Review: Zen and the Magic of Photography, by Wayne Rowe

Zen and the Magic of Photography, by Wayne Rowe
Zen and the Magic of Photography, by Wayne Rowe

There’s a concept in Zen called “Monkey Mind.” Simply put, when you’re trying to be mindful — whether you’re sitting zazen or just doing the dishes — your mind’s trying to be anything but. If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that I try to emphasize mindfulness in photography. It probably also hasn’t escaped your attention that my mind tends to wander a bit much… suffice to say, I know Monkey Mind when I see it. And Wayne Rowe seems to have quite the case of it in Zen and the Magic of Photography: Learning to See and to Be through Photography.

Normally, I’m not one to mind digression. Here, however, it gets difficult to figure out which bits are subject, and which are digression. Ostensibly, this is a book about Zen and photography, but there are stopovers in Roland Barthes, a number of Dean and Brando movies, a splash of haiku, a dash of Walker Evans, and perhaps a layover in Long Beach, during which I lost my bags (but I digress…) The shame of it is that there are some moments of genuine, and useful, insight here, but there are so many interruptions, detours and proclamations of the author’s own satori that the overall effect is somewhat like listening to a friend try to tell a story while their significant other keeps interrupting: “You forgot, he was wearing a blue scarf.”

To be fair, the author does tie each of these things back  to his subject, though some are more tenuous than others. The extended meditations on method acting especially was reminiscent of  a self-help book, in the sense that both lean heavily on a vague idea of authenticity, but neither really caution you that this is one person’s highly individual and idiosyncratic take on authenticity. The pitfall in this is that you can’t even begin to live out someone else’s authenticity; it’s about finding your own voice, and giving yourself permission to use it. In that regard, I found Karr and Wood’s The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes a more useful, and in a sense more inclusive, book.

According to the author’s bio that graces Zen, Mr. Rowe is both a professional photographer and professor of photography, with a stack of publishing credits to his name. I won’t fault his photographic technique; indeed, even independent of the credentials, his work is gorgeous, and at times even inspired. For all I know, he may have similar credentials when it comes to the Zen of which he writes… I’m not in the habit of questioning the depth or validity of someone else’s spiritual practice, and I’m not about to start doing that here. Having said that, however, one thing I’ve taken away from my own (admittedly wobbly) study of Zen is the idea of non-attachment. Perhaps that’s why, of all this book’s minor flaws, the author’s seeming attachment to the idea of satori (to the point that satori seems nearly an end, rather than a transient means to a perhaps equally transient end) feels like the written equivalent of a stone in one’s shoe.

This book may not have been quite what I was looking for; I may go back for a third read just to be sure (it’s very brief, to the point that you might read it in one sitting without quite intending to). As they used to say in commercials, “Your mileage may vary.” As I mentioned above, there is insight to be gleaned from these pages. Getting to that insight, however, may prove to be frustrating. Each time you feel the hint of a breakthrough, the subject changes.

Hmm. Perhaps Mr. Rowe is a bit more sly about his Zen than he lets on…

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