Meeting a Man of the Way

Under the unorthodox tutelage of legendary photographer Minor White, John Daido Loori makes an unexpected discovery: between photographer and subject, there is no separation.

John Daido Loori

Vicinity of Danville, New York, 1955 by Minor WhiteThe first day began around four in the morning. I walked out into a large field with the others, wondering how in the world we were going to photograph in the dark. We were asked to stand in one long line and follow the instructions of a modern dance instructor who began to lead us through a series of movement exercises. I looked around, puzzled, but everyone was following, including Minor. I turned to the man next to me, “Why are we doing this? What does this have to do with photography?” “Ssshhhhh. Just do it,” he said. The young woman on my right said the same thing.

I thought I had been very patient up to that point, but this was just too much. I had paid hundreds of dollars to study photography. I wasn’t about to waste my time dancing in a field. Furious, I stormed away.

Back in my room, I started to pack my things, but the line of dancers in the emerging dawn caught my eye as I passed the window, and I decided to photograph them. I screwed a long telephoto lens onto my camera and began to shoot, feeling very pleased with myself. They can do whatever they want, I thought. I’m going to photograph. Thinking back on it, I realize that that was the perfect reflection of where I was at the time: standing apart from my life, staring at it through a lens, like a voyeur.

After the morning session was over, a group of students led by the dance instructor came to my room to convince me to stay. Though I was skeptical of Minor’s esoteric teaching methods, a part of me knew I couldn’t just walk away. I really wanted to learn to see the way he did, to capture my subjects in a way that didn’t render them lifeless and two-dimensional. I didn’t realize that Minor was teaching us exactly that: not only to see images, but to feel them, smell them, taste them. He was teaching us how to be photography.

I decided to stay, telling myself that I was doing it because my companions really wanted me to. The truth was, I felt moved by how much they cared. And so I woke up before dawn, meditated, and danced with everyone else. We didn’t even touch our cameras until about the fourth day, when Minor directed us to start working with the questions that had brought us there, by photographing them.

One assignment in particular had a profound effect on me: photographing our essence. “Your essence is the inner quality of being that has been with you since birth. It’s what you know as yourself,” Minor said. He asked that we go beyond our personality, the outward aspects of our being, and delve deep into the core of who we really are. In Zen terms, this question can be expressed as: “What is your original face, the face you had before your parents were born?”

As I packed my equipment, getting ready to go out, I had a hunch that this photograph was going to be the photograph of the workshop. In fact, I was so confident, so set on staying out as long as it took to come to full terms with the challenge, that I told a couple of people not to be concerned if I didn’t come back that night.

I set off early in the morning with a small backpack and my 4 x 5 camera. I walked through the woods slowly, without direction, trying to sense the subject that was supposed to find me. Minor’s instructions echoed in my mind: Venture into the landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you. When you approach it, you will feel a resonance, a sense of recognition toward it. If, when you move away, the resonance fades, or if it gets stronger as you approach, you’ll know you have found your subject. Sit in your subject’s presence and wait for your presence to be acknowledged. Don’t try to make a photograph, but let your intuition tell you the right moment to release the shutter. If, after you’ve made an exposure, you feel a sense of completion, bow and let go of the subject and your connection to it.

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