January Newsletter

The Life of Tea


Just published, and weighing in at a little over two-and-a-half kilos, is the new book that I’ve spent a year working on, and it’s called The Life of Tea. In addition to the books on photography and the design books (my latest is Mindful Design of Japan, pictured here below),   I generally get to do a book like this every few years.

Mindful desin of Japan

‘Like this’ means a big book on a different, unexpected or not-in-demand topic, and its two predecessors were Sudan: The Land and the People published in 2005 and Tea Horse Road from 2011, republished last year. These are books that take quite a commitment of time and travel, and usually some effort to get moving—in order to overcome the inertia of publishers who don’t easily see an immediate market. In the case of Sudan, that inertia proved so strong that we had to raise the money from sponsors, mainly in Sudan itself. Of course, once you have an actual book produced and aren’t asking anyone for money upfront, publishers are not that hard to find. This, The Life of Tea, was a special case, because it came in under the transom, as my old friend and former Picture Editor of the Smithsonian magazine Caroline Despard used to say. I didn’t pitch the idea; it came from the client. And it came already with this great title from the client and a clear concept of being about the very best of teas and the life surrounding them. And also with the demand to make it unlike anything else on the market.Perhaps strangely, it may never see the light of a Waterstone’s shelf or an Amazon page, because this was a private commission by a banking client. That still feels a little strange, because in every other way it was a full-on production on the scale of the Sudan and Tea Horse Road books. With close to 300 pages, no original book project of this size gets away with anything less than 20 weeks of shooting, and this was no exception. And those 20 weeks are just the core of the project, because there’s a great deal of prep and even more post that goes on. The post is probably the more obvious, involving picture selection, the text (ah, the words…that’s always another story), design, checking and re-checking, and finally printing and binding. The preparation for a big book, however, doesn’t get talked about very much, apart from the expected logistics—simply getting to places. Yet the conceptual work before shooting begins is the hidden and (to me) fascinating part. This is what publishers do in editorial meetings. Without a publisher in this instance, it’s what the client and I went through.

Fulin Zen Temple, Wuyishan, Fujian, China. Tea with Zen master

Fulin Zen Temple, Wuyishan, Fujian, China. Tea with Zen master

I set a lot of store by titles, because they can and should spark the imagination. I always have at least a working title from the very beginning, even if it’s clumsy, because I use it as a constant reminder of what the book should be about. In this case, the title was very good right at the start. Not only was there no title like this already on the market, but it evoked a special line of enquiry. This was to be a book that concentrated on the people surrounding tea, telling its story through their eyes and lives.

One of the great challenges in any book project is that if you’re dealing with a substantial commodity or theme, there will already be other books, and probably a whole slew of them. How to be different and better is always the preoccupation. Just different is not enough, because you then slide into being different-but-weird or different-and-pointless. It has to be somehow on target. It has to have a point and be desirable. Being better is of course a conceit. It means we want to be competitive, and even if not everyone else is going to agree, it has to be better by our own standards and those of our peers. At any rate, it’s an ambition.

We looked at other books on tea. As it turned out, it was a very mixed bag, and the best ones had no pictures. The larger, more illustrated ones cobbled their images from a range of sources, often hand-outs, so there was no visual continuity. I understood their problem: it costs a lot to go around all those tea mountains in Asia, more than a publisher is likely to recoup in sales.

And one more thing. One of my main preoccupations was colour. Most of the pictures were green, because most of them were about tea leaves. Well, yes, it’s all about tea so you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? If you’re doing an encyclopaedia it would be unavoidable, but we weren’t. I was doing a picture-led book, as the client asked for. The constant challenge throughout the year’s shooting was not always to have green leaves in the frame.

This is where making it a reportage project helped, telling the stories of the people involved—growers, makers, merchants, artisans, craftsmen and connoisseurs. They weren’t green, and moreover allowed visual variety, and if you’re going to have nearly 300 photographs in sequence, you do need variety, though of course with some kind of continuity, which is the usual paradox of photo essays.


A private joke was that in the processing of Chinese green tea, an early step is firing the freshly picked leaves in a large wok to halt oxidation, and it’s called sha qing, or ‘Killing Green’. Publishing and tea had this much in common, because that was exactly what I had do in making the book.

I can’t show you the book itself, but here’s a small selection of the photographs on my portfolio account on LensCulture,

or if you prefer it to music, here on Vimeo.
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Season’s Greetings


A Happy New Year from Michael Freeman and team.

