The Zen of Photography
by Stephen Trimble

Sometimes, when I take pictures, I encounter what I call "the Zen of photography." I operate the camera, compose and think about light and angle and motion, wind the film, release the shutter, invest my emotions and skills--but no pictures result. Sometimes, I make careless mistakes: leaving on a lens cap; feeding the film incorrectly; forgetting to load the film at all. At other times, I believe I am being reminded by the spirits of the land to remember humility, to take proper care, to pay attention.

On the Big Island of Hawai'i, three thousand miles from home, I spent an exciting day photographing a molten lava flow meeting the sea, an extraordinary vision of new land forming as I watched. I stayed on several hours into the evening, continuing to photograph; as the lava glowed red in the darkness, the drama increased. On the hour's drive back to my hotel, I realized that once the sun set, I had never changed to a new roll of film. My film had not been advancing. I had taken no pictures at all. Eventually, my disappointment mellowed to acceptance: Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes, clearly had told me that she did not wish to be photographed that warm night.

On another evening, passing through the Hopi Pueblos in Arizona, I decided to sneak a few sunset pictures of the mesa-top villages, knowing that the Hopi people frowned on all photography but rationalizing that my hiring of official guides in the past would sanction a few quick photos now. I lay the key to my rental car on the passenger seat, took a couple of unsatisfactory photos, then reached for the key to drive to a new location. The key was gone. I searched and searched, and knew as I did so that I would not find that key until the sun was down and photography was impossible. The katsinas, spirit-messengers of the Hopi gods, were reprimanding me, and I might as well relax and sit and watch the light fade. That's what I did, and when I looked for the key again at dusk, I found it buried on the floor in the back seat under my camera bag, flipped there in my nervous haste--or hidden there by the katsinas.

I thought about the need for reverence and the meaning of mercy. I remembered what Ramson Lomatewayma, a young Hopi poet who works hard to understand the meaning of what it is to be Hopi, once said to me, "You can't learn anything without giving something up."

Copyright © 1997 by Stephen Trimble, P.O. Box 1078, Salt Lake City, UT 84110-1078.

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