by Alexander Zimmerman
About 4 years ago I began taking photos of my ongoing journey into tea drinking. The cell phone shots, uploaded to social media sites, were external, public expressions of the excitement welling up inside me as I fell into something so simple and beautiful, something that had hidden in plain site before me for decades. My exposure to tea growing up had only been to my grandparent’s dusty tea-bags, and my dad’s reluctant taking up of “herbal tea” after giving up coffee. This world of loose-leaf, powerful plants, steeped properly, was a different universe. Experiencing what a real tea session could open you up to, opposed to a quick cuppa, was like hearing your favorite music on quality, studio headphones for the first time. Not only were there things in there you never knew existed, but it was full, vivid, and alive. The song was new again, and you really couldn’t go back.
I was exploring mostly Chinese teas, and mostly preparing them for long tea-drinking sessions, in loose, non-formal, “gong fu cha” style. Unlike the western style of tea steeping, which uses small amounts of leaf, in a large pot/cup, left to steep for several minutes, gong fu style uses lots of leaf, in a small pot, with quick, multiple steeps over a long period of time. A session might be 10-15 steepings over the course of several hours.
As time went by, my tea sessions deepened and expanded, drawing in family and friends when I could. It became less and less an interest or hobby, and more and more a practice. A practice like one might take on meditation, yoga, therapy, or taijiquan. A practice that thrived in quiet alone time, and social settings equally!
The photos, taken with different cell phones over the years, evolved from pure documentation to becoming a part of the tea session ritual itself. In kind of a visual echo of the quick, successive steeps that this style of tea drinking is structured around, the images became illuminations of moments along the path of each session – full of chance, shifting emotions, unexpected experiences. Capturing perhaps the light, or mood, and the environment (both man-made and wild) around me. Each instant different, changing, never still, yet connected by water and leaf, heat and light. The very real physical experiences of the plant’s alkaloids and amino-acids in my blood-stream. And then the impossible, a snapshot of time. A moment, disconnected from the wild fluidity of a tea session, frozen in an instant. Shared now, with you.