The Finger and the Moon

My suggestion is that at each state the proper order of operation of the mind requires an overall grasp of what is generally known, not only in formal logical, mathematical terms, but also intuitively, in images, feelings, poetic usage of language, etc.

—David Bohm

It is a pity that our medium, photography, which is practiced by so many, is understood by so very few.

—Ernst Haas

The Surangama Sutra tells the story of the Buddha attempting to explain to his cousin, Ananda, why clinging to common thinking patterns may obscure for most people the true nature of things: the Dharma-nature. A person attempting to point others in the direction of higher meaning, according to the Buddha, “is like a man pointing a finger at the moon to show it to others who should follow the direction of the finger to look at the moon. If they look at the finger and mistake it for the moon, they lose both the moon and the finger.”

The finger in Buddha’s example is just a means to an end: a way of leading another person to some important knowledge or meaning (the moon). In the language of semioticians, looking at the pointing finger rather than at what the finger is pointing at—the moon—can be considered as failing to understand the difference between a signifier (a sign) and the thing signified (the intended interpretation or meaning implied by the sign).

The same failure to distinguish between signifier and signified is regrettably pervasive in attitudes toward expressive photography. Rather than focus on what a photographer wished to express, many—both photographers and viewers—instead become mired in considerations of the photographic process or in qualities of the objects portrayed, which, in the case of expressive photography, may be irrelevant to if not outright distract from the photographer’s artistic intent.

Edward Steichen suggested one reason why photographs have historically been considered merely as objective, realistic illustrations, while paintings are intuitively considered as means for artistic expression. This despite both media being eminently suitable for creative, expressive work. Steichen wrote, “For many years, that was the usual attitude of painters toward photography. A photograph would suggest something that could be done better in a painting. The end-all and be-all of a photograph was to record. If you could positively identify everything, it was clear and therefore a good photograph. When one tried to go beyond that concept, the only way to learn was by trial and error, and chiefly by error.”

The purpose of expressive photography is no different from that of any expressive art: to signify meaning—moods, emotions, and other states of mind; not to report on the existence of some objects; not to testify to the occurrence of some event, and certainly not to belabor the trivial details of photographic technology. To an expressive photographer meaning is the moon, and photography—the finger. A means to an end. A way of pointing.

But painters are, if anything, only partly to blame for the fact that so many fail to consider visual works first by their function (documentary, expressive, or other). Only when the function of a work is first established, should we apply further criteria in our evaluation. Certainly, for some applications of photography, considerations of what tools or techniques were used, or whether the things portrayed really looked “like that,” are eminently important. In expressive photography, they are not. In expressive photography what matters—the moon—is the concept, the ideas and feelings expressed. Beyond perhaps considerations of general curiosity, all other factors related to the production of the work by comparison matter less or not at all. “Photography would have been a settled fine art long ago,” wrote Henry Peach Robinson, “if we had not, in more ways than one, gone so much into detail. We have always been too proud of the detail of our work, and the ordinary details of our processes.”

In a conversation with her teacher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe once commented that it’s understandable why for many years people thought the sun revolved around the earth because that’s how it looked like to them. True to his famous knack for pointing out logical errors in thinking, Wittgenstein responded, “and what would it have looked like if the earth revolved around the sun?” Exactly the same. What we see and how we interpret what we see are not the same thing.

Most people assume that all photographs are documentary, factual records because that’s what it looks like to them based on common perception. What would a given photograph look like if it was created as a work of art rather than as a documentary record? Exactly the same. But the truth of it would be of a different nature. The documentary photograph is intended as literal truth, whereas the artistic photograph, as Picasso expressed, is meant to be “a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

So many times when presenting my work I realize that viewers, clinging to common thinking and preconceptions about photography, are concerned with the finger—the camera, the process, what the photograph is of—and miss the moon—what the photograph is about. Admittedly it is somewhat deflating to present a photograph intended as expressive art only to be met with questions or comments about gear, technique, subject, or location.

I often wonder whether, if people like my work, I should care if they fail to understand it. A part of me wishes I didn’t, but I do.

Living Voluntarily

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18 thoughts on “The Finger and the Moon

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  1. Sometimes when we “point” at something with our art, our viewer may see/feel something different than we intended. If the pointee feels something…well, I think that’s as much a measure of a successful “understanding” as anything. We use our art to communicate. When someone likes it, they may not realize or be able to analyze precisely WHY they like it. But a communication has taken place.

    1. Thank you, Lori!

      I guess the question is whether communication without hope of understanding still has value. For the sake of exercise, since I mentioned both Zen (eastern) and Analytical (western) philosophies, I’ll try to frame it from both perspectives:

      Building on the Buddha’s example: presumably the person pointing at the moon already knows the importance of the moon. If this person had no hope that by pointing at the moon they could get other people to also understand this importance, there would be no reason for them to go to the effort of pointing.

