Monday, November 10, 2008

Photographic Kiaijutsu

Since I have begun posting my photographs, I have received one bit of feedback consistently. I am told in various ways that my candid portraits "have a knack for capturing people as they really are." I am not a trained photographer in any formal sense of the word. I have never taken a class or even a photography workshop (though I intend to). Rather, my pursuit has been intuitive and self-directed. I read the manual that came with my camera (RTFM is advice that always pours out of my mouth), taking a handful of key suggestions from it and creating a cheat-sheet that went into my camera bag. Several how-to books have also contributed to that cheat-sheet as well as to my overall sense of technical practicality. That does not lead me to having a knack, though it enables being able to capture the moment more often than not.

Modeling the Porcelain Slip
Modeling the Porcelain Slip

While on a car trip this weekend, I did a lot of thinking about that, and exploring why I might have this mysterious knack. Of course, this is not anything unique or special to me as an amateur photographer, but as I keep hearing the same phrase, there is something there that I should pay attention to.

“There is a brief moment when all there is in a man's mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” ~ Yousuf Karsh

In the martial arts world there is the kiai, or the "yell" that accompanies a blow. In my twenty years of martial arts training I met instructors who suggested using the kiai as a reminder to breathe, and others to use it as a distraction of one's opponant. Some combatants use variations of the kiai with each and every technique, and some almost never use it. In my own practice, I found that once I mastered breathing while fighting, the kiai became something greater. While I did not know it then, there is an art dedicated to the use of the kiai, kiaijutsu. Ideally, the kiai emerges from the hara or dantien, or one's center. The effect of a proper kiai is a unity of focus: The breath, muscles, and intent all become a single force. When sparring, especially at the full-contact level, I would experience moments of extreme clarity, absolute certainty that a specific technique would land. That moment of time would stretch, seemingly to last well beyond the half-second or so of actual time, and that clarity was accompanied by the kiai as my legs, torso, shoulder, arm, and fist united with my breath and intent, and I struck my opponant.

Celeste with Carinval Mask

I think there is something of that concept of the kiai in my knack, or any other photographer's sweet spot. It is that moment where everything comes into absolute clarity, with the awareness that the moment of decisivness is now. Frank Van Riper said something along these lines in an interview with the Washington Post: "Part of being able to capture the decisive moment is practice. It is no accident that great photographers tend to photograph all the time, developing a kind of intuitive muscle memory and hand-eye coordination that can recognize developing elements of a picture and grab them on film or pixels. I am convinced that, after a while, the effect is unconscious – you develop a kind of peripheral vision that becomes hyper-aware of your surroundings, especially when you have a camera in your hand, ready to use."

As I am writing this post, I learn that the term aiki, as in the art of aikido, written with the same two kanji characters as kiai, transposed, relates to the coordination of one's energy with the energy of an external source. Perhaps aiki is a more apt term for what I perceive as my approach, my knack if you will. I will have to think more on this: Is making the photo a projection of my effort - kiai - or is it my unified response to my subjects energy - aiki?

I enjoy people, and often find myself noting what a friend finds funny or delightful, repulsive or irritating. That observation, coupled with my famiarity with the kiai (or aiki), seems to give me a subconscious nudge that says Now!, and I make the photograph.


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