The late Zen master and photographer John Daido Loori would tell his photography students to think of someone or something they loved, and take a photograph of that love - but the photograph couldn’t be of the person or thing. They had to find it, a visual image of that love, somewhere else in the world.
This photograph by Daishin Stephenson is a portrait of her and me.
Dogen Zenji wrote, “There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness.” So much of Daishin Stephenson’s photography is about making visible the worlds we walk over or just walk past. These two pictures look like an enchanted forest and a hillside, but they were taken on a city street, a street so busy that a cop held back traffic long enough for her to lie on the ground and enter the world I do not know about, because it is too small, or because I am.
Jean-Luc Godard asked, “When you see your photograph, do you say you’re a fiction?”
There is an iconic photograph of Elmore Leonard by Annie Leibovitz. He sits on a chair on a street, with palm trees and buildings silhouetted by a sunset or sunrise. He wears sunglasses, all his clothes are black, and a typewriter sits on his lap.
I saw this photograph on a poster in a bookstore in Scotland in the late 1980s, before I had read anything by Leonard. It gave me an impression of Leonard’s prose style, what he calls his “sound,” that I found to be accurate when I began to read him a decade later and he became my favorite English-language novelist.
But Leonard doesn’t type. He writes his novels with a pen. So is the photograph a fiction?
No more a fiction than if he had been photographed with a notebook instead of a typewriter. What is being presented is a mediated persona, an image contrived to present a certain story, a story that has been chosen instead of millions of other possible stories about the person, the subject.
Yes, photographs are fictions, and so are clothes, names, titles and facial expressions, things said and things done, things told and things not told. The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said, “life is like a movie.” As we experience it, life is not “like” a movie - it is a movie, with narratives and meanings contrived from our interpretation of what is presented to us, and what we present to ourselves.
Gordon Parks was the director of one of my favorite films, Shaft (1971) and its dull sequel Shaft’s Big Score (1972), and he made a cameo appearance in an excellent sequel - also entitled Shaft - in 2000. He died six years later.
Jizô asked Hôgen, “Where are you going, senior monk?”
Hôgen said, “I am on pilgrimage, following the wind.”
Jizô said, “What are you on pilgrimage for?”
Hôgen said, “I don’t know.”
Jizô said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Hôgen suddenly attained great enlightenment.