The entire title of the book by Frederick Franck is The Zen of Seeing, Seeing/Drawing as Meditation. Franck suggests that seeing/drawing takes one close to Zen, if you do it correctly. By correctly,  he means that one should draw without judgement, without ego, and without labels for what is being drawn. It is not the result that matters as much as how drawing aids in seeing. But at the same time, seeing aids in drawing.

Interestingly, Franck informs that he gave up photography (painting as well), because it was too much about looking and not about seeing. He had a complaint about the speed of the process. I would suggest that he was not doing photography in a way that he would call Zen. Ironically, the very process he describes as seeing/drawing could become seeing/photographing. Maybe he allowed the camera to get in his way.

From a process standpoint, I have often thought photography is more like drawing than it is like painting. In both processes (drawing and photography), it is possible to create while not taking your eyes off the subject. Franck says that drawing is a means to an end, the result should be forgotten. I have often felt that way after photographing in the field where I became so absorbed in the process and the way that it heightened my perception, that the result became less important. When I worked with film, it was very easy to get wrapped up in the process as there was no way to see the results. With a digital sensor and LCD screen to review my work, I am occasionally pulled away and become more results oriented.

Photography though is done on a different time scale than drawing and it is that attribute that I often enjoy. That split second rendering to stop time in a way that the eye would not appreciate otherwise. Is there a Zen to photography? I think there is and I think I have experienced it. Usually once I become consciouse of it though, it’s gone.

I don’t know if my state of mind would have been called Zen when I made this image of three cardinals in a snow storm, but I remember an increased sensation of visual awareness with regards to how each bird was posturing, and their geometric relationship to each other. I do not remember the squeezing of the shutter release, or any of the technical decisions that I must have been making almost subconsciously. I will admit that any Zen was disrupted by a concern about what all that snow was doing to my lens.

This image is now available for $79. as a print approx. 11×14″ matted to 16×20″. I doubt that’s very Zen either.

Cardinals in Snow Storm



10 thoughts on “The Zen of Seeing

  1. Beautiful image. And an excellent post too. I know exactly what you are talking about, and feel very much that Zen is a part of the photography process. At least for me it is there – I can become so absorbed in seeing that I lose all sense of time and place.

  2. I had to take a more Zen-like approach to painting when I got back into it a couple of years back. I was always too concerned with the results & that stress got in the way of me doing a good job. These days I do my best not to care about the end result. Painting in a relaxed state is key. Painting should be fun, not stressful, y’know?
    That’s partially why I enjoy nature photography, I think. Because it’s less about getting “the shot” & more about recording the sights & experiences at the time. Even if all of the photos come out badly, I still have the memory of another good hike under my belt. 🙂

  3. Great image Paul, and wonderful thoughts posted within.

    Is there Zen in photography?
    For me, … you bet there is, and for some reason, it seems to have been heightened more over the past 2 years.

    I have always wondered if one is more inclined to experience moments of Zen due to their age?
    I think so.

    It’s a bit to early here today for me to start getting deep!! 🙂


  4. Thanks for the comments, all! Interesting observations as well.

    Roberta – I hear you on time flying by, especially on comfortable days with a subject I’m really keyed into.

    Lana – I think I have had the same struggles as yourself in being too results minded at first (or maybe I still am?).

    Michael – You’ll have to expand on your age theory of Zen experience, maybe a blog entry?

  5. Very thoughtful post Paul, and I tend to agree with what is said here. I will admit it is a struggle at times to not let results get to me, especially when they don’t work out like I had hoped. It takes persistence in reminding yourself of what it really should be about.

  6. If there are any Zen masters out there, please forgive me. I’m about to speak like I know what I’m talking about; I acknowledge I do not.

    If it is, it’s Zen. Also if it’s not.

    I personally think the distinction between photographing, painting, & drawing is immaterial to the process. Paints, brushes, pencils/pens do have the advantage of being able to directly portray an unconscious “being in the moment” thought/emotion/awareness, while a camera (or to be up-to-date & precise, still images vs. video)is mostly an on/off affair. However if one is very comfortable with the camera system, adjustments do become 2nd nature.

    But to put your consciousness in a location & to somehow replicate it (accurately or not) onto a medium is the core of the process. I don’t think looking at the LCD to correct/enhance whatever disrupts the process any more than looking at a sketchbook & adding a line or shading. It becomes a “seeing what you’re seeing.”

    Which leads to the critical question “Does it match/resonate with what’s in my head/heart?” The results are part of the process. If the results are not satisfactory, maybe next time they will be. That’s also the process.

    Unsatisfactory results do not degrade the process of being in the moment, or you’re just not in the moment, because that is also part of the moment. I tend to view satisfactory results as external validation of the process, good for the ego & very nice to have, but not essential to the process.

    ps. Even selling photographs is no more or less Zen, depending on how you do it.

  7. Frederick Franks book, “The Zen of Seeing” is one of my favourite books on art. He’s cuts right to the heart (or “no mind”) of the matter. The medium is immaterial – suspending our egos allow us to enter into this open, receptive state and change the energy from being a “doer” (i.e., “trying” to get something right) to allowing everything to just happen (a state of “being”).

    When painting, I relish the times when this happens,and often the experience is one of “I have no idea how I created that – it just happened” – and you get it “right”. So it seems that by not doing, you are in fact “doing”! LOL, oh the irony of it all!

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