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Tao Te Ching And Photography
The Heavenly Way to Perfection for Photographers

This small project deals with the text of Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese philosophical book, which was supposedly written by Lao Tzu (Laozi). I tried to select a number of thoughts and ideas that may be useful not only to photographers but to other creative people as well. Of course, this primary Taoist writing says nothing about photography. However, we must admit that photography often plays a significant role in lives of many people, and Tao Te Ching focuses on nothing else but on crucial aspects of life.

When creating this text, I completely realized that any interpretation would be imperfect. So please do not treat this text as a piece of finished and unambiguous information. The purpose was unpretentious. All I wanted was to promt your own independent understanding of the ancient Chinese classic about Way of Power (one of the possible translations of the hieroglyphs Tao Te Ching).

All quotations are based on the translation by J. Legge. The numbers in braces indicate the relevant chapters of Tao Te Ching.


1. Photography that can be expressed by means of visual images is not the genuine photography. The true photography is something that prompts us to produce images. It is also something that remains deep inside our souls after we looked at photographic pictures. Only those who are free from passion can see the marvelous mystery of photographic art. 

2. Do not avoid ugliness, because the beauty and the ugliness constantly give birth to each other. That is a foundation of the Harmony. "All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have the idea of what ugliness is". {2}

3. Do not be upset by impartial criticism. It is also nothing else but the necessary antithesis. "…the ideas of height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the others…" {2}

4. Avoid idle snapping. If you can refrain from taking pictures, do not photograph. Each image must be the result of the absolute inability to avoid taking pictures. "…the sage manages affairs without doing anything…» {2}

5. Do not pursue photography with the purpose of producing a lot of images. It is better to have a moderate amount of pictures of high quality. Be critical to yourself. Do not hesitate to throw away a significant part of your photographs. Give yourself pauses for thought. Spare as much time as you can for contemplation and accumulation of new ideas. "It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to attempt to carry it when it is full. If you keep feeling a point that has been sharpened, the point cannot long preserve its sharpness". {9}

6. Do not live for old projects. Make progress! "When the work is done, and one's name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven". {9}

7. If the process of photographing unexpectedly requires a lot of effort, do not persist! Put off the project. Try to reconsider your approaches. When you squeeze the result out of yourself, it is almost never neither good nor satisfactory. When you try to achieve your goals, remember that "the Tao produces all things and nourishes them;… and yet does not control them". {10}

8. In addition to an author's ideas, photographs should have a lot of emptiness in them. This emptiness is typically filled by the viewers. It helps to avoid unambiguous interpretation. As a result, a lot of important nuances and subtle details are added to the pictures. "Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends". {11}

9. No unnecessary things should be present in photographs. "Color's five hues from th' eyes their sight will take; music's five notes the ears as deaf can make; the flavors five deprive the mouth of taste…" {12}

10. The secret of a photograph has nothing to do with what it shows. The secret is in what its author sees in it and in what viewers can see. "We look at it, and we do not see it, and we name it the Equable". {14}

11. Do not confuse a picture with ideas it conveys. A photograph does not contain anything but itself. "Then appeared wisdom and shrewdness, and there ensued great hypocrisy". {18}

12. The name of a picture is nothing else but a verbal label. A true photograph exists beyond a language. "Abstaining from speech marks him who is obeying the spontaneity of his nature". {23}

13. Do not seek fame. Do not bend every effort to achieve glory. "He who displays himself does not shine; he who asserts his own views is not distinguished; he who vaunts himself does not find his merit acknowledged; he who is self-conceited has no superiority allowed to him". {24}

14. Do not rest on your laurels! Improve yourself! "He who knows other men is discerning; he who knows himself is intelligent. He who overcomes others is strong; he who overcomes himself is mighty". {33}

15. When you try to introduce an external essence to an image, you are very likely to fail. The larger such an external addition, the worse. "…The Tao is hidden, and has no name; but it is the Tao which is skilful at imparting to all things what they need and making them complete". {41}

16. Any work of art depends on its author's ability to stop at the right moment. A piece of art can be neither extended nor reduced. "Who knows to stop incurs no blame". {44}

17. Do not look for innovations. Strive after naturalness instead. "Tao produces all things … it carries them through their processes and does not vaunt its ability in doing so; it brings them to maturity and exercises no control over them; — this is called its mysterious operation". {51}

18. When taking pictures, follow calls of your heart, not you mind. Only your heart can produce unsurpassed results. "He who has in himself abundantly the attributes of the Tao is like an infant. … — showing the perfection of its physical essence". {55}

19. He who knows the art does not take pictures. He who does take pictures does not know it. "He who knows the Tao does not care to speak about it; he who is ever ready to speak about it does not know it". {56}

20. Make progress little by little. Begin with tiny goals. Great tasks will come to you with time. "The master of Tao anticipates things that are difficult while they are easy, and does things that would become great while they are small. All difficult things in the world are sure to arise from a previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one in which they were small. Therefore the sage, while he never does what is great, is able on that account to accomplish the greatest". {63}

21. The world around you contains neither a cause, nor a source for creativity. "Action should be taken before a thing has made its appearance". {64}

22. Do not foist your opinions and feelings on others. Self-perfection is more important process than idle disputes. "He, who in Tao's wars has skill, assumes no martial port; he who fights with most good will, to rage makes no resort". {68}

23. Do not waste time fighting against others. Accept and follow your destiny. "It is the way of Heaven not to strive, and yet to overcome". {73}

24. Sincere photographs are not fine; fine pictures are not sincere. "Those who know the Tao are not extensively learned; the extensively learned do not know it". {81}

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The complete translation by J. Legge
Other translations can easily be found on the Internet.

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