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November Newsletter

Power lines and pylons crossing misty valley, Gloucestershire, West of England

A visual style guide

As part of my mentoring programme, I’ve been constructing a guide to visual styles across the world of photography. You might think this would be duplicating effort that other people have already made, but no, surprising to say, I cannot find any such survey. This could be my poor internet research technique, and if so please point me in the right direction, but I simply drew a blank. The idea seemed straightforward and obvious, and above all useful—to categorise the visual styles in which a broad swathe of photographers, including all the famous ones from history, work. To choose an obvious one with a manifesto already attached, there was Straight photography as espoused by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, among others, with its emphasis on sharp and detailed imagery with rich tonality.    Or the characteristics of the more recent Düsseldorf School as practised by Andreas Gursky and others under the tutelage of Bernd and Hilla Becher, which included a certain flatness of lighting and uninflected, undramatic compositional strategies. By the end (though there may be no end if I keep working on it), my list of identifiable styles had grown to 45, and shed some light, for me at least, on what photographers whose work was otherwise unconnected had in common. Weston and Adams was an easy one, but how about Elliott Erwitt and Nadav Kander? Or Art Kane and Guy Bourdin? Or Antoine d’agate and Paolo Pellegrin?

The emphasis is on visual, not the whole gamut of styles, which involves choice of subject, concept and genre. Yes, it may indeed be unrealistic to try and prise all these apart from the purely visual, but perfection wasn’t a goal. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the usual suspects—photo historians and museum curators—haven’t attempted breaking out the visual from the rest. They may wisely see this as a can of worms best left unopened.

Welder, BonGas factory, Mamonal, Cartagena, Bolivar, Colombia

How this became part of the mentoring programme was that at some point style always enters the discussion. The people I’m mentoring (what on earth do I call you? Mentorees? Ouch!) are looking to develop visual skills such as in composition and lighting, and want to experiment. They want to try different approaches to see if these have traction, and for this I need to make concrete suggestions using the work of other photographers as examples. Say you wanted to play with the idea of strong chiaroscuro, making use of the strong patterns from hard, deep shadows. I would paste in one of my own examples, such as the overhead shot here of a factory floor, but more usefully I would suggest you look at the work of Gueorgui Pinkhassov and a new rising talent, Clarissa Bonet. Then we can go through practically the conditions and techniques that create this lighting style. As I need to do this more and more, I thought I would make it a little easier for myself and compile a database of styles, rather than have to dig into my less-than-perfect memory from scratch each time. I don’t see this ever as a book, but as a personal resource it has become very useful indeed. It also led me to….

The year’s two major collections—but you have to choose one

…making more time than usual to look at recent work. My usual port of call, which gets better all the time and which I strongly recommend, is LensCulture, launched and directed by the American Jim Casper It deserves it’s growing success as a reliable and well-curated presentation of good new photography across a wide range of styles. But last week, after shooting in Yunnan and a week’s recce for a new photo workshop in Taiwan, I had time to spend looking at the top two annual collections in the United States. Actually, I should modify that, because one of them, the MoMA show, is from now on to be bi-annual. MoMA’s 2015 Ocean of Images and Photo District News’ PDN’S 30 2015 offer a similar quantity of what gets these days to be called ‘new and emerging talent’. Much curating work clearly went into both. The results, however, are totally different. There are no crossovers and there’s no consensus. Should there be? They’re both in New York, and it’s pretty certain that they see the same portfolios, so in a traditional sense yes, you might expect them to share something. Yet they are poles apart.

