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

Windowsill Daydreaming, 1958 by Minor WhiteAfter a while I found a tree that seemed to beckon to me. I went to it and bowed. I set up my camera and then settled in front of that tree, waiting for my presence to be acknowledged. It was early afternoon; the sun had just passed its zenith. I sat with one hand on the shutter release, my whole body alert yet still.

That’s the last thing I remember.

Hours later I realized that the sun had set and the afternoon was turning cold. Time had completely disappeared for me. I stood up slowly, aware of the fact that I felt very different. My body and mind, my concerns had shifted. A lot of the questions I’d been struggling with all week had completely evaporated. I didn’t even know whether I’d taken a photograph. Somehow it didn’t matter.

I packed up my gear and headed back to the school, remembering that I had an appointment with Minor to talk about my work. When I arrived Minor was sitting on the porch outside his room, waiting for me, so I sat down with him. I had a list of questions I’d prepared two days before, but somehow all those questions no longer seemed relevant in the afterglow of my experience with the tree.

“What would you like to talk about?” Minor asked.

Embarrassed, I said, “Honestly, I don’t have anything to say.”

“Good. Then let’s just sit here together.”

So we sat in the quiet of the evening, until the next student arrived. I got up to leave, and Minor placed his palms together and bowed. I felt overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude that I didn’t know how I could requite. I told him as much, and he said, “You’re a teacher, right?” I nodded.

“Well then, teach.”

After that day in the woods, something in me had shifted, and for a while the world was right; I was right; everything was perfect and complete. Emotionally, creatively, I felt better than I had in years, and I wanted to be able to share that with others.

But this feeling didn’t last long. Slowly, over a period of a year, the buoyancy I had experienced began to dissipate. Frantically, I tried to recreate everything we’d done in the workshop in an effort to hold on to it. I read books on religion, spirituality, and philosophy. I practiced yoga, ate vegetarian food, meditated. I didn’t want those new feelings of clarity and resolution to disappear. What was it that had allowed me, for a moment, to become so thoroughly intimate with that tree, the world, and my life?

In 1972 Minor gave another workshop, at Pumpkin Hollow Farm, a retreat center in upstate New York. I went, but by then my admiration for my teacher had turned into resentment as I realized that my photographs were beginning to look like his. I felt stuck inside Minor’s head. What was my own way of seeing? Who was I?

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