Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - Part VII: "Seeing the Sacred in the Commonplace"

   "No place is boring if you have a good night's sleep
and a pocketful of unexposed film." - Robert Adams

   A Photographic Sage has the ability to see wondrous things in ordinary places. Nothing is unacceptable or too lowly for his compassionate eye.  I think this is the characteristic that I recognized in my own work right from the beginning.  I feel  very much at home in simple, rural settings and around genuinely ordinary folks.  I truly find their faces, the details of their lives so photograph-able!  My series and book - "First Person Rural: a portrait of a Maine town" was all about finding the sacred in the commonplace.All the photographs in this post are from the book. The photograph on the left is called "Looking for Marshmallows".  It speaks to the tender relationship between a man and his cattle...a relationship of caring and mutual trust. If only human beings could relate to each other in that way! Trust is one of those eternal truths that, for me at least, refers to my relationship with the divine.

   This search for the "divine" is often associated with being a contemplative.  As a Contemplative Photographer I find that, if I can borrow the title of one of my favorite books on photography, "God is at Eye Level" .  In Taoism one learns that the perception of the divine is easily accessible by simply contemplating nature...or a grandmother peeling apples for a pie for her grandchild.

 I just concluded an on-line course called "Eyes of the Heart" which is offered through Abby of the Arts.  Through a 6 week contemplative practice, you can really explore this particular characteristic of a Photographic Sage in depth.  There is a link on the right to this wonderful site and I encourage my fellow sages-in-training to check it out.  I've always loved the saying, "God is in the details" and this course certainly demonstrates that in a profound way.

   As to that book I mentioned previously, God is at Eye Level...I must strongly recommend it. There are few books on photography that have impacted me more. The author, Jan Phillips, has penned a sensitive and insightful text that is a must read for any person interested in the concept of contemplative photography.  Despite its title, it is not "religious" in any way.  It is very much in keeping with the Tao te Ching which never mentions the word "God" but is full of spiritual substance.  There is an essential spirituality that flows through everything and its presence can be sensed by those who pause and open themselves to it.  I often think that when I'm sitting quietly, listening to the landscape, it is that energy -Qi as it is called- that I'm tuning in to.

   On another level, this characteristic is also about acceptance...taking the angry faces with the smiling ones...the grey, overcast days with the sunny.  If you do this on a regular basis you may find yourself re-defining your concept of "beauty".  All these things are part of a dance we are engaged in everyday, a dance with the divine. The tune may change from day to day but taking part in it brings each of us to the place we need to be.

The Sage has no destination in view
and makes use of anything life
happens to bring his way.
Tao te Ching - 59

 A Little Practice for the Week:

  Everyone has their own concept of the "divine" regardless what their religion is or if they, in fact, have a religion. I believe it is what attracted me to Taoism in the first place...the spirituality without the dogma. For this exercise, let's define the "divine" as the quality in something that makes one reflect on the sense of an eternal truth...a truth that transcends the everyday.

    What are those "truths" for you?  Where can you see them?  In what ways do they manifest themselves in our day-to-day lives?

   Now go in search of these truths in common places.You can be as abstract or as literal as you like.Journal, journal, journal!  This is pretty heady stuff and it deserves your serious reflection.Contemplative Photographers spend a great deal of their "off" times (times when they are not making photographs) in studied reflection. I guarantee you will never see things the same way again!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part VI: "Non-attachment"

"The best way to go into unknown territory
is to go in ignorant." - Dorothea Lange

   This is one characteristic that I have the most trouble with...I get very attached to subjects and to places!  But being passionate about your art doesn't mean being so obsessed with it that you can't put it aside when the time it inevitably will.  Knowing when to "walk away" is healthy and surprisingly invigorating. Every once in awhile one has to wipe the slate clean and begin again. Over the past 7 years I have done it several times and it has always brought surprising results.

 When I was in the Hebrides in 2005 I spent most of my time photographing the land and details within the landscape. Once I had released my attachment to Paul Strand, I was able to see things with fresh eyes.  One thing that caught my attention, because I allowed myself to be open to new possibilities, was the prevalence of white horses. For the next 4 years, in Ireland as well as Scotland, I pursued my "Celtic Horse" images. I was fascinated by the mythology as well as the beautiful sculptural forms these creatures had.  Then, it was time to let it go.  This past summer on South Uist I didn't make one detail study of a horse.  I saw them, of course, but I was no longer attached to the idea of photographing them.
   This allowed me to pay more attention to the land itself and, most particularly, the amazing skies. This led to a series called "Hebridean Skies" and THAT led to
having  the photograph on the right chosen for the
February edition of Scottish Life Magazine!   

   I also had to "let go" of another attachment on that trip....portraits. I had come to South Uist to do portraits. After the successful exhibit and companion book, First Person Rural: a portrait of a Maine town, I thought, "Why not do the same thing on South Uist?" But the land and circumstances had other plans. Thankfully, I listened to what the land was telling me and the Hebridean Skies series was created.