First, MoMA, and I recommend you visit the site given above. Basically, in the 30 years that this has been running, this is the first big overhaul. Instead of two or three photographers, there are 20, and it’s going to be every two years rather than annual (budget issues?). But more than that, MoMA have seen the need to shake things up in a modern version of what the previous Director of Photography, John Szarkowski, did in the 1970s. The half-hour press launch shown on the site is instructive. This is a co-curated show, as they say, and once introduced by the urbane Glenn Lowry, Director of MoMA, it seems the co-curators, Quentin Bajac and Roxanna Marcoci, don’t particularly like each other (but in defence, imagine the contested scenes during the selection process, which can hardly have been convivial, given the results). There’s a sense that there have been struggles behind the scenes. Ocean of Images as a title sounds on the button for today’s internet-awash bulk of photographs, but the clue is in the word images, which is clearly at odds with what photography used to be thought as. Out of 20 selected photographers, just 4 work directly with a camera, which used to be synonymous with photography. The other 16 use manipulation or installation procedures or both. There’s strong work here, no doubt about it, but it involves a re-definition of photography. There are elements of post-modernism, which I’m sure the co-curators would deny vehemently, appropriation (the fisherman approach to oceans of images), and a lot of installation that happens to include photographs. The 4 whose photograph are straight are all conceptualised and planned. The net result is that there is no spontaneous photography whatsoever, and you could just possibly interpret that as total rejection by the co-curators. Well, that is one of the functions of a major museum, to challenge perceptions and stuck-in-a-rut traditions, and complacent lack of change would, I agree, be much worse.

Second, though, is PDN’s 30. The bias of nationality is more American than MoMA’s choice (18 Americans out of 30 for PDN, 4 out of 20 for MoMA). The bias towards photography, however, is notable. Only one of the 20 indulged sometimes in double-exposure, and that was it. Everything else is camerawork. With, incidentally, just 6 photographers working in planned and constructed studio set-ups.

It’s an instructive comparison, and for a photographer or image-maker, whichever you prefer to call yourself, there surely is a choice. We either take photographs from life in front of us, or use photography and all its techniques and spin-offs, including Photoshop and concept, to create images. Both are good when they’re from skilled artists, but they don’t share the same bed.

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Book launch: Mindful Design of Japan: 40 Modern Tea-Ceremony Rooms

Mindful Design of Japan

Organised by The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation:

3rd December 2015
Talk: 6:00 – 7:00pm

Drinks reception from 7:00-8.00pm

13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle (entrance facing Regent’s Park), London NW1 4QP

Booking essential HERE

Mindful Design of Japan: 40 Modern Tea-Ceremony Rooms

The Japanese tea-ceremony, or Way of Tea, is one of the most profound manifestations of mindfulness. The ceremony, with its roots in Zen Buddhism, dates as far back as the 15th century and takes place within a traditional tea-ceremony room.

Here, in a fully updated edition, are 40 outstanding examples of contemporary Japanese tea rooms, many located within private homes. The book highlights all aspects of the subject – the design, architecture, garden design and the ceremony itself. And with many different materials featured – paper, wood, plastic, stone, aluminium, glass and concrete – it is itself an inspirational sourcebook for modern homes.

Every tea-ceremony room included is by a well-known artist, designer or architect making this a unique compendium of the best modern interior design in Japan – designs by Kengo Kuma, Kisho Kurokawa, Terunobu Fujimori, Takashi Sugimoto and Shigeru Uchida.

In these pages you can glimpse the rare world of Japanese mindful design, modern interpretations of the fascinating tea room – an empty space designed for meditation, contemplation and the appreciation of the art of tea drinking.

Author and acclaimed photographer, Michael Freeman, will give a talk about his experiences in visiting and photographing the modern tea ceremony rooms featured in “Mindful Design of Japan: 40 Modern Tea-Ceremony Rooms”. The book has recently been updated with a new, paperback edition published this October.

*‘Mindful Design of Japan: 40 Modern Tea-Ceremony Rooms’ (£15, RRP £19.99) will be on sale during the evening. Payment can be made by cash or card.  


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October Newsletter


Tools of the Trade

Over the last several years of my books on photography I’ve generally steered clear of writing much about equipment and the mechanics of photography. Not entirely, as there’s the DSLR Handbook to keep up to date—first published in 2006, it needs constant work as camera technology changes. In fact, as high-end mirrorless cameras now compete in performance with DSLRs, even the name has to change, and right now at Octopus we’re doing a major re-write of what will be The Photographer’s Pocketbook. Nevertheless, most of what I write nowadays is about visual skills and visual imagination, because that’s what interests me most and because I don’t think there’s enough written about this side of photography. I can’t say the same about equipment. So much gets written in books, magazines, blogs and forums about new cameras—any cameras, really—that I sometimes wonder if many people aren’t just getting most of their pleasure from handling them and twiddling with dials.

