Review: Zen in the Art of Photography, by Robert Leverant

Zen in the Art of Photography, by Robert Leverant

The first review run on The First 10,000 was of a photographers’ handbook first published 70 years before. Like that book, Robert Leverant’s Zen in the Art of Photography is an oldie (first published in 1969), but this one doesn’t show its age in the least. It’s a short book that you could probably get through very quickly. I’m going to suggest that you don’t do that.

It’s not that this isn’t a good book. Quite the opposite, really; it’s very good. But it’s not a how-to in the conventional sense, where the author lets you in on his or her secrets to getting a particular shot. One of the cover blurbs on the book addresses a librarian’s exasperation as to how, exactly, he ought to file the thing. Is it photography? Philosophy? Religion? Poetry? The short answer would be “Yes, and…” It’s a book that’s all about the philosophy of photography, and it proposes, in its own low-key way, a more spiritual approach to photography.

Befitting a radically different approach to photography, even the book’s layout and writing are unconventional. It’s a poem in prose, a series of epigrammatic snippets that nonetheless hold together if you try to read them the way you would, say, Ansel Adams or Freeman Patterson. The advantage to this is that you could, if you wanted, read the book in sequence, cover to cover, the same as you would any other. But you could also, if you wanted, read the book’s, or poem’s, individual lines and pore over them the way you would a series of Zen koans.

Like koans, the cryptic phrases given by Zen monks to new practitioners to prod them toward enlightenment, Leverant’s phrases — either on their own, or read as a cohesive whole — don’t reveal themselves all at once, hence my earlier suggestion not to plow through the book in one sitting. You could, but it’s better — or at least, was more fulfilling for this particular reader — to approach each of the 168 segments on its own merits, and to give it full, mindful attention.

So is this even a book, or is it a series of snapshots in words? The advantage to the author’s approach is that it turns the cliche of a photo being worth a thousand words completely on its ear. This book isn’t as explicit as it could be, and to my mind, that’s a good thing, since it gives the words, as sparse and minimalist as they are, plenty of room to breathe. Your own experience, practice, and thought process ends up fleshing out what’s already on the page. In that sense, these aren’t fragments of poetry or prose as much as they’re seeds, meant to be watered by attention, meditation, and practice. Then it’s a matter of transferring that approach to your own life and craft. As the book hints at, this is both as simple as it seems, and as difficult as anything rewarding usually is.

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