Sunday, October 28, 2012

Photography, the most Democratic of Mediums...

Where Heaven and Earth Touch
   When I was in college, my goal was to become an art educator.  To that end, I needed to choose an art major, I chose photography.  It was the first time I learned that the quote from George Orwell's famous book "Animal Farm" also applied to art majors.  "All animals," he wrote, "are created equal but some animals are more equal than others."  If you substitute "art majors" for "animals" you will have the prevailing attitude I experienced towards photography and which, unfortunately, still exists today.

   From its very inception, photography has been the poor relation of the art world, never quite on equal footing with painting and sculpture.  Alfred Stieglitz fought his entire life to elevate photography's place in the pantheon of creative put it on par with other art mediums.  He never totally succeeded.

   I believe this tacit disrespect begins with the camera itself, a mechanical device which, some would say, takes the place of the artist's hand.  Art work created with a camera is, in their reasoning, less worthy to be considered "fine art".  Now, it is the sheer pervasiveness of the medium in mainstream culture that pushes it off the ladder of artistic achievement altogether.  Anyone can "snap" a picture at anytime, even with their - gasp! - cell phones!  It has become a far too democratic medium to survive  in an art world that prides itself on being an artistically elite fraternity, a kind of exclusive country club - the common man (photographer) need not apply!

The Edge - Marion, Massachusetts
   The camera is just another tool of the artist - like the pencil or the paint brush - to record his hearts deepest reflections and his minds most profound truths.  Did the literary world reject poems and prose composed on a typewriter rather than with pen and ink?   Of course not.  They looked at the content and character of the piece, not  how it was recorded.  It should be no different for the photograph.

   Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "The learned and studious have no monopoly on wisdom."  I would say the same applies to painters and sculptures.  They don't have exclusive rights to creating thought provoking imagery and "fine art"!

   Now, having said all that, I don't mean to imply that all photographs - or all paintings - are the same, artistically speaking.  Artistic merit does count but the skill set needed to create an excellent piece of art can be learned.  As I use to tell my art students, some artists are born with a gift of artistic vision and technical skill; all the rest of us must learn it patiently and persistently over time.

   When all is said and done, the contemplative photographer, while not disregarding the elements of good composition and technical competency,  puts a higher premium on the metaphoric dimension of the image.  A truly great contemplative photograph is just as difficult to achieve as a great painting or sculpture. 

   It is wonderful to see major museums recognizing photography's place in the art world today.  We've come a long way since Stieglitz's time but the snobbery still exists and as photographers we must continue to advocate for our medium whenever we can. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

PhotoTao Card #6

Card #6

Opinions and Prejudices
 The wise see things clearly.  They  don't
hold opinions nor do they blame.
- Exercise -
If you dislike blurry, out of focus images, try 
making some.  If dark, under exposed pictures
make you crazy, explore the possibilities.  
You can learn much by experimenting with
things you think you dislike.

Into the Light
A Thin White Line Separates Us
   I have to admit to a prejudice...I'm not particularly enamored with heavily "photoshoped" images.   I was, I should say, until I went to the Annaberg Sugar mill on St. John this past March.  My encounter with the place - detailed in the post The Annaberg Encounter  - made me seek out a new approach to my black and white work. I found that a combination of solarized and infra-red processing gave me the effect that most suited my feelings that day.  I think it is interesting to note that both processes are somewhat "traditional" least I remember experimenting with them back in the mid-70's in my "pre-digital" life.  I think the point of this card is to remind you that in contemplative photography the important consideration is making an image that enhances the possibility for meaningful reflection.  The strange effects created in the digital darkroom can bring out ideas that a more traditional approach would not.  The image above right is a perfect example.  When I saw the results of my manipulation of the image, the white line became apparent.  It fueled a lot of new impressions and enriched my reflections far beyond what the unmanipulated image had.  So, don't be afraid to experiment, remember, you aren't making postcards!


Monday, October 22, 2012

On Location (sort of) - Provincetown

   Well, it was bound to happen sometime!  Off I went to Provincetown on Cape Cod this weekend only to find that I had no memory card in the camera and no place to buy one!  My cousin let me use her little point and shoot to record one photograph, a  late day image with lovely light, the kind of light artists have been coming to P-town for over 100 years to record.

   I have to say I felt, well, like a fish out of water! Helpless! A contemplative photographer without a camera and surrounded by immense beauty!   So, instead of becoming despondent, I took the time to just sit and soak it all record the images in my heart; to simply absorb the beauty that surrounded me.  I'm thankful to have this one photograph to remember the day with but in the final analysis, being a contemplative photographer is as much about the contemplating part as it is about the photographing part so I was content with that. I did my visual listening exercise and just enjoyed the tranquility of it all.  Cape Cod off season is a heavenly place!  Just as I was about to get up and leave, a man came with, of all things, a harp and began to play a soulful tune that brought tears to my eyes.