Well, it’s not quite as clearcut as that, is it? It sounds sophisticated and mature to claim not to be bothered about the tools of our trade, inferring that our creative and professional minds are on higher things like great imagery. Wasn’t it Irving Penn, the great master of studio photography, who when asked by Ernest Hemingway what camera he used, replied “Your novels are excellent. What typewriter do you use?”? I bet that put Hemingway in his place. The nerve of asking a great artist about equipment! Meaning the stuff that anyone can buy and may or may not have a bearing on how good the work is. I mean, obviously painters don’t go on about their brushes and canvases and writers don’t obsess about their pens, typewriters, word processors, and notebooks.

Spotlit typewriter

Actually, many of them do, and I’m sorry if that spoils an illusion anyone holds dear. John Steinbeck wrote a book about writing a book (East of Eden), in which he obsessed extremely about the pencils he preferred (“A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day.”). Truman Capote insisted on an especially black pencil, a Blackwing No. 602, using it on yellow legal paper. When it comes to typewriters, I wouldn’t know where to begin with writers banging on about their machines. John Updike liked to tell people he and his 1932 Olivetti MP1 portable, which was made in the year he was born, were “growing old and erratic together.” Hunter S. Thompson used to occasionally take his IBM Selectric outside and shoot it. Paul Auster even wrote a book about his and the relationship, called The Story of My Typewriter. And there is, as you might expect, the inevitable website devoted to the topic of writers and their typewriters.

Maybe on reflection that was a bit pretentious of Irving Penn? Or perhaps he really did want to know about Hemingway’s typewriters. The answer, though it’s not recorded whether Hemingway gave one, is a Corona 3 and an assortment of Royal portables, among others. Hemingway actually said, “The only psychiatrist I would ever submit to is the Corona 3.”

So, in the general scheme of creative people and their feelings about the tools of their trade, we photographers may not have such a techno attitude as we think we do. It is more difficult, however, than it is for writers and painters and others, because there’s just such a lot of technology involved in the practice. I don’t know a serious photographer who isn’t deeply involved in the equipment, though for the most part quietly. I for one actually get pleasure from good engineering, whether its mechanical or software. I’ve just been reviewing a new amazingly light and foldable Gitzo tripod for the manufacturer, and no I’m not going to use this as a sneaky way to do a plug, but paying attention to it in detail gave me some sort of insight into the minds of the engineering team who designed and built it, and that was very satisfying. Just as it’s good to work in collaboration on a project with people who are professional and at the top of their field, whether graphic designers or coordinators or stylists, there’s a similar kind of secure feeling in working with equipment that’s as good as it can be. The engineer had no idea what kind of photographs you were going to take with his work, but you know that it was handed on in the expectation that the same effort that went into building it will go into making the image.

Back to typewriters for the ending of this month’s newsletter. In an article last year in The Guardian here, Nichols Lezard argues that they “also produced an enormous amount of rubbish. Which wasn’t their fault. It was the fault of people who thought using them would make them writers.” Sounds familiar? Will the next models from Nikon/Canon/Sony/whatever really do what they claim to do and magically inspire wonderful new imagery? P. J. O’Rourke uses a typewriter for his writing, and believes it slows authors down. In response to Stephen King saying that if he had a computer in his early days, he could have written three times as much, O’Rourke said, ”Does the world need three times as many Cujos? Three times as many Jane Austens, maybe.”


The Oct 2015 Michael Freeman Photography Workshop 30 October to 5 November in Shuhe, near Lijiang, Yunnan: http://www.bivou.com/photography-workshop-with-michael-freeman/

The Photographer’s Eye Foundation Course in Composition starting every month at MyPhotoSchool: http://www.my-photo-school.com/course/michael-freemans-the-photographers-eye/

Perfect Exposure Masterclass starting every month at MyPhotoSchool: http://www.my-photo-school.com/course/michael-freemans-perfect-exposure-masterclass/

LUX* Photography Workshop 21 to 30 May 2016 on the islands of Mauritius and La Réunion: soon to be announced.

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New Book: Mindful Design of Japan: 40 Modern Tea-Ceremony Rooms

New Book by Michael is Out Now!

Mindful Design of Japan

Mindful Design of Japan: 40 Modern Tea-Ceremony Rooms (Amazon link here)

The Japanese tea-ceremony, or Way of Tea, is one of the most profound manifestations of mindfulness. The ceremony, with its roots in Zen Buddhism, dates as far back as the 15th century and takes place within a traditional tea-ceremony room.

Here, in a fully updated edition of New Zen, are 40 outstanding examples of contemporary Japanese tea rooms, many located within private homes.

