The Tao of Glass: The Stoic Machine

Cameras, like humans, come in a multitude of models, and each model can vary from its brethren when it is combined with a different configuration of lenses, strobes, memory cards, recording equipment or filters. These unique combinations of innate technology and/or mechanics are set up in such a way that they are able to deliver a suite of results based on software settings and configurations that further differentiate them from one another.

Each camera contains these qualities inherently, and retains them regardless of the setting and surroundings. My Fuji X-E1 is capable of capturing images at 16mb with an ISO setting pushed to an extreme of 25600 with a shutter speed set at 4000. It may not create anything other than a blown out white wash, but it might capture the details of something moving quickly at dusk. The results are up to the interpretation of the third party viewer, but the environment doesn’t have any effect on what the camera itself does.

We have our own built in skills and capabilities, and it is important to remember that our surroundings don’t change that. No matter what is happening around us there are somethings that we will always have no matter where we find ourselves.

The camera doesn’t complain that it is only being taken out to do street photography rather than taking pictures of weddings, or landscapes, or families with squirming children. It will always be focused on executing the skills it was created for no matter what is exposed on the film.

The stoics talk about this as duty. One isn’t usually able to choose the job or position that one has in life, but it is important to attend the to duty that one is given as best as possible regardless of what it is.

If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean – then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 3, 12

It is easy to frame the events unfolding around us in ways that seem to shape our lives and our options. At any given point in our lives we may be feeling boxed in, or limited in other ways. However, just because we aren’t in the job that we want, or the place we want to be living, doesn’t mean that we can’t execute the skills that we have to the best of our ability.

Cold as it may seem, the perspective I want to focus on is this: the machine can only perform its function, unaware of the context, uninfluenced by the perceived outcome. The camera doesn’t worry whether the image was over or underexposed, or whether the gallery visitors appreciate the composition of images that it created. It is focused on the execution of its duty regardless of the skill with which it is manipulated.

We can choose ourselves how much we need to be influenced by the perceived outcomes of our work and how it is received by people removed from us. We can choose to focus on aspects of our surroundings and circumstances that we imagine to be limiting factors, or simply not ideal. Or, we can keep in mind the purposed to which we are trying to apply ourselves. Perhaps it is artistry, or being a skilled worker, or being a parent who is present and emotionally available.

Regardless of the situation we can choose to focus on how we execute those actions, rather than worrying about what might come of them once they are beyond our control.

Let any external thing that so wishes happen to those parts of me which can be affected by its happening – and they, if they wish, can complain. I myself am not yet harmed, unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 7, 14

Photo Story: Colorful Bokeh Bits

Inspired by my last session stuck downstairs in the playroom with my camera, I approached the next one with a much more open perspective.

The actual objects in our playroom don’t interest me very much as subject matter for photos. Much the same with my photography outdoors I am more interested in the overlapping of textures and patterns, and the small details that get overlooked. When surrounded by man-made objects, which do not generally have their own inherent natural qualities or details, I was struggling to figure out where to point my camera.

The answer to this question, as the answer to so many questions of my childhood, was legos. I liked the idea of restricting my viewpoint, and using objects to disrupt the objects in the room so that they wouldn’t be recognizable in the photos. This way, it wouldn’t matter so much what I was shooting, rather how I was shooting.

I created a simple viewfinder/tunnel out of lego (duplo to get technical) windows so that I could focus the light and attention of the camera.

That, combined with the multi-colored strings of lights that we have set up down there were enough to create some really interesting abstractions using a close focus and bokeh from the lights.

The lego frames were semi-reflective, and by adjusting how they lined up I was able to create slices of the round light glow, and to multiply the effect in some interesting ways. One of the most interesting things I learned is that my mirrorless fujifilm x-e1 isn’t always going to create what I see on the viewfinder. Several of the lights that I saw clearly on my screen did not show up after I had clicked the shutter. Something to do with the angle or intensity of the light.

Once again the power of play wins out. I guess I will continue taking this lesson to heart, especially given that we are potentially going to have to spend some serious time social distancing in the near future depending on how things go.

For now, I hope that everyone is able to take a step back, take stock, and find some unique perspectives to help brighten up the day even when things don’t initially looks so positive.

The Tao of Glass: Focus and the Present Moment

There are many ways in which I see the act of photography as a metaphor for Taoist concepts. In these “The Tao of Glass” posts I want to take elements of the philosophy and examine them in comparison to philosophical elements that resonate with me.

Taoism and Stoicism both emphasize that it is unhelpful to dwell too much in our past actions or our future desires. To be sure we must make time to plan out what we will be doing later in the day, in the week, etc. My wife and I regularly make time to look at what we will hope to be doing more than two years down the road (travelling mostly), but not with the firm sense of exactly how and when it will happen. Likewise there is wisdom to be gained from the past, learning from our mistakes and remembering to be grateful for what has helped to bring us where we are.

It is when we are tied down by what has come before us, or what we dread ahead of us, that we begin to lose our connection to where we really are in the world right now.

Looking through the lens of a camera has become a physical manifestation of this concept, a reminder to be present with myself. Framing a shot in the viewfinder makes it difficult to think of the past or the future. One is suddenly present, engaged with the subject, noticing details that would normally flow by unnoticed.

The lens has become a personal metaphor representing this presence of mind. Having it in my hands helps to clear my mind and allows me to experience more sharply the world around me. I take so much inspiration from the details that nature provides. Knowing that I am in “photography mode” primes me to look for interesting things, and opens my vision to new possibilities. Noticing things becomes a virtuous cycle. The more details I see, the more that catches my eye, the more in the moment I become, and the more I am able to absorb of my surroundings.

When I find myself distracted, ruminating on the dread of upcoming challenges, or imagining other things that I might be doing with my time in a given moment, it is helpful for me to think of the lens. Every aspect of reality has its own expression and its own beauty. If I can bring myself to focus on the moment, to focus my presence, I will inevitably discover something interesting about the world around me that I had been overlooking.