The precision of Kyudo and the art of photography Adam Marelli and his use of the Leica M (Typ 240)

Adam Marelli is an artist and cultural photographer based in New York City.  His aim is to understand the relationships between a culture’s beliefs, traditions, and practices. He specializes in photographing master craftsmen and works around the world with commercial and government organizations. As a long-time user of Leica cameras, he has also worked with Leica Akademie and as lecturer at New York University. When he is not in the studio, he runs workshops and a One on One program that breaks down the 10,000 hour rule of mastery for photographers. This project focuses on the traditional martial art of Kyudo, drawing a thin line between photography, its precision, and the needed discipline.

Where was this project shot and what is your personal connection to this art of archery?

The project was shot in the Kyoto Budo Center which is a collection of temples dedicated to martial arts, in Japan. My connection to Kyudo goes back a number of years. I spent about 7 years in and out of a Zen monastery here in the US. During that time, the philosophy of the archer was frequently used as a metaphor for how very small changes can translate into big differences at a distance.

Having read Herrigel’s book, “Zen in the Art of Archery” I only later learned that it played a large role for Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Cubist painter George Braque gave Cartier-Bresson the book and it went on to be a book he recommended and referenced in relationship to how he saw photography. But when I went looking for pictures of the Kyudo archers, I found very little. There was a good film, but only scattered photographs.  In order to visualize the lessons of the book, I wanted to see it for myself.

As in many cultures in the world, practicing what many would call a sport, is an act of discipline and endurance. After spending some time with Kyudo archers, how was discipline perceived? In the fast-paced world we live in, how do you think they manage to maintain their level?

Discipline serves an unexpected purpose for the archers. It frees them from the endless choices that are common place in modern life. Every action is predetermined, except one, the moment they release the arrow. They are all trained to do exactly the same sequences, the same steps, and the same techniques.  What divides each moment is the shot.  It is the record of these small shifts, that translates to a different outcome.

All of the archers have “day jobs.” They work in corporations, universities, etc.  If I had to say how the discipline is maintained, and this is pure opinion, I believe they enjoy the discipline. It brings a sense of calm that is much harder to find in the everyday life.  And they enjoy it because during and afterwards it makes them feel better.  Even watching them shoot, I felt a sense of being very relaxed.

Philosophically speaking, what would you say Western societies should learn from Kyudo?

Kyudo shares more in common with a religious practice than a secular one. As a result it combines the intellect, with a physical practice, and allows for philosophical understanding which leads, potentially, to a spiritual growth. That sounds like a mouthful, but so much of the information we digest in the West is broken into tiny unrelated pieces. The genius, if I can call it that, of Kyudo is its ability to combine the mind, breath, body, and soul of a person, into a unified practice.

In regards to photography, would you say the relation Herrigel suggests of the “inner-child” and the person practicing the art of archery is something photographers experience? As in exploring inner fears or curiosities and expressing them through images?

The “inner child” or in Zen the “beginner’s mind” are all exercises designed to return a person to a more supple state of flow.  And while that may sound like a bunch of hippie nonsense, neurologists are starting to study flow and its relationship to top performance in athletes, as an example.  Flow is a very real and measurable phenomenon that defies the way we view time and possibility.

I believe photographers can experience this state. And I imagine Cartier-Bresson would have agreed too. Anything we do, which requires a heightened attention has the potential to get us at our core. The funny thing is that we all have a core, but we are often not too acquainted. It is almost like there is a hidden stranger inside of us, that requires practice to access. Herrigel called it the inner child…it is a mysterious part of ourselves that is not so easy to find.

How was the immersion process in the archers’ space and the use of your Leica M Typ 240 while trying not to disturb the “Zen”?

There is an easy analogy that can be drawn between the bow and arrows and a camera. A good archer can shoot anything, from arrows that cost $500 a set to a set of aluminum arrows that cost less than $50.  And while they understand that what makes them a good archer, has nothing to do with the equipment…they usually prefer to shoot the best gear they can afford.

The reason I bought my very first Leica was to photograph in the monastery, years ago. The mirror flap on my Hasselblad was too loud and found the cloth shutter Leica M6 was much less of a distraction in a silent zendo. The Leica M ( Typ 240)’s shutter is much closer to what I enjoy about Leica film cameras.

Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers?

When I was younger I would look at projects that excited me and wonder, how did they get access?  Even after years of working as a professional, a project like this was a 6-month letter writing campaign that nearly did not happen a few times. If there is something you want to photograph, be patient and persistent and know that it all takes time. If I can quote the French sculptor Rodin (who was a favorite of Cartier-Bresson): “What is made with time, time respects.”

Thank you Adam!

To know more about Adam’s work please visit his workshops and website.

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4 comments

  • Enjoyed reading the article and Adam’s perspective on Zen and photography. Incredible photos too, specially the colors. For a second I thought I was looking at paintings. This is very hard to get right, but I would say that Adam nailed it. Very well done.

    • Dear Eric,
      Thank you for enjoying the article and the experience of Kyudo. Was good fun working with the archers.
      Best-Adam

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