The book highlights all aspects of the subject – the design, architecture, garden design and the ceremony itself. And with many different materials featured – paper, wood, plastic, stone, aluminium, glass and concrete – it is itself an inspirational sourcebook for modern homes.

Every tea-ceremony room included is by a well-known artist, designer or architect making this a unique compendium of the best modern interior design in Japan – designs by Kengo Kuma, Kisho Kurokawa, Terunobu Fujimori, Takashi Sugimoto and Shigeru Uchida.

In these pages you can glimpse the rare world of Japanese mindful design, modern interpretations of the fascinating tea room – an empty space designed for meditation, contemplation and the appreciation of the art of tea drinking.

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August Newsletter

Water basin with chrysanthemum

Changxing Tang

Changxing Tang, a Qing dynasty (Guang Xu reign) mansion belonging to Jin Xunhua, Changxing, by Lake Taihu.

Back to workshops

As shooting took up almost all of my last autumn, winter and spring, I had to shelve the workshops after the last one in Myanmar with Country Holidays. A pity, because while I wouldn’t want to spend all my time doing them, every so often they’re good. And now that we’re finally putting the big tea book to bed—the one that I’ve been shooting since last October—and coming to the end of the new photography book, the windows are opening.

Right now we’re looking at three new workshops over the next few months, two in China and one in Mauritius, plus the open house one in Cartagena, Colombia that I started this last January. We’re finalising the dates now, and they might change just a little.

. . . . .

Changxing: Zen in the Art of Photography

Dates 15th to 19th October. Changxing is next to Taihu Lake, on the opposite side from Suzhou, and a couple of hours drive from Shanghai, the nearest international airport. It won’t be a huge surprise if you read last month’s (July) newsletter that the theme will be applying Zen to photography, and we’re hoping, though not yet confirmed, to have Master Fa Zang come over from Taipei for the event. Locations include this fantastic Qing courtyard mansion, which happens to be in the grounds of the resort which is hosting the event and where we’ll all be staying—Taihu House—as well as the lake itself with traditional sailing boats, and the nearby Tang Dynasty Imperial Tea Gardens, on the slopes of Guzhu Mountain, where Lu Yu wrote his famous Cha Jing, the Classic of Tea.

Dancer, Changxing Tang from Michael Freeman Photography on Vimeo.

 . . . . .

Shuhe: Hidden Corners of Yunnan
Dates: four to five days at the very end of October, still being finalised, back at The Bivou in the six hundred-year-old small town of Shuhe, near Lijiang. This is the workshop that I’ve been doing twice a year, and it takes in local communities with which Manager and Partner Hwee Ling and her excellent staff have built strong relationships. These include Yi communities in the hidden valleys behind Jade Dragon Mountain, and the more remote Baoshan Stone Village and nearby settlements on the hardly-visited stretches of the Middle Yangtse. I love this place.

A booking form is not up on The Bivou’s homepage yet, however you can get some idea from 2014’s workshop details here. Please watch this space for further information!

. . . . .

Cartagena: Caribbean Street Photography
I’ll be as usual in my second home, Cartagena de Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, from the end of the third week in January until the end of February. Anyone can come at any time, and you can have individual street shooting tuition if you like. We’ll help you find accommodation in the exquisite old city, second oldest colonial settlement in South America. You pay US$400 a day for the workshop excluding the travel and accommodation.

Palenqueras (fruot vendors) in front of Parque Bolívar, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia.

Palenqueras (fruot vendors) in front of Parque Bolívar, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia.

. . . . .

Mauritius: LUX* Tropical Workshop
Something new for me as well. Basically, I’ve been involved with the opening of the first two properties in a chain of luxury boutique hotels in Yunnan along the Tea Horse Road. LUX* Resorts and Hotels are a Mauritius-based group with exquisite properties, and this promises to be a luxurious week with some amazing locations. No photographs yet, as I’m going next month for a recce and to line things up. The dates are currently 9th to 17th April 2016. About LUX* here.

. . . . .

Still to do with the <em>Tea Horse Road, we’ve now just published a revised and more affordable edition of the book, which now looks like this:-

Tea Horse Road: China’s ancient trade road to Tibet

Tea Horse Road: China’s ancient trade road to Tibet

The first edition sold out, and much as I loved its three-kilo heft, we thought a smaller, neater paperback would be more convenient. Buy the book here.
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July Newsletter



The Zen garden of Ryumontei, Kyoto, Japan


Middle Class Zen?

