Zen Camera

A Book Review

In last week’s post I wrote about Your Daily Record, a creative habit that resembles a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions in which you let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. The idea I picked up from the book Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography by David Ulrich. The book itself is worth looking into for anyone interested in expanding his or her photography.

Zen Camera isn’t the first photo book which draws upon Eastern philosophy in its approach to photography. Others include books such as The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing and Opening The Good Eye: A Path to True Seeing, all books I can recommend even if you are not interested in Eastern Philosophy at all. They all, included Zen Camera, give you a unique and useful approach to expanding your photography.

However Zen Camera, differs from the others in that it’s more a cohesive program or a long term workshop than a book of inspiration and new ideas. David Ulrich draws on the principles of Zen practice as well as forty years of teaching photography to offer six reflective lessons for developing your self-expression as a photographer. His ambition with the book is to purify our seeing and allow our original self to emerge.

In my opinion, Ulrich largely accomplishes the objective. At least if you are willing to look beyond his sometimes a little lengthy deliberations about the meaning of it all, if you get my notion. The six lessons take you step by step from initially developing you seeing and observation skills to how to be able to reach mastery and being able to have your photography reflect whom you are as a person in grander perspective. Of course, mastery is not something you can learn by reading a book, but Ulrich’s reflections around the way to mastery are both well founded and encouraging. In fact, reading a book will not be of much help at all. You need to convert the words into skills by practicing. And Ulrich offers plenty of fun, applicable and challenging exercises.

The foundation of the “program” running as a red thread through Zen Camera is the Daily Record. All the lessons and all the exercises in each lesson can be fulfilled through the Daily Record. By working your way through the lessons and exercises you eyes will open up to seeing most likely in a different way than you are used to. It might also transform the way you perceive life, depending on your susceptibility to the Zen philosophy. At least Ulrich aims at making his thoughts valid not only for your photography but for life as such. As he write in the preface; “Zen Camera is not only about photography; it is about you. In six lessons, it guides you to cultivate creativity with the camera and all areas of your life… It helps you realize Socrates’ great directive, Know thyself, and uncover the seeds of the authentic self, hidden behind layers of conditioning and socializing”.

I am not a Zen practitioner myself, and sometimes Ulrich’s deliberations around life and meaning of life seem a little too contrived to me. It’s just too much of it and a bit too woozy and lofty. However, I am sure others will have a different perception of this. The language in the book is also somewhat scholarly and studious as is evident in the quote above—which at times makes it demanding to read. Furthermore, Ulrich’s wordiness can at times be a hurdle in and of itself for fluid reading. Personally, what I find most unpleasing is his tendency towards using a flourishing languages. An example: “Freshness blooms from the beginner’s mind that has its focus in the eternal now”. For me the language distracts. I get caught up in the wording itself rather than what the words try to convey.

Despite my objections, I have no problem recommending the book. You will just have to take it for what it is. But I am quite certain that no matter how you look upon Eastern philosophy and no matter how skilled or not skilled you are, you will arrive on the other side of the book with a different and more developed approach to photography, as long as you dig into it and transform the ideas into a practical approach. Zen Camera will make you a better photographer and if you can see beyond its elusive framework, it will be both inspirational and encouraging.

Available on Amazon:.

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44 thoughts on “Zen Camera

  1. Otto, I also referred to Zen philosophy in my current post. For years I’ve read Alan Watts and others, who adhere to Eastern philosophy, as a way to better delve more deeply inside of the world and myself. In my post I refer to one of its influences: my gardens. A personal philosophy sifts through one’s entire actions and being, and especially through the creative process.

    1. Don’t know much about Alan Watts, but just checking him out, it seems like someone I should get to know a little better. I look forward to see what you write in your latest post (and have to admit I have not been very present in the blog sphere as of late).

  2. What a wonderful review you’ve written, Otto! I appreciate your honesty in discussing both the things you enjoyed about the book, and those you didn’t. Although I’m not sure the “woozy and lofty” language will speak to me either, I am still curious to check it out — but your Amazon associate link isn’t showing up at the bottom of the post (in my browser, at least).

  3. Otto, I do appreciate your readiness to look at alternative approaches to photography but I also love your scepticism! It’s great to look at different perspectives but it’s also important to take from them what works for you. Take care my friend.

  4. Since I have read many books on Zen, Buddhist philosophy and living in daily Mindfulness, it may be a book I could actually relate to. I’ll check it out (together with the others you recommend).

    I must admit I tend to veer towards books with lots of images. I’m a visual person and sometimes my eyes wander around long paragraphs or scholarly chapters unable to grasp what the author is trying to convey. I lose focus quickly now I wear thick glasses (instead of the bi-focal contact lenses I wore up to 2010). I never realised how much I relied on the excellent vision contact lenses gave me until I changed back to glasses and around the same time, took up photography.

    1. There are images in Zen Camera, but nothing like in a more traditional photo book. It’s hard to grasp what it’s like to lose one’s vision. I just know how much I rely on mine.

  5. I enjoy photography, but I am not a photographer, I have a very modest camera, that sometimes carry around, in order to save myself long explanations when asked how was your trip, or how was the reunion, or how was the family when you visit them, this event, or that other one, etc.

    I go along with the Chinese proverb, ‘a picture it’s worth a thousand words.’

    And that’s my ten cents of Zen, when it comes to photography.

    As usual Otto, reading you it’s always a pleasure. 🙂

  6. So interesting..thank you Otto , I am all for inspiration to create something out of the ordinary…but there is nothing wrong with the ordinary.. as without it you would not recognise the opposite.

  7. You present a well balanced review of the book – I appreciate your honesty about what you don’t like in the book, and the fact that you then go on to say you still recommend it. The book sounds worthwhile but the title drives me crazy. I don’t like people attaching the word “zen” to things they are promoting if they aren’t zen students or teachers themselves. I see no evidence that he ever studied zen seriously, so it seems he picked up the concepts through years of reading, etc., and he uses “zen” in the title because he thinks it expresses what he’s trying to get across. Or possibly because that word would sell more books. After an admittedly quick look at the book contents and index on Amazon, it looks like what I call zen lite. I’m probably guilty of that too, but I like to think I wouldn’t put the word “zen” on my work, as if I were an authority on it. I apologize for the rant. There is really good work on his website though. And as you know, I’m all for the overall direction you’re talking about here, with the other books you mentioned. Do you know John Daido Loori’s work? He was a photographer who went on to become a respected zen teacher, and wrote a few books on art and zen.

    1. No reason to apologize for you “rant”, I think you have a valid point. However, I do believe David Ulrich has more insight into Zen, than might be evident in my review and on Amazon, even if he is not a zen teacher as such. I do know Daido Loori’s work and have for instance read his The Zen of Creativity.

  8. A great review Otto. Though my photography is limited to spontaneous pics of things that capture my interest this seems a worthy read for serious and professional photographers. Enjoyed reading this.

  9. buddism? contrived? lol jk, it’s called ‘the science of the mind’ … you can’t get more contrived then that lol but that didn’t stop me from reading ‘The Tao of Pooh’… but that’s only coz i love Winney The Pooh… i would love a Winney the Pooh book on photography lolol

  10. The title appeals to me, so thank you for the excellent review.I think I tend to like the “woozy and lofty” as you describe, so I’m definitely interested in looking into this book, Otto. 🙂

  11. I’ve ordered the book and it will be here on Saturday…along with a book about turtles. 🙂

    I’ve read two of the other books you reference and have found them both helpful. Another book which I recommend although I have the same complaint as you do for Ulrich’s is John Daido Loori’s “The Zen of Creativity”. More about self-realization than photography but another push in the right direction.

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