Trumpeter Swans - Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Ichigo Ichie

by Weldon Lee (photos and text) 

            People collect all sorts of things. Some amass huge collections of stamps and coins. Others find comfort in paintings, antique cars, or even cookie jars, for that matter.

            My passion is “one liners.” You know, those short provocative bits of wisdom you wish you’d thought of that were coined by someone else. In Texas where I grew up, for example, a “hog strangler and stump floater” was a thunderstorm that dumped two or three inches of rain in an hour.

            I recently received one such treasure from my good friend John Egan who currently resides in the quaint village of Alsace, France. John’s contribution, I must say, was somewhat more upscale than those accumulated in Texas. Perhaps the excellence of his offering has something to do with where he resides, or maybe it’s related to the company he keeps.

            In any event, his offering consisted of two simple words¾Ichigo ichie;  simple, that is, if you happen to understand Japanese.

            Rather than share the meaning of these words now, you’ll have a better understanding, I believe, if you hear them in the context of John’s letter.

Wild Horses - Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation
South Dakota
Northern Cardinal - Santa Clara Ranch
Starr County, Texas
John's Letter

           “I was showing some of my pictures,” John began, “including some I took on the trip to Utah with you, to my neighbors, a couple, both PhDs who teach the history of science, one American, the other German teaching in French in France – a terrific and very interesting young couple. I was trying to explain my view of what I thought a photographer, especially one who photographs landscapes, nature or wildlife, was trying to do.”

            “The way I explained it,” he continued, “is that we were trying to capture that specific moment in time that was the epitome of perfection, where the colors or shading if you were shooting black and white, the scene, and the technical rendition of that image all blended perfectly. We knew the moment was not repeatable; we knew that the sun, clouds, lighting, tilt of the animal’s head, or any of the other components of that image would ever happen exactly the same way again.”

            “Basically,” he added, “we were using our artistic eye to see the images we wanted to portray, our creative ability to frame the shot, and our technical skill to capture and render that image in such a way that others would appreciate its beauty and special character. It would be a unique image capturing a unique moment in time.

            “This explanation caused my neighbor to say, oh, you mean ‘Ichigo ichie.’”

            “I had no idea what she meant,” John replied.

            “It turns out,” he continued, “that there is a very famous saying in a Japanese Zen tea ceremony that is ‘Ichigo ichie,’ which means ‘Unprecedented, unrepeatable encounter.’”

            In summation, John wrote, “My thought is that there could be no better phrase to capture the photographer’s quest, to capture that ‘frozen moment in time’ and to do this so perfectly that it conveys to the viewer this complete sense of ‘Ichigo ichie!’”

            Many times, we¾as photographers¾have no concept of what we are actually attempting to accomplish. More often than not, we simply point our camera, shoot, and hope for the best.

            Reaching Ichigo ichie should always be first and foremost in our thoughts as we don our photo equipment and head into the field.

            It is not enough, however, to simply be there with camera in hand during one of those flashes in time indelibly marked by the spirit, heart, and soul of perfection when every element that constitutes the perfect image falls into place.

            Portraying such a moment in a way that it communicates the embodiment of Ichigo ichie requires the command of three fundamental elements: our artistic eye, creative ability, and technical skill.

African Elephants - Chobe National Park
Artistic Eye

            Our artistic eye, as my friend John wrote in his letter, allows us to see the image we want to portray. More importantly, it allows us to weed out the bad from the good.

            Some photographers do not know why certain images fail to make the grade. Simply put, they have not learned to see the distractions that can ruin an otherwise great image.

            Artistic vision is two-fold¾knowing a potentially winning image when you see one; and, being aware of distractions that can place it into the runner-up category.

            When we first begin pursuing nature photography, we typically photograph everything that catches our eye. More often than not, many of these first attempts simply do not make the grade. As our artistic vision develops, we then begin looking for the right combination of elements that will produce the desired effect.

            In the never-ending quest of Ichigo ichie, there are several pursuits that can hasten the development of one’s artistic vision.

