Review: Tao of Photography, by Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro

Tao of Photography, by Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro
Tao of Photography, by Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro

A couple of weeks ago, I ran a review of Wayne Rowe’s Zen and the Magic of Photography in this space, and noted with disappointment that the book didn’t go as deep on the philosophy as I would’ve hoped. With Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing, by Philippe Gross and S. I. Shapiro (Ten Speed Press), I think I’ve found the book that I had hoped Rowe’s book would have been. While it’s enlivened in parts by the authors’ (mostly Mr. Gross’s) personal experience and philosophy, the book is mainly devoted to a way of seeing, and photographing, that’s heavily informed by the Tao.

Insights abound here. Some, as I’ve mentioned, come from the authors themselves. However,  these are smaller threads woven into a rich, if simple, tapestry that consists of quotations and photos by such past masters as Arbus, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and Winogrand (to name only a few), and a wealth of material from the Chuang-tzu¹, one of the core Taoist texts.

Trying to explain the Tao is a bit like explaining chess; the rules aren’t difficult, but mastery can take a lifetime. The authors do a fine job of explaining the core concepts; rather than simply summarizing, I’d rather give you an example from the Tao itself:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

These aren’t dualities in the sense we’re used to, a series of diametrically opposed options; rather, each are halves of a whole. The goal, therefore, is to harmonize those halves in order to see, and live, more clearly. Throughout this section (and the ones that follow), quotations and photos illustrate the core concepts.

Having put forth an explanation of the Tao in the book’s first section, Gross and Shapiro use the second section to explore what this means for how we see, and in turn photograph, the world around us. As the passage quoted above suggests, some part of this involves letting go of our distinctions between beauty and ugliness, letting go of expectation, and surrendering our stubborn tendency toward control. To see the world as it is, in other words, you need to begin by allowing it to be as it is.³ The book’s third part then proceeds to list the barriers to that kind of vision, and ways to address them.

The remainder of the book is given over to ways of putting the ideas into action. There aren’t may exercises here (aside from a couple cribbed from Bryan Peterson), and the section on teaching Taoist photography tries to argue both for and against, but comes off a bit slippery in the end, since (as the authors note) the Tao that can be taught is not the true Tao. There’s the added complication, of course, that teaching generally involves setting goals or benchmarks, which tends to fly in the face of the idea of Wu Wei (variously translated as “action without intention” or “action without action”), a central tenet of the Tao. As with everything else relating to the Tao, the trick seems to be finding flow and balance: learn from others, but benefit also from your own experience; “exercise” and experiment, but do it for its own sake rather than meeting a clearly-defined metric.

If all of this sounds more like a manual for living than for photography, that probably isn’t coincidental. Neither the book, nor the Tao itself, would draw a distinction between photographic vision and everyday seeing any more than they would draw a distinction between photography and life itself. It’s all part of the Way, and to separate either from the other, the authors seem to suggest, serves only to diminish both.

¹Available online at http://oaks.nvg.org/ys1ra5.html

²Cited from http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html, which houses a full translation of the Tao Te Ching.

 ³This is, admittedly, an over-simplified explanation; I’d strongly suggest the book, and the links above, to begin to get a better grasp on the subject, as well as a better explanation than I’ve managed here.

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