The summer writing is taking me to some interesting and unusual places, figuratively. One of them is, dare I admit it, Zen. I have friends whose eyes roll upward to the ceiling on hearing this, and one who derides the idea of applying this to photography as simply ‘middle-class Zen’. Ouch. And yes, it does have the makings of something pretentious, especially as right now the word ‘Mindfulness’ is the new buzzword.

As a result, I’m looking over my shoulder cautiously as I write the outline for a new workshop being planned for China in the autumn called (deep breath) Zen and the Art of Photography. Am I really following in the footsteps of those two old hippie tracts Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig? Both books are on my shelves, the Pirsig title in its original 1975 paperback edition. That’s when I bought it, so it must have clicked in some way, unless it was simply that it’s surely one of the best book titles ever invented.What started all this was my last two shooting trips to Taiwan for the tea project. Friends of friends introduced me to a Zen master, Fa Zang, who coincidentally is not only keen on photography but also had my book The Photographer’s Eye. We got on very well, and it ended with Master Fa Zang taking my coordinator and me around the island to the tea mountains. We had a lot of time on the road to talk about both Zen and photography, just as a matter of course, and the parallels were hard to escape. Both involve intuitive grasp. Both are ‘in the moment.’ Both have training techniques in order to reach the ‘flash of awareness.’Before you think I’m getting carried away, two things. One is that Zen is neither a religion nor even a philosophy, at least not in the Western meaning of the word. It’s a way of thinking that’s supposed to lead to a certain way of action, meaning that it’s ultimately practical. Second, there’s an interesting piece of history linking it to photography, and this goes back to that original book Zen in the Art of Archery written in 1948 by a German teacher Eugen Herrigel, who took up archery in Japan as a way of learning Zen. He learned from a somewhat maverick teacher, Awa Kenzo, who basically taught Herrigel to remove conscious control when drawing the bow. The arrow must be released not when the archer decides but when the shot itself is ready. You become one with the bow or, for that matter, with whatever you are using in any of the traditional Japanese arts associated with Zen, which include swordsmanship and flower arranging. So why not a camera and why not photography? Well, in the 1950s, the painter Georges Braque gave a copy of this short book to Henri Cartier-Bresson. After he read it, he told Braque, “It’s a manual of photography,” and later said, “I don’t take photographs. It is the photograph which has to take me.”I don’t think you have to buy into the whole Zen package to benefit from it in photography (Master Fa Zang no doubt wincing as he reads this). More than that, to use photography as way of improving one’s awareness and view of life. Among the obvious connections are Zen’s intuitive flash of awareness. A central tenet of Zen is that it’s impossible to reach full awareness by studying and analysis; it must happen through personal sudden insight. So with photography, in the changing world in front of the camera, a potential image that you are about to capture can only be seen by you yourself, not calculated. The training involves a key step beyond learning all the techniques of photography and camera-handling—making sure you keep all that learning down in your unconscious, not upfront and interfering with images that you should be able to grasp intuitively.Next, the task of Zen is to be entirely in the moment, and so is that of photography, which is fundamentally about taking a slice of time and preserving it. This is intimately related to the intuitive flash of awareness above. Capturing the moment is at the core of photography (cue plug for my last book Capturing the Moment!), and the way to get there is to be so single-minded that you can feel the finest nuances and slices of moment in a piece of action or in an unfolding scene. Total concentration on moment; not easy to do, but a very reasonable ideal.

From my book Capturing the Moment, all about getting it down to the micro-second, mindfully of course!




Another key Zen principle is to strip things back, down to the bare bones, and concentrate only on the essentials. It involves simplifying, strict limitation, elimination and not adding. This is very valuable for photographic framing and composition, forcing the eye and mind to select from the unstructured real-life scene in front of the camera. It means thinking about what is important in any subject or scene, and framing for just those essential elements and nothing more. It results in a certain kind of imagery that is uncluttered, rigorous and lean.

I can see that this is getting a bit po-faced, which isn’t really in the spirit of Zen, so I’ll end with a Zen joke. A Zen master visits New York and goes to a hot-dog stand. He asks the vendor “Make me one with everything.” No, that’s not the joke. The guy makes a hot dog with all the fixings and hands it over. The master pays with a $20 bill, and the vendor puts it in his cash box and closes it. “Excuse me’” says the master, “Where’s my change?”.