            First and foremost, I recommend joining a local camera club, one that focuses on nature photography. Not only do local clubs offer a venue whereby like-minded individuals can share ideas, they provide unequalled learning opportunities through monthly photo competition and the consequent critiquing of submitted images. In addition, programs presented by guest speakers also add to one’s storehouse of photographic knowledge.

            Locating a club is easy. Surfing the web typically provides several options from which one can choose. However, if this fails, make a few inquiries at local camera stores and photo labs.

            Studying the works of other artists is not only enjoyable, but will also contribute to one’s artistic vision. Pick someone you like. It doesn’t do any good to study the work of some artist if their work doesn’t “turn you on.”

            Last by not least, “burn” a lot of film, or pixels if that’s what makes your bread rise. Besides, once you’ve made the initial investment, pixels don’t cost a thing.


Creative Ability

            Creative ability, necessary in framing an image, and artistic eye go hand in hand.

            Our artistic vision may locate several potential images worthy of further examination. If, however, our creative ability fails to find a way of framing those images, we walk away empty-handed. In fact, we may not even see the image if our creative ability is on vacation; and, you cannot photograph what you do not see.

            This was recently emphasized during one of my workshops.

            Reviewing images at the end of a successful day in the field (one of the benefits of digital photography), one of my students commented that he never saw the mountain goat image as it was portrayed on my Mac laptop. Instead of including the scenic mountain background as I had done, he opted for a close-up shot of the goat; nice, but missing, in my estimation, an opportunity of reaching Ichigo ichie.

            Close-up versus wide-angle subject portrayal are not the only options to consider when framing an image. Would a particular subject be best portrayed by incorporating the rule of thirds or by centering it in your viewfinder? If the decision is made to place the subject off center, should it face into the image and provide an overall sense of tranquility or would it be best portrayed by facing outward, thus imparting drama to the image?

            Opportunities of reaching Ichigo ichie are often fleeting, particularly for the wildlife photographer. Decisions on how to frame a particular subject must sometimes be made in a split-second. It helps when we can pre-visualize an image.

            Pre-visualizing a potential image can also place us in the right place at the right time. I know, for example, that certain lighting conditions often produce keepers. Whenever, I experience these conditions, I immediately begin searching for a subject to go with the light.

            Knowing your subject and anticipating its actions is also important to being in the right place at the right time.

            Creative ability grows with experience. It is also the product of intuition. Pay attention to your feelings. Sometimes things just feel right.


Technical Skill

            Technical skills allow us to capture and render an image in such a way that “moves” others to appreciate its beauty and special character.

            The correct exposure, for example, is not always the best exposure. Sometimes an under-exposed image conveys more feeling that one properly exposed. The same also holds true of over-exposed images.

            Freezing action through the use of fast shutter speeds is but another option. Portraying subject motion using slow shutter speeds could be what the doctor ordered.

            The options are almost endless¾lens and film choice, the selection of aperture, and the use of filters are all tools that will produce certain effects.

            Do we have command over our equipment or does it command us?

            Know your equipment inside and out. Study your camera manual. Be familiar with all the bells and whistles. Instinctively, know how to adjust your camera’s various functions. This is no small task with today’s modern equipment, but practice makes perfect.

            When things are happening is no time to be fooling around with your equipment. Moments are fleeting. Time is of the essence.

            Always have your equipment set and ready to use at a moments notice.



            In closing his letter, John had this to say, “I leave this thought with you as you head off to capture wild horses on film (or digitally if you must); your viewfinder may often be filled with beautiful images, but that is not enough. We must always strive to convey that special, incredible image, to reach “Ichigo ichie.” I am not sure any of my images do this, but I do strive for that each time I push the shutter release – to capture that perfect frozen moment in time; that unprecedented and unrepeatable encounter with nature.”

            Thanks John! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Wild Horses - Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation
South Dakota
American Elk - Yellowstone National Park
You have to EXPERIENCE IT . . .