      Trying to think in Wittgenstein’s terms (formal logic): understanding is ostensibly the reason for communication, therefore communication without understanding is by comparison at least less desirable. Now the question is whether communication without understanding still has some positive value. I think the answer depends on how a person feels about silence. To some, silence is more enjoyable than communication without understanding, but to others, say those who enjoy social interaction for its own sake, it may not be. Logically, then, communication without understanding (assuming understanding is not likely) is only desirable if at least one of two conditions are met: 1) a person does not enjoy silence, 2) when silence is not an option.

  2. It’s probably just as well that Wittgenstein and I aren’t close friends. Perhaps I look at communication (with or without a complete and/or deep understanding) as a door opening. If I reach someone’s heart with my art, in a way that opens a door of communication, it may not be THIS specific piece that they understand. But…it may open a door to them taking another look, or it may open a door to the NEXT piece of art. Or it may open a door in their mind that was previously closed. You say, “whether communication without hope of understanding still has value” and I see the word “hope”. Maybe I play a longer game. Probaly that marketing stuff. LOL. You’ve been in a particularly logical frame of mind today.

  3. You said, “So many times when presenting my work I realize that viewers, clinging to common thinking about photography, are concerned with the finger—the camera, the process, what the photograph is of—and miss the moon—what the photograph is about.” That’s a little unfair. A finger doesn’t make a moon, but cameras do make pictures. Knowing something about cameras and lenses and how they work can potentially lead to better pictures, however one defines “better.” That’s not to say that some of us are not way too obsessed with gear, at the expense of enablers of expressive art, because we often are.

    1. Thanks, Gary!
      I’m not sure you can really say that the camera made a picture any more than you can say a brush made a picture. More to the point, if the example was a finger pointing at a painting made by the same hand (rather than the moon), the conclusion of the koan would be just as true.
      As to unfairness: you could say that if a person was never taught, say, algebra, it would be unfair to ask them to solve a quadratic equation. Assuming that person may benefit from solving equations, would it be unfair to teach them how to do it?

      1. Thanks, Guy. Most artists will benefit from knowing their tools, having the best tools, and using their tools intelligently, whether it be brushes, pigments, stone for carving, words for poetry, or camera lenses. You are right to suggest that many (most?) photographers worry too much about the wrong things, but sometimes gear matters. I recently made a photo trip to Southern Utah and carried almost exclusively a small, fast, and excellent-quality 35mm prime lens. I will crop some of those pictures to 1/4 their original size, or even smaller, then print them in good quality at 16×24 inches for a gallery. I have a 42mp sensor in my camera, and I don’t know that I could have done that with the gear I had 15 years ago, or with a cell phone camera today.

        As for “fairness,” sorry, I probably used the wrong word, but I stand by the overall point I made.

  4. Another thoughtful article Guy!

    You mentioned “Building on the Buddha’s example: presumably the person pointing at the moon already knows the importance of the moon.” Building on that, I would think that sometimes even the act of pointing, though the person might initially miss the moon for the finger, is important in setting them in a long-term path for seeing the moon.

    1. Thank you, Saikat! I suppose that could be true, but I think that it would counter the premise of the sutra. The point the Buddha is trying to teach Ananda is that there are two ways to think: the habitual/ordinary way, which clings to misplaced perceptions; and the enlightened/Dharma way, which requires breaking that clinging in order to see the true nature of things.

      As the Buddha put it to Ananda: “You are still using your clinging mind to listen to the Dharma; since, however, this Dharma is also causal, you fail to realize the Dharma-nature.”

      So you might say that missing the moon may reinforce the clinging mind and make the long-term realization of the Dharma even more difficult.

  5. Hi Guy,

    Thanks to you, I always look at moon first when I view an image. It’s instinctual for me at this point. That’s saying a lot for guy who was all about the finger when I started this photographic journey. Admittedly, I still occasionally look at the finger when I think it will help me to create my own expressive images. That’s part of my learning process, but, in the end, it’s all about the moon.

    So thanks for helping me to see the moon!!

  6. I’m sure I will respond further, later. I had to stop reading after the second paragraph. “Signifier and signified”. I’m in the midst of a major project that involves the idea of “visual music”. But I stopped what I was doing to read those first two paragraphs. I am still in stopped mode.
    While you are writing “photographically”, the content of your writing, you are pointing to something at the horizon-. I can’t exactly name it except to say it seems to be either near the aesthetic idea or it is at the center of it.
    Coming at these paragraphs, I have been reaching some summary thoughts about why and how images photographic or painted in my case come about..
    I have this idea that we are prompted by a visceral trigger at a juncture of “I” and the complete “Other”. The trigger stops us, makes us pay attention emotionally, experientially, god only knows what. There is the idea being formed, and our willful act to make the substance of the idea material substance becomes the finger.

    At this point my mind is racing. more later.

  7. You have touched a chord – I no longer worry about that finger. Only trying to please myself by making an image that tells the story of what I saw and how I felt about it. Always triggering a memory of being there.

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