“Brother,” says the vendor, “change comes from within,”

That’s all until next month.


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Newsletter | May

Imperial Palace

I’m beginning to forget what London looks like. I left in early March and it’s now summer in Tokyo. A week here, and then on to Taipei for a week’s shooting. That will make it a three-month trip—a record even for me. With no shooting this week, I have some time to think about the writing I have to do for the rest of the summer, which is…

How to be creative

Often, when I give a talk, I get thrown a particular curve ball question, and it goes something like ‘how can I be more creative’? There are variations, such as ‘how do you develop a style’ or even simply ‘I want to take better photographs’, but they’re all directed at the same thing, creativity. Of course there’s no simple answer, and during those question times I refuse to attempt a simple sound bite, but is there an answer at all? Can anyone at all reasonably expect to become creative, like learning to drive? There’s an historical weight of opinion against it. Plato wrote, “Will we say, of a painter, that he makes something? Certainly not, he merely imitates.” Immanuel Kant decided that creativity was the product of genius, and so not something that could be analysed and learned. This, the genius theory of creativity if you like, has persisted ever since—until now. It says basically, you have it or you don’t. End of story. A waste of time trying to teach it.

Well, I wouldn’t be writing about this if I believed that, but a good start is to agree on what creativity actually is, at least in photography. There are indeed some strange contenders, as a browse through the internet will show you, with an emphasis on technique (double-exposure, motion blur, infrared and so on) and quite a bit of reliance on canned creativity—my term for software effects and filters à la Instagram. “To allow everybody to get a chance to produce great ‘creative images’,” as one manufacturer puts it. I think it’s fair to dismiss all of that as just a misuse of the word. What creativity really comes down to is the use of imagination to produce something apparently new. Now there’s a glaring qualification that I added—‘apparently.’ More usually you’ll see the word original, but almost all art, even revolutionary art, is based on what went before, so that’s a risky word to use. In fact, it’s what made Kant associate creativity with genius, the assumption that creativity is actually and always original.

Yet, even if that were ever true, the world has changed. In practice, being creative means adding a twist, an addition, an interpretation, an association, and that’s perfectly fine. Think of any famous photograph that almost everyone could agree were creative, such as a food still-life by Irving Penn or the Charles Jourdan shoe campaigns by Guy Bourdin. What’s going on in these images is a complex layering of associations and influences. For instance, Penn referenced vanitas paintings, while Bourdin combined the surrealist influence of Man Ray and the mysterious narratives of Helmut Newton. That’s one of the principal ways in which creativity in photography works, and it’s completely valid.

Next, creativity involves an audience. Just being imaginative and close to original isn’t quite enough. If the result were plain nasty, it wouldn’t count. It has to appeal. One of the more brutal aspects of any creative medium is that there’s always a judgment of success. If respected judges, or simply enough other people, think your images are good, then you have a confirmed place on the creative ladder. Winning prizes and being published are good indicators, but what do you do about the state of being unrecognised? Look at the timeline of any admired photographer, and it begins, quite naturally, with obscurity. Natural, but not at all comfortable, with attacks of self-doubt likely to happen every so often. As one young Chinese photographer came up and asked me after a talk in Hangzhou, ‘What if no-one likes my work?’ A reasonable question, with the possibility of one good answer (keep going and people will eventually see how good it is) and one bad one (it’s not good enough). Do you fall back on the van Gogh and Gauguin model of being too far ahead of your time? Or perhaps go in the other direction and try to please an audience by making images in a style you know that they already like? That second option might turn out to be not very satisfying, which would matter less if you’re more concerned with recognition than breaking new ground.

Ultimately, though, all this means that, according to my way of seeing it, you can analyse successful creative photographs. And if you can analyse, you can work out a system for being similarly creative. Can anyone be creative? No, I don’t believe so, but in a way it’s self-defining. Anyone who wants to badly enough to work on it and to ask these questions is already demonstrating that the creative urge and need is there, so in that case, I’d say it’s almost certain that the creativity can be improved. It doesn’t have to be genius level, either. One of the ways in which the world has changed is that art is no longer the preserve of an elite with time on its hands or of total obsessives. Now, most people in developed societies want to be able to express themselves creatively somehow. So there’s a range of creativity, all of it worthwhile, from big leaps to small touches of improvement. And photography is by far the most available and accessible medium in which to practice it.

