Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Diane Walkers Journey as a Contemplative Photographer...

   Diane Walker has created a stunning video that documents her journey as a contemplative photographer. It is well worth watching.


A Contemplative Icon by Diane Walker

    Be sure you start the video at the beginning! Sometimes it starts 3 minutes in and you don't want to miss any of this. It is a long video by YouTube standards, 23  minutes, but well worth the watching.  Although Diane is of the Christian faith, her message in this video applies to all people of faith and even to those who are still searching.  That is what contemplative photography is all about. It is not a specific destination but an individual journey and each photographer will take a different path and will arrive in time, at their own endings. It is the soulful searching that matters. I've been asked if contemplative photography has a "religious" element to it and I must make it very clear that it is what people want to make of it.  Each person will bring to the practice his or her own frame of reference. I will say that in the practice of it comes subtle yet profound insights which will be unique to each individual...theologically based or not.

   Diane Walker describes her practice of contemplative photography as an "act of faith".  I would describe mine as more of a "leap of faith".  I never truly know where each photograph will take me but I dive off the cliff every time trusting that with an open heart and a contemplative eye, I will land someplace new and personally revealing.  Photography has become for me a function of my contemplative practice.  It is my anam cara - my soul friend.- and like all good friends we don't always agree and sometimes we need to take a break from each other but I honestly can't imagine my life without it.

     As Taoism teaches us, the longest journey begins right under our feet.  We begin with where we are at the moment.  Where we will travel, and for how long, isn't known but the manner of our traveling is within our control.  I think of contemplative photography as just one way to make that journey.  No one can give us a road map or make the journey for us. It matters only that we begin......

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Inside Every Question is a Quest..."

"Pilgrims are poets who
create by taking journeys."
-Richard Niebur
A Young Robin at Mount Auburn

   I've always loved how Minor White referred to photographs as "functions" rather than "things"...verbs rather than nouns.  For White, the photograph was a catalyst, merely a step along the path of self-realization rather than an end in and of itself.  I've referred to my photographs as "open-ended questions".  These ideas are at the very heart of contemplative camera work.  We either make photographs to illustrate essential questions or we discover those questions after reflecting on the work which spurs us on to make more images.  Either way each image is but a part of a larger idea we are seeking to understand.

   In this summer season of movement, when we venture out of familiar and secure surroundings to embark on our individual quests, we must keep the essential questions in the fore front of our journeys; those questions that will give form and substance to the quest.  For me, one of those essential questions is how what I chose to photograph reflects some hidden part of myself.  "Am I my photographs?" For me the answer is a resounding, "Yes!"  This questions is always in my mind as I frame my images...does it reflect who I am as a person not just whether it makes a "nice" photograph. 

    The photograph above is of a young fledgling robin I watched on my recent visit to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He could barely fly and would hop cautiously along until he reached the edge of the stone and then he'd make that wonderful "leap of faith". Sometimes he'd fly a foot or two, sometimes just land on the ground but he kept at it; persistent in his effort to stretch his wings and explore his tiny world.  I thought it was a perfect metaphor for those of us who are intent on photographing our world in a contemplative way...we each make that leap of faith every time we pick up the camera and set out on our photographic pilgrimages. Will our photographs reflect the essential questions of our quest?  It was also a wonderful juxtaposition...young life in the midst of death...the beginning contained within the end.  I am always thrilled when I come across these kinds of pairings.

   The title of this post is from the wonderful book "The Art of Pilgrimage - the seekers guide to making travel sacred" by Phil Couseneau.   I've mentioned this book before but it bares mentioning again for I believe it is an essential text for the contemplative photographer and I recommend it for your summer reading list.  Ralph Waldo Emerson advises that we each make our own bible - our own collection of "sacred" texts - mine includes many lines from Couseneaus's inspiring tome.
Grief - Newton Cemetery

   It is so easy to get caught up in the experience of travel, especially if you travel with other people, that you become "snap happy".  "The difference between pilgrim and tourist is the intention of attention, the quality of curiosity...." writes Phil Cousineau. I would also add, ... and the amount of time you are willing to spend entering into a conversation with the landscape.  This book reminds you to slow down and savor the moment. He enjoins us, repeatedly, to "pass by what you do not love".  I would add that when you do find something that pulls at your heart strings stay with it long enough to hear what it has to say to you.  Only then make your photographs.

   In his book, Couseneau recounts a story of Ansel Adams at the very beginning of his journey as a photographer.  His mother wanted him to dedicate his life to his piano playing, not his photography. "Do not give up the piano!" she pleaded, "The camera cannot express the human soul!"  Adams paused for a moment and answered her, "Perhaps the camera cannot, but the photographer can."  I'm so glad that he followed his heart in this case.  It is all we can do in the end - follow our hearts and take that leap of faith!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Well-Worn Path - Reflections on a Walk Through Walden Woods

   "The inevitable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

   I made my yearly pilgrimage to Walden Pond recently.  I have been coming to Concord, mostly in mid-Spring, for over 40 years.  It is my spiritual center, my hearts home and the first "thin place" I ever encountered.  I'm not alone in these thoughts. Thousands come each year to walk the paths around Walden Pond and to seek out the peace that Henry Thoreau experienced there over 160 years ago.  They also come here to practice what the Transcendentalists called "self-culture". For Thoreau, self-culture was spiritual growth and the cultivation of the soul. He built his cabin at Walden to more easily practice his own self-culture; I come to Walden each year for the same reason. Truly, I can't think of a better place for a contemplative photographer to spend an afternoon!

