For about the last 15 years give or take a year here or there, I’ve been going to Iris Bob’s and emersing myself in his back yard. Bob grows “Tall Bearded Iris,” and he does it smack in the middle of Denver . He has become a Master at it. Bob is the national president of the “Tall Bearded Iris” society. Most of all though, Bob and his family are as gentle as the blossoms they grow. And every year they are gorgeous and every year they are totally different. Day to-day they change. Minute to minute if you can find the sun dancing on a lady’s beard.
I never thought of it till just now, that in returning to the same place and same subject throughout the years, I’ve been practicing or at least preparing to practice the Zen Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind all along! Dharma joke is on me!
Beginner’s Mind is Zen practice in action. It is a mind that faces “life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement, asking I wonder what this is? I wonder what this means? Without approaching things with a fixed point of view or prior judgment, just asking, what is it?” (Z.B. Hartman, 2001). For a more detailed discussion of “Beginner’s Mind” go here.
When I first step into the Iris patch, I am blind. I look but do not see. Initially, the Iris all look the same and will continue to do so for as long as I hold “seeing” “Iris” as concept instead of simply seeing the uniquely beautiful manifestation of life’s joy happening right frigging in front of me! Sometimes its a bitch stepping back and out of my “expert photographer mind” and jumping into the unknown waters of a “beginners mind,” and seeing with a child’s heart and eyes instead rather than the know-it-all-seen-it-all-ain’t-nothing-new-under-the-sun-been-there-done-that eyes of a curmudgeonly old coot.
So, I practice entering a mind state /space allued to within the teachings of “Beginner’s mind.” Each time I sink down to the ground having found or felt or been drawn to a particular grouping or color (s) I give full concentration to the art and the craft of image making. This concentration starts with some curious connection and builds upon excitement and interest often reaching awe and wonder. As my concentration deepens, serenity and joy are more likely to arise. All the same the resulting image is always surprizing. Good / Bad / indifferent each image is a gift. But this does not happen until I have worked through the images in my mind’s-eye of the “way it was before.” And this takes time. It takes awareness. A quality of presence which seems to blossom from the roots of mindfulness.
I was sitting….hiding really. From the noisy crowds milling about the Denver Botanic Gardens. It was a hot day and I was lamenting and moaning, complaining and judging left right up and down. Nothing was right! Blah-blah-Blah. I watched ego do its bitter complaint of “oh poor me” I watched as ego shot slings and arrows of “how bad it all was,” the old story of victimization embedded in a different refrain – a song with no tune and little rhythm. I felt my body scrunch down, my heart turn inwards, and I knew there was simply no way I was going to be able to have any fun much less photograph a blooming thing until I could just let go!
I found some shade and began to practice meditation. Noting the breath and sounds. Bird song and big city sounds. Just noticing without judgment. Leaning back I let go of the busy chattering mind and somehow some part me managed to mutter a phrase or two about holding myself in loving-kindness. Resting there and following my breath and after a bit I could feel a deeper relaxation and my heart opened a bit more. In that opening I knew that I could not possibly see what was present and available to me in the here n now as long as memories of before continued to cloud the mind. I had to let go of the past. Let go of the part of my mind that was refusing to accept that nothing stays the same – that everything changes and that the “garden-in-my-mind” simply was not and never would be the “garden-before-my-eyes.”
Letting go of the images moving through the mind; images of the ideal and images of the past , opens up space to see with a renewed sense of wonder. My experience is that it is true that as Kornfield in his book “After the Ecstasy – The Laundry” (2000) observes: “with innocence and openness we return to the simplicity of direct experience, let go of the current of thoughts, of how it was and how it should be, how we should be! We enter the eternal present.” For me, with camera an additionally necessary step is letting go of thinking one is an expert or worse, an adult, forgotten how or fearful of play for it’s own sake.
Last year, it occurred to me to play with creating images utilizing four distinct focal planes along with exposing and finding compositions in which I could kinda “walk my way into the flower” using very careful and precise focusing. To do this requires certain equipment (macro lens, solid tripod) a few photographic and visual skills one would likely acquire after some years of “serious” photography, and a good deal of patience – thekind of patience that seems to only grow out of a realization that everything is perfect as it is. In the moment.
This is a 4-stop multiple exposure. Al Olsen a guy I know told me he was “a 4 stop man.” So I decided to try and honor his wisdom and work with 2 and 4 in-camera multiple exposures. Unbeknown at the time was the realization Georgia O’Keeff”s Iris paintings also contain at least four focal planes.
A cool things I’m discovering, is that when you start to vizualize / imagine an image containing up to four subjective focal planes and you spend time learning to see how your camera “see’s” than the possibilities of what you can do / perceive with a camera increases exponentially. AND with the magic of digital you can learn as you go playing with pre-visualization with experimentation and often feeling grateful when one’s hard work receives a gift from the subject.
One can use blurring and de-focusing in different ways to creat color washes, hints of depth and of the “more.” With digital capabilities combined with the extraordinary crafting and production tools built upon Photoshop, the sky isn’t even close to the possibilities available to one’s artistic play and creative results. If one is so inclined and capable of studio work it would be rewarding to visit Scott Peck’s impecible imagery and if one has the means and likes the look they can create using multiple-focal-point software to create hyper-depth-of-field images they should do so. Have fun! Play.
My technique(s) at this time include the straight shot and “in-the-moment” experiments with multiple exposure, dancing light, wind, colors and mood. Minus the software or special cameras there is simply no other way I know of one could get edges on three or four distinct focal planes in any other way. Stopping down would eliminate the mystery and shatter the softness of the image. True! Its not sharp. Its not about sharpness as much as its about feeling and mood. About trying to work out, work past, and see through the clouds of our memories.
These musing’s and my last trip to Iris Bob’s occured in May of 2010. Though the words are over a year old they continue to speak of my Vipassana practice in all facets of life, not just those moments with camera and flower. Last year and this too my eyes seem to find me perceiving a juxtaposition of old and new, of form and energy changing from one stage to an other. I am sure this is a reflection of my mortality. I see and feel the bones inside me. I am finding freedom from letting go. Peace in not knowing, and joy in the widening and the opening of my heart.