That’s what I’m going to be writing about this summer.


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Newsletter | April 2015

Japanese azalea, Ryogo-tei Garden near Osaka, Japan

Wild geese

I still haven’t found a way to write and post this newsletter any earlier than the last minute, Maybe that’s not to do with time so much as with me. Anyway, this is becoming a long trip. I’m still in Shanghai, although right now on my way to the train station to go to Hangzhou, where my friend Tutu will pick me up and we’ll drive to Anhui Province to climb another two tea mountains. In fact, I did have a break from shooting a couple of weeks ago—in Kuwait. After judging the Kuwait Grand Photography Contest in early March, Sheikh Mohammed, whose initiative it is, asked me back for the awards ceremony, which was kind of him. But there’s no straightforward way from here to there, and it ended up as 26 hours bed-to-bed. While I was there, I took part in a new project from my publisher, Hachette, called Where I Write, and the result is a video I shot of a visit to the printers who were hurrying to finish the book of prize-winning photographs. I like visiting printers, because it’s where photo assignments are finally turned into something tangible. If that interests you, too, join me here.
 Photography talk, Beijing, China

Photography talk, Beijing, China

After three days in Kuwait I flew back to China, to Beijing to give photography talks for a few days. Which brings me in a roundabout way to the first wild goose I’ve been chasing this month, because one of the talks was inevitably my Composition one. Question time at the end of these is always interesting, as it stops me from being complacent about repeating the same words time and again. This time, the idea of harmony, balance and proportions came under scrutiny, and I realise how intolerant I’ve become about ‘recommended’ proportions. Partly it’s because I see so much written about it online, and the usual nonsense hones in on the Rule of Thirds. Why should it be a rule? Why should there be any rules in what ultimately is a creative activity? To further focus my mind on this, a French magazine just asked me to write a long article on composition, and one of the suggested headings was about rules. I turned that instead into the heading There Are No Rules, with what seems to me the watertight argument that we’re doing photography, not engineering, and rules are designed to make things accurate, predictable and repeatable—pretty much the opposite of what you’d want from an interesting, surprising photograph.

One of the good things about the internet is that there’s always someone who’s researched whatever it is you’re looking for, and I decided once and for all to find out how the Rule of Thirds got started. It turns out that the term was invented in 1797 by John Thomas Smith, a painter of little note, misinterpreting the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, who simply made the point that if there are two distinct areas of different brightness in a picture, one should dominate and they should not be equal. Smith wrote, “Analogous to this ‘Rule of thirds’, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think…” Since then, this rather silly instruction to make divisions a third of the way into the frame has been followed with mediocrity by artists and photographers who lack imagination. It should be obvious that if all photographs were composed like this, they would just be similar and boring. It’s probably the worst piece of compositional advice I can imagine. Think of photographs of any kind that have inspired you. How many are divided into thirds? The real puzzle is why it gets repeated so often, and never with any examples that are worth looking at.
The next wild goose chase was inspired by the revision we’re doing of my book Perfect Exposure, as the second edition will be published in early November. My editor, Frank, suggested I look into something called ISO invariance that’s been popping up recently on various camera websites. Sounds serious and technical. The gist of this is that some new high-end camera sensors perform so well that when you raise the ISO setting, there’s no increase in noise. Well, that really would be something, wouldn’t it? In fact, it would be a miracle. I’m really no physicist, but it still didn’t make any sense to me. On the other hand, with a technical name like ISO-invariant, there must surely be some truth in it? Fortunately, I’d just bought a Nikon D4S equipped with one of these sensors, so I could find out for myself (actually, unfortunately in another sense, because I had to buy it to replace the D4 I dropped on the floor three weeks ago). I waited until dusk, and then took a series of test shots from my balcony of the Suzhou Creek. Total nonsense. Of course dialling up the ISO increased the noise. What did I expect? The next day I had an appointment with Nikon Shanghai to borrow a lens (yes, same reason, to replace the lens that was on the camera I dropped). I asked the representative about ISO invariance. Look of puzzlement. I went into more detail. Nikon, as he said, never make public comments, but at least when I left the building I knew that this was another wild goose.
What both of these go to show is that if you come up with a good title, you can pass off all kinds of nonsense. And no, I didn’t say that that’s what book publishers sometimes do.

Photography talk, Beijing, China


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