Tuesday, 9 October 2007


Morro Bay, California

Following on from last week’s blog on Hexagram 15….

I had a conversation with my Sweetheart recently about different kinds of photography. There’s prosaic documentary photography, like holiday snapshots; and there’s ‘art photography’, such as the work of Andy Goldsworthy or Robert Mapplethorpe, in which the artist creates a tableau and photographs it, much as a painter composes and executes a painting.

And then there are the photographers who manage to do both in the same stroke, like Ansel Adams, or Dorothea Lange, or Long Thanh, or any of the fabulous photographers whose work is collected in Edward Steichen’s timeless and exquisite classic ‘The Family of Man’. They take the world as they find it, and deliver an image rich with meaning.

Several years ago, I spent four weeks in Viet Nam. I completely fell in love with the country – its lush jungle (humming like high power wires), its richly cultured cities, gorgeous food, and above all, its people, who are for the most part living examples of Buddhism in action.

I took hundreds of photographs, which I showed to my father on my next visit to him, the following year. “This is a hill tribe village…this is a water buffalo…this is a fruit seller…”

My father, who in a previous life was an accomplished photographer himself, launched into me. “A good photograph shouldn’t have to be explained.”

It was true. I had been trying to capture not only an image, but the beauty, or poignancy, or sheer strangeness that had touched me deeply and changed the way I saw the world. And in almost all of those photographs, I had fallen short.

And maybe that’s the clue to the difference between an ordinary ‘documentary’ photograph and the work of an Edward Steichen or Dorothea Lange. An image by a great photographer tells you more than the facts; it hints (or hollers) about what it might mean. It never tells you “in so many words”, but involves your soul in a conversation about the complex possibilities of what it could mean.

A merely documentary image tells us too little; an explicit explanation tells us too much. As James Hillman says, the image is always more inclusive, more complex than the concept.

The same is true of writing. There is writing that documents facts (even if those facts are fictional), and there is writing that evokes meaning. At the moment, I’m reading a sensational book by Michael Ventura called ‘Shadow Dancing in the USA’. It’s one of those books that ignites a bubbling cauldron of ideas: the kind of ideas that make me look at the world with new eyes and fresh vision.

Bradford Hatcher has produced a rendering of the I Ching that does both. His Yi Jing (http://www.hermetica.info/) is both rigorous in its translation – perhaps the most rigorous translation that exists in the English language – and includes his own commentary, which is original, but grounded in a deep and wide knowledge of not only the I Ching and Chinese history, but several other wisdom traditions.

Brad’s Rogue River Commentaries are true commentaries, not an interpretation of other commentaries or traditions. They are based on an intimate knowledge of the I Ching, but consist of his own personal elaboration on the images. In the Introduction, he makes it clear that is what he is doing:

“Before anything else I should be clear that this effort does not in any way attempt to explain the texts of the Book of Changes. It is not an attempt to do any of your thinking for you or to make your task of understanding any easier…I tried to put on the original text and walk around in it some more, stretching it further, exploring some of its tangents and implications and, in the process, try to drop as many clues and hints as possible to some of the layers of meaning in the original.”
And that’s what raises his work to the level of soul as well as scholarship: he serves up images, in poetic language that presents possibilities: a cauldron of ideas that makes you look with new eyes and fresh vision.

In his Yi Jing, he has managed to do what I couldn’t do in most of my photographs of Viet Nam: faithfully documented what he found, and conveyed how it touched him and informed the way he saw the world.

I’m in awe of his work. And grateful.

No comments: