The formless in photography is a contradiction in terms. This is not unusual since we take it for granted that photography is about things or forms and shapes. There is, however, a kind of photography that goes beyond of what can be seen with one’s eyeballs. Freeman Patterson, for example, suggests that composition can not be taught directly. It grows in you with practice. He also says the camera does not only take a picture of what is in front. It takes a picture of who is behind as well. Who is behind the camera? Of course, the simple answer is “I” or “me” but when we dig deeper we see there is more to it. The seeing of what is beyond the obvious is often ignored or discarded. However, the subjective is as real as what we can see objectively.
Before getting into the ‘formless’ let me explain in more detail what is meant by ‘seeing with form’.
What is ‘seeing with form’?
In Zen ‘form’ comes to have a different meaning and includes everything one can speak of. For example, it considers words, thoughts, concepts, feelings, ideas, imagination, beliefs, memories etc. as having form because they can be separated, identified and analyzed. Habitually we identify strongly with these forms and invest them with absolute quality. They tell us who and what we are. We say “I” or “I see…” or “I feel.. .”or” my imagination tells me…” or ” my sense of self tells me…”. We take it for granted that there is a sense of ‘self’ or an ‘I’ that has this absolute authority.
‘Seeing with form’ emphasizes this capacity of the mind to work with thoughts, concepts, and ideas. They produce content and generate knowledge. This way of seeing affirms the sense of self, provides an identity and gives certainty and security.
What is ‘formless seeing’?
One might ask if there is any activity of the mind that can not be differentiated, identified or analyzed? If you have done some spiritual work on your self you know there is. Ordinarily, we do not consider such a possibility. To recognize it, one’s mind needs to be quiet and open, an openness that can’t be grasped because it is free of identifiable ‘forms’. We may call it the ‘not-self’ which is not another concept. It is not a negation of the self, neither is it nothing.
The ‘formless seeing’ or ‘perceiving directly’ takes place when we are present with our whole being. It is often expressed as being ‘all eyes and ears’ and means undivided attention, total involvement of body and mind. Here, for a moment, the sense of ‘self’ or ‘I’ does not play a role and the seeing is not constrained by it.
Formlessness in Photography
Art in the West is dominated by form and technique says Hisamatsu in Zen and the Fine Arts. The East has a long tradition of working with the ‘formless’ that permeates daily life, poetry, architecture and the fine and performing arts. Hisamatsu considers the West as living in a “culture of form”. It means we see the world only objectively – through form.
Contemplative photography is an approach that explores and promotes the seeing of ‘self without form’. An example of the formless mind in action is the ‘flash of perception’, the moment of being one with or the moment of being present. These moments of openness happen spontaneously, independent of any spiritual orientation or training. With the practice of contemplation, we have the opportunity to open up and be more receptive to these occurrences. It deepens and heightens our awareness and transforms our seeing by relaxing our rigidly held believes and ideas. We become more flexible and sensitive. Our perspective on how we see the world and how we take pictures changes and gives rise to a new ‘form of seeing’. The tree is still a tree, so to speak, but has become a wonderful tree – full of wonder as Hisamatsu would say. Photography is then alive and vibrant, manifesting a quality that is ordinarily not seen.