic might suggest that even if he did not follow a path to enlightenment that Japanese scholars recognise as Zen he went there to find Zen and find it he did.

(v) Yamada Shōji quotes a story from Sakurai’s biography of Awa, the setting is when Awa goes to the practice range at night to fire the perfect shot “‘Finally: I have perished.’ Just as this thought passed through his mind, a marvellous sound reverberated from the heavens. He thought it must be from heaven since never before had he heard such a clear, high, strong sound from the twanging of the bowstring and from the arrow piercing the target. At the very instant when he thought he heard it, his self flew apart into infinite grains of dust, and, with his eyes dazzled by a myriad of colours, a great thunderous wave filled heaven and earth.” In summery Awa intends to elevate the art of archery to a religious experience, or even to categorise archery as a religion and to establish himself as its high priest.



(1) Ellis, Ainslie (1977) Introduction to Reading Photographs: Understanding the Aesthetics of Photography. The Photographers’ Gallery. New York: Pantheon

(2) Pirsig, Robert M. (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. (Kindle Edition 2044) London: Vintage Books.

(3) Herrigel, Eugen ( 1953) Zen in the Art of Archery. London: Penguin Books

(5) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture.

(6) Cartier-Bresson, Henri ( 2003) Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and the World. (First paperback edition 2006) London: Thames and Hudson


(4) Weideger, Paula (1993) Cartier-Bresson: his eye, hand, lens, art and ego: The world’s most famous photographer would not be photographed. ‘No, no. They only push a button.’ (Accessed at The Independent 26.6.15) – http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/cartierbresson-his-eye-hand-lens-art-and-ego-the-worlds-most-famous-photographer-would-not-be-photographed-no-no-they-only-push-a-button-paula-weideger-reports-1483581.html

(7) Shōji, Yamada (2001) The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery (accessed at The Zen Site 30.6.15) – http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/CriticalZen/The_Myth_of_Zen_in_the_Art_of_Archery.pdf


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3 Responses to Zen and The Art of Photography

  1. Catherine says:

    I think I understand the basics. Zen is being in the moment, the here and now. So far as photography is concerned, like other skills, it’s acquiring the knowledge and skill in the first place ad then letting them go in the moment. I’m not one, but expert golfers seem to do that; to put aside their unconsciousness and become the ball flying freely through the air.

  2. If you saw me play golf you would understand how far I am from a state of Zen.

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