   Thoreau liked to go "sauntering" around Walden Pond.  It was a term he gave to walking as a spiritual discipline. The word is derived from the French, Sainte Terre - Holy Land.  A Saunterer was one who was walking in pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the medieval days. Fitting I think. He considered his saunters as his daily "enterprise and adventure", sure to reveal some profound truth to fuel is contemplations. For Thoreau, Walden Pond was his holy land; it has come to mean the same for me over the years.

"They that never go to the Holy Land in their walks...
are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds...for every
walk is a sort of crusade..."
Henry Thoreau

   Most of my prior trips to Walden did not involve photography.  I would just take my journal and my well-worn copy of Thoreau's book Walden.  This time I put my camera in my back pack...just in case.  I had no specific intention of photographing anything in particular that day but I found myself drawn to the "well worn paths" that criss-cross the Walden woods and over which I have "sauntered" countless times. 

   Every time I come to Walden I meet people from all over the world walking these paths. From groups of local school children to the elderly Japanese couple with their canes that I saw this time; they all quietly follow the trails to the site of his cabin and put a stone on the cairn there.  While some come just to enjoy a walk in the woods or a swim in the pond, many come to pay homage to the man and to his ideas.  All those reverent foot-falls have given the paths a smooth, hard-packed brown concrete.  The beautiful sunlight filtering through the not completely leafed out trees created multi-toned spots along the paths and gave me the inspiration to reflect upon why this yearly pilgrimage is so important to me and why it was time to begin photographing the place.

   It was one of those perfect Spring days.  The kind of day that makes you want to linger in a place forever.  As happens in most thin places, your sense of time can become suspended.  As I sat on the edge of the pond, reading my book and jotting in my journal, I watched a dragonfly dart in and out of a swarm of tiny insects hovering above the water's edge and before I knew it an hour had past.  I realized that this place has an almost mystical quality to it.  It isn't because it possesses some character of remoteness and isolation. In fact, I could hear, occasionally, the sounds of the traffic along Route 2 and the airplanes landing at Hanscom Field in nearby Lexington. Thoreau noted the same sorts of distractions when he wrote of hearing "the rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway" while he sat on his cabins doorstep.  Despite these modern intrusions, Walden woods  is still a singularly solitary place.  Here you can be in nature and still be within the context of the human landscape.  This is why people have worn these paths so smooth and why I continue to come here year after year.  It is a place to find the perfect balance in our modern world...solitude and society.  They seem to blend effortlessly here.

" He (Thoreau) does not advocate "dropping out", but a healthy balance between solitude and society, nature and civilization, materialism and a life of voluntary poverty."
Barry M.Andrews

   Do you have a place that you would call your "spiritual center"?  A place you feel compelled to return to again and again?  When you return to your special spot, take your journal and your camera and maybe some inspirational text.  Try to record the mystery this place holds for you.  What makes it, for you, a place for "self-culture"?
"This spot where you sit is your own spot.
It is on this very spot and in this very moment 
that you can become enlightened.  You don't
need to sit beneath a special tree in a distant land." 
Thich Nhat Hanh - Zen master

If you haven't found your "spot" yet, is this the summer you seek it out?  I wish you joyful "sauntering"!

"May the stars light your way
and may you find the interior road.
-traditional Irish farewell

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Photographic Pilgrimage-a soulful search for meaning

     I have been thinking a lot about pilgrimage lately.  Scottish Life is featuring my black and white photographs of the Outer Hebrides in their Summer edition as a photographic essay on my travels in the Western Isles in 2005 and 2011.  While preparing my introduction to the feature and the captions for the photographs, I had time to reflect on my motivations surrounding these trips.  Both trips were, in a very real sense, a pilgrimage

      I looked up the definition of "pilgrimage" in the dictionary.  It read, in part, "any long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose..." I then had to look up "votive"! It read, "expressive of a wish or desire". Yes, that certainly fit. My trip to the Outer Hebrides in 2005 was a quest.  I had to see if after a 25 year hiatus from photography I could still make images with feeling and substance. (And, I might add, whether I could figure out all this "pixel" stuff with my new digital camera!)
     The essence of a pilgrimage is that at the end of it there should be some profound change...some revelation...some deeply personal growth.  I experienced all those things.  I discovered the notion of contemplative camera work and dedicated myself to understanding how it could impact the images I make.  Most importantly, it forever changed the way I approach a landscape or a subject of any kind. It also reinforced my love of solitary places, away from the tourist attractions and bus tours.

     Does every trip a photographer makes need to be a photographic pilgrimage?  Hardly but as I recently discovered on St. John, you can take the contemplative photographer out of their solitary places but you can't take the need for those places out of the contemplative photographer.  I still managed to find them on an island that is known for it's material culture and hoards of tourists.  So I guess my answer to the above question is that wherever you travel you travel as the person, and the photographer, you are. If you seek contemplative imagery then you will find it no matter where you go. I am always on a quest for images that reflect more profound truths and personal experience.  In that respect, I am on a continual pilgrimage. I saw a quote recently that I think is appropriate to this conversation.

"We are not human beings trying to be spiritual,
We are spiritual beings trying to be human."


     We may choose our travel destinations or they may choose us but no matter why we go where we go, there will be something to learn about ourselves in the end if we take the time to reflect on the images we make. So ask yourself this. What kind of photographic pilgrim are you?  What do you fervently seek and what do you most wish to find in your camera work?  What will your next quest be?   A book you might find inspirational as you plan your summer trips is The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred.   It could very well be a guide book for the contemplative photographer.

    My next photographic pilgrimage will be to  France in August where, in part, I plan to pay tribute to my Father's role in the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 on the beaches of Normandy.  I wish you safe travels this Summer on your soulful search for meaning.