When Fritz arrives into Chengdu on his 10:30pm flight from Beijing, he greets me with a hug. As the other guests arrive at their Buddha Zen hotel at Wenshu Temple Monastery, I notice he greets everyone with a hug. Super friendly; building rapport from the first hello. He’s bound to be a great teacher.
Our tour group is diverse: seven people from all walks of life—all eager to improve our photography skill in some way. Sherry, the oldest in the group, has a point-and-shoot, and says, “My goal out of this tour is to learn at least one thing about photography that will make my point-and-shoot taking better.” Fritz assures her, “you’re going to learn a lot more than one thing.”
Our first class is in the Buddha Zen hotel courtyard. It is an open-air courtyard and reminds me of a fight scene from a Kungfu movie. Everything is old-style China. Wooden pillars hold up the old, wood-shingled roofs that curl up at corners like skin on the bones of some old, scaly monster. It’s not raining, but it feels like water should be dripping into the courtyard. Instead, a curtain of sunlight shines on a gazebo, beneath which sits a golden statue of the Buddha. Antique Ming Dynasty chairs are placed like wooden thrones around the space, inviting commoners like myself to enjoy the past life of a wealthy landowner. Small fish ponds and streams break up the stonework to create perfect fengshui. Like yin and yang, the balance of light, colors, sounds, and elements make one feel you have fallen into a painting.
Fritz has us play with light. Literally. We move around the courtyard and observe how light bounces off of surfaces and how it shows up differently on faces. We then practice taking photos of subjects with different sources of light. He shows examples to us on his camera how he captures reflections of light from the stone work. The sense is felt by all: We are learning from a wizard.
Our transportation for our Sichuan journey is a Toyota Coaster, a 17-seater that feels like the cabin of Air Force One. It has leather captain’s chairs and desktops with cupholders. Fritz takes the opportunity to hold our second class while we are driving upward to Kangding. He hands out printouts of famous quotes around the subject of art, of seeing and of living. He says, “I don’t want this tour to just be an opportunity to learn technical skills of photography. I also want you to get the spirit of photography, by being inspired by others’ thoughts.” We read the first quote aloud. It’s about slowing down to see. Everyone shares their thoughts freely like poets discussing Milton, like collectors appraising a work of art, like philosophers discussing ethics. We feel validated and too big for our shoes all of a sudden. We have several of these “deep thoughts” pow wows throughout the trip. It binds us together on a deeper level and provides the language for our technical learning, too.
In Danba, after one of our meaning-of-life-meetings, Fritz gives us all a challenge: go on a walk and take 20 steps as slowly as we can manage, making sure to see everything around us, to notice things we may normally walk past. I take the challenge seriously and head straight for the pool. He didn’t say you had to do 20 steps on land. Besides, walking in water makes walking slowly even easier. (The pool is an outdoor, heated, infinity pool in the middle of a Tibetan, mountainside farming community. There have possibly been more leprechauns in this valley than swimming pools, but given the rise of tourism and outside investment, this enterprising family converted their farmhouse into a 5-star resort in the style of a ClubMed.) So, there I am, in this pool, taking in my surroundings. I have never felt like I was swimming inside of a painting before, but that is the best way I can describe this experience. It is surreal. Then a revelation hits me. Surreal is that feeling of reality and unreality happening at once. And seeing both is what it means to see. It means being in that space where you acknowledge that all of this isn’t necessary. It’s all extra. Everything around us can be received as an “I get to do this.” Not have-to, not same-ole, not been-there-done-that, but all of life is a painting we get to swim in and have fun with.
We get tons of technical photography practice, too: shooting models in exotic places, being tourists on horseback in Tagong, catching landscapes from mountain passes and spying out the hustle and bustle of life in a fresh market. Some smells were better than others, but it is all visually amazing. Fritz is eager to review our pictures with us in the moment, on the backs of our cameras, while we are still shooting to give critique on how we can improve on our composition. He tells us to think of our cameras as our brush and our subject, setting, light, props, etc. as our paints and canvas. He gives us permission to not simply capture what we see with our physical eyes, but to create what we want to see, or in other words, to arrange things and frame our shot so that it reflects the concept in our mind’s eye, not necessarily reality as it is. He makes the distinction between photojournalism and fine art, and quotes Picasso on more than one occasion: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”
By the end of the tour, I think everyone is going to be hankering for a burger, but they all prefer to eat Chinese again. After dinner, we all go back to my house for dessert and a time to share photos. It is a perfect evening for reminiscing and saying farewell. New friends have somehow, in the span of ten days, become old friends. We promise to stay in touch and invite each other to visit our home towns. What a sweet time of simply being together. Hats off to Fritz. By teaching us all to see, he has given us the greatest chance to be excellent photographers, and even, dare I say, fine artists. Thank you Fritz!