He who defines himself
can't know who he really is...
He who clings to his work
will create nothing that endures.
If you want to accord with the Tao,
just do your job, then let go.
Tao te Ching - 24

Part of your "job" as a photographer is to construct meaningful series or projects that allow you to fully explore a subject or location.  All artists in all mediums work this way. Knowing when to let it be finished is an important part of the job as well.

   There is a great sense of closure at the end of a project.  Rural Geometry was one such project.  I'd worked on it for 6 years and this past December held an exhibition of the resulting images. It was done.  I'd learned a lot from that project and I wonder how I will approach the architecture of Paris this summer?  Hopefully with refined but fresh eyes.

   This non-attachment led me to create my favorite sky image at Loch Bee on South Uist. I had heard of the famous mute swans that live on the loch and went day after day in the hopes of seeing them.  That persistence did not result in any swans but the loch had other lessons to teach.

"Sometimes I get to places just when God's ready to have someone click the shutter."
- Ansel Adams

   That's exactly how I felt when I came upon this sight!  Even the tiny cow seemed heaven sent! It gave a sense of scale to the amazing clouds.
   This photograph could also be an illustration of an important element of Taoist philosophy.  Earth is but a reflection of Heaven...What is above is also below.

Now A Little Practice for the Week:

   Look around your town, your neighborhood, even your own backyard and see if you can discover a series there.  It might be returning many times to photograph a place in all different lights and in all different weather. (Think Monet and his haystacks). I once heard of a woman who decided to photograph her house from the viewpoint of her cat!  Try to stay unattached to preconceptions - don't fall back onto the tried and true imagery of the past.  Most importantly, give yourself a time limit...a month, a week, even an doesn't matter.  What does matter is you throw yourself totally into the project.  Keep a journal, reflect on the images you are making, explore new possibilities then - LET IT GO!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part V: "A Harmony of Opposites"...

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Tao te Ching - 2

   In Taoism, Nature is seen as a delicate balance of both masculine and feminine principles.  Nothing exists without its compliment and the experience of opposites is a basic rhythm of life.  Most people are familiar with the Yin/Yang symbol.  It is an elegantly simply graphic representation of this essential component of Taoist philosophy.  I would recommend that the reader  look at some of the excellent sites dedicated to this idea...there are many. I've posted a link to just one.  The Harmony of Opposites  is also a useful concept for the Contemplative Photographer.

   I printed out a large Yin/Yang symbol in the center of a piece of paper. On the left side, I wrote all the characteristics of photographs I like...ones that I thought made a "beautiful" image.  On the right side I wrote the opposite...what I thought was "ugly" in photographs I had seen.  Then I tried to reconcile both sides. I asked myself, "Why do I define "beauty" and "ugliness" in this way?  Does it relate to the photographers I have always admired or is there something deeper at work here?  What am I missing? As you see in the Yin/Yang symbol, there is a small dot of the opposite contained in each. It is an important thing to remember the next time you find yourself rejecting a subject as unimportant or contains the seed of its opposite, you must look deeply to find it.

   I think this is important for all photographers to do from time to time. Not only for reflecting on the personal style of their work but for subject matter as well.  Beauty can be found in the most mundane of locations.Sometimes it is no further away than your own backyard.

   The photograph above was one of the very first images I made back in 2005.  I had just purchased my new digital camera and I couldn't wait to photograph...something...anything! Maine was buried after a February snowstorm and at first I thought I'd have to wait until the roads cleared and I could get to a "desirable" location.  I then remembered the old saying, "Bloom where you're planted" so I pulled on my boots and trudged out into the snow covered garden behind the house . After 7 years, it is still one of my favorite images.

   It has many of the characteristics that I've always admired in Chinese ink brush paintings...simplicity, delicate line, an  asymmetrical balance, and open space for the eye to rest. It also possesses a subtle harmony of opposites. The solid wire lines of the old fence and its shadow equivalent etched on the snow.

  A Little Practice for the Week:

   The photograph on the right is from my "First Person Rural" book and I think it is a good example at how paying attention to the "opposites" helps increase the depth and intricacy of an image.

   I photographed this lovely child against the rough wall of rusted chains in her great-grandfathers old barn. I loved the juxtaposition of her soft cheek and the rust.  It also speaks to the idea of tradition and honoring the past which is a strong part of the Maine character.

   Spend some time this week looking for opposites and interesting juxtapositions.  Find them naturally occurring in nature or around your house or create your own.

   A Photographic Sage uses subtle and complimentary contrasts to enrich their work and create a "harmony of opposites".

