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

Tao of Glass: Shoot to Learn

Taoism and Buddhism speak well to me because each of them express so deep an interest in actionable self-improvement. This is certainly not to say that all other traditions do not have their own daily practices focused on the same goal, but for me it is much easier to point out as a core foundation for both of these traditions. For both, though this is especially focal for Buddhism, the focus is on building a meditation practice. Taoism is strongly tied to a wide range of physical health practices, broadly known as qigong, which can range from simple sitting and breathing exercises to deeply complex martial arts routines.

For an even more straightforward perspective focused on routine practices for self improvement it may be helpful to look at Stoicism. This Greek Philosophical school emphasizes practices to continually review one’s opinions and perceptions, including maintaining a daily journal to guide self reflection.

Photography has a great deal in common with this broad picture of practice. When returning to photography I was deeply self conscious of the fact that I had a lot to learn. I had passed up opportunities to formally study photography in college and had this image in my mind that I would have a steep learning curve ahead of me. That, of course, is certainly true, but not in the way that I imagined.

Within a couple of weeks I was able to get a firm grasp on the fundamentals. Taking pictures certainly isn’t difficult in and of itself, just the press of a button. Some theory was certainly necessary. Understanding how aperature, ISO and shutter speed relate to each other and for the triangle of exposure is a key concept that underlies what is happening within the image capture and how one can affect the outcome.

Visual concepts surrounding subject, form and composition in an image were things I was able to bring with me from years working in other forms of visual media.

After reading through a few explanation of these concepts, especially trying to get a handle on aperature and focal length, I spent far more of my time looking at cameras, trying to figure out just what I needed in order to get started.

Where the real magic happens with photography is that in order to improve, reading isn’t enough, I am just going to have to go out and take pictures, lots of pictures. Snapping isn’t enough, however, I am going to need to be thoughtful about it, think about how the pictures are turning out and try to figure out what I can adjust to make the more successful the next time.

The same concept applies equally to the philosophies listed above. Both Taoism and Stoicism share some basic concepts that are necessary to get one’s head into the right perspective, and to begin to see how connections can be made. There are common practices and core exercises that many others have found helpful to their own time spent following the path, and it is often helpful to spend time talking with others to share what their experience has been like.

When it comes down to it, however, these are not armchair philosophies. One can only truly appreciate and understand them by going out in the world and practicing. At first the way in which one practices may feel awkward and unnatural. For myself it has been a little more than two years of micro adjustments along with a scattering of qigong and meditation practices, which have not continued in an unbroken line, but have continued to adapt, to re-balance themselves as other aspects of my life ebb and flow.

I am coming to photography second, and in many ways I am more prepared to dive into this art form because of my time spent developing a practice towards the Tao. I am more comfortable with the knowledge that I do not know what I am doing fully, and that I do not need to have my destination firmly in hand when I set out. One step at a time, camera in hand, with regular practice, I will find myself far enough along the path that new possibilities will become available to me.