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part IV "Sieze the Moment"

"There is only one moment when a picture is there,
and an instant later it is gone forever.  My memory
is full of those images that were lost."
- Margaret Bourke-White

   A Photographic Sage is always open to the spontaneous.  They recognize the opportunity in the unforeseen and they trust their instincts.  Being spontaneous is a gift and it is sometimes difficult to achieve but it is very often rewarding and energizing.     
"The Sage allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way and
lets the Tao speak for itself."
Tao te Ching - 45

   This "stepping out of the way" is essential to the Contemplative Photographer as well. Through reflection you can become so attuned to the inherent energy of a moment or a place that allowing yourself to be spontaneous naturally follows.  This is where, for me, the contemplative and the Taoist merge. By loosing yourself you will find an unexplored dimension of yourself.
    In Taoism, this "inherent energy" is called Qi. It flows through everything and, like the flowing river, it follows its own path.  So it is for anyone who picks up a will follow your own path and in your own time you will come to where you should be.
   Water is a constant theme and the supreme metaphor in Taoism.  For this discussion, we can say that flowing water is "spontaneous", changing its path as it meets rocks, flowing around and over, never hindered.  But as we know, given time, water will wear away the hardest stone.  Only Man can build dams and stop the natural flow.

   As photographers we have all experience "dams" in the creative process. Becoming more spontaneous, more willing to "seize the moment"and "go with the flow", we will break through even the strongest of those dams. When I travel to new places, the "dam" I often encounter is Time. When you have a rigid schedule, an unvarying itinerary, it prevents you from following the spontaneous moments that will,  most certainly, occur on your trip.  I've tried in recent years to do away with that element in my travels. I go to a place, settle in and explore. I trust that the landscape will direct me.  I will know where to go next and when.

"...he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.
Nothing is impossible for him,
Because he has let go..."
Tao te Ching - 59

A Little Practice for the Week:

   Practicing to be more spontaneous seems, to me, to be a contradiction of terms. So, rather than say "a little practice for the week" I will say "an opportunity for the week".  I love to wander around in bookstores.  Not with the intention of looking for anything in particular, but to, well, just see what presents itself.  I don't contain myself to just the photography or travel books but will explore any aisle that catches my eye.
   Wander around and see what might offer you the opportunity to be spontaneous...a cook book might inspire a trip to photograph the sights and colors of a farmer's historical biography may get you thinking about returning to your roots; to a place in your past...a gardening book can have you seeking out botanical gardens to photograph the flowers and plants.  When something rings clearly for you, when it pulls on your heart strings, be spontaneous...grab your camera and just go!  You might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover.

Being present in the moment allows you to experience all the subtle nuances that are there. Wonderful photographs are waiting to be still and listen for them.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part III "Wu-Wei"

   This third characteristic of the Photographic Sage could also be described as "effortless effort", another of those wonderful Tao paradoxes.  It is often misconstrued as passivity but it is anything but that.  A dancer or athlete practices countless hours perfecting their technique so when it is time to perform onlookers are amazed at how effortless it appears. It is the same for the Photographic Sage.  Countless hours of photographing, editing, selecting, rejecting, study, and reflection must come before they take on an almost effortless relationship with their cameras and their subjects. But there is another dimension to Wu-Wei, at least as it applies to photography.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place
Tao te Ching - 3

   As the first word in the above quote admonishes, "not-doing" takes practice! You have to actively engaged in not-doing!  In my post on Visual Listening, I describe a kind of Wu-Wei requires that the photographer practice the Three B's...Be Still, Be Patient and Be Present.  While Visual Listening is a contemplative practice prior to photographing, Wu-Wei can be thought of as the practice of actively not looking for the photograph...of letting the photograph come to you but, nonetheless, being ready when it does come!
   The photographs above and below were taken at Shannon Airport while I was waiting for my flight.  I simply put the camera on the table where I was sitting and released the shutter from time to time, constantly rotating it but never looking through the lens. The camera was in auto-mode of course.  I only photographed what came to me.  I got some interesting images and I think this technique could work virtually anywhere...on a park bench, at a sidewalk cafe or waiting for a bus!  Let the photograph come to you.

    I believe there are many approaches to using Wu-Wei as a contemplative photographer.  In an earlier post I spoke about the danger of allowing a tourist's guidebook to direct your photographic efforts.  Naturally, one consults them when you travel to a new area but strict reliance on their agendas is extremely stifling.  One thing I always do when I travel is to spend at least one day getting off the main roads and driving wherever the spirit moves me.  This is called "shunpiking".  Yes, you will inevitably get lost but you may discover amazing things along the way!

   "Things were looking for me, I felt - just calling to me." 
- Walker Evans

     A mind in Wu-Wei is extremely sensitive to circumstance...they "go with the flow" as it were. For those of us who are often in need of organizing and directing our lives, "going with the flow" can be hard to do but when you are able to reach this state, wonderful things are very likely to occur.

A Little Practice for the Week:

   It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon and you find that, amazingly, you have no "must do's" on your list!  Today is the perfect day to practice your Wu-Wei!  Pack your camera and maybe a little snack in your car and set out. If you normally turn left out of your driveway, turn right. Now the only thing you need to do is to turn whenever the spirit moves you. If the road seems interesting or you've never ventured down it than go for it!  Stop  from time to time and get out and look....REALLY look. Be very sensitive to circumstance and trust that you will end up exactly where you need to be. Follow the words of Chuang-tse.  He said that the mind in Wu-Wei, "flows like water, reflects like a mirror, and responds like an echo."

   Where did the flowing water take you? When you did pause, what did the landscape reflect back to you? And, finally, how did you respond?