    It may have not been a weekend for photography but it was amazing none the less. The next day I stood on the bluff overlooking the Cape Cod National Seashore in Wellfleet.  It was breathtaking and I didn't miss not having a loaded camera around my neck.  I think that not having a camera to worry about - settings, exposures, framing - allowed me to be fully present in that moment.  There is a lesson in this I'm sure; a lesson all photographers should learn. Should I find myself in this situation again, I doubt I will feel like that "fish out of water"...I will just relax and enjoy the experience.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

PhotoTao Card #5

Card #5

Tao is the Source
  The creativity of Tao is amazing.  Out of Tao emerges
 the hidden and the present, the obscure and the
 apparent.  Tao is far away and very, very close.

- Exercise -
After you have found a subject that draws your
interest, allow it to pull you in...from the 
apparent to the obscured.  Make a series of 
photographs as you move closer and closer
to your subject until you end with an almost
abstract close up.

   I do this almost everywhere I photograph.  I begin with my visual listening exercise, where I focus on the "big picture", the general impression of the whole landscape.  Inevitably I will then walk into the landscape in search of the fascinating details of the place.  Sometimes the image becomes very abstract but I try to make sure it still reflects the feeling of the location.

   This photograph was made in the Outer Hebrides, I don't remember which island; it doesn't matter.  The patterns on the sand left by the retreating tide is unique there...a most particular "sand script".  Although I love seascapes, and I made many while I was there, I think I love these close-ups more.  

   This exercise is one that has brought me many wonderful images over the years, images that I may have missed altogether if I had focused only on the grand view...the divine is truly in the details!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Contemplative Photography - Two Viewpoints...

   When you look up contemplative photography on the internet you will often find the term "Miksang" on the list of your results.  I would like to muse in this post about my perception of the term and how it relates, or not, to my own form of contemplative photography.

   To say you are a contemplative photographer is a little like saying  you are an abstract painter.  One immediately asks, "What kind?" Contemplative photography, like abstract art, is an umbrella term - it shelters many manifestations of the concept.  I began thinking about this idea by looking at the word itself.  "Contemplation" means to look deeply at an act of heightened perception.  It also means to "reflect upon" or consider thoughtfully, an idea.  For me, a contemplative photographer does the former as she makes her image and the later when she looks at the image afterwards.

   Miksang is a Tibetan word meaning "good eye".  The Miksang Institute for Contemplative Photography defines it this way;

"Miksang, at its most basic level is concerned with uncovering the truth of pure perception."

   Miksang is based on the Shambhala and Dharma Art teachings of the late meditation master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche; more specifically, by his teachings on the nature of perception.  Now, I must say, I've never taken a Miksang workshop and therefore my musings are just that - general thoughts about what I've read of the technique.  It seems a most interesting way to look at the world and a disciplined way to fine tune visual perception.  The photograph on the left is from my "Picturing St. John" series and comes close, at least in my opinion, to a "miksang type" image. On my website I have a folio entitled "Simplicities"...this is my term for the semi- abstract images I sometimes make that are mostly about line and shape.  They are photographs that are the result of my focusing on purely formal issues and less on the contemplative aspect of my camera work...being the "photographer" and not the "contemplative".

   The Miksang inspired images I've seen on-line are usually close-up studies that are elegantly simple.  They are beautifully clean and almost minimalist in nature but contemplative photography for me is as much about the reflection after the photograph is made as it is about the visual perception needed to make the image in the first place.  With all due respect, I would call Miksang "perceptual photography" rather than contemplative photography. It is all about the way you perceive your world and not about how those perceptions inform your understanding of larger and more elemental ideas.  Learning to see clearly and thoughtfully is only the first step...without the reflection part you are just creating interesting, beautifully designed photographs which is not a bad thing but it's not contemplative photography, at least as I define the term.



Thursday, October 11, 2012

PhotoTaoCard #4...

Card #4

Sharing with Others
Only that which is truly yours can be shared.  
Let your experience express itself in your being.

- Exercise -
Find some part of yourself that you feel passionate 
about and use that passion to direct your picture 
making.  If you love gardening, focus on plants or
spend time in beautifully landscape parks.  If cooking
is a passion for you, photograph at a farmer's market
or in your own vegetable garden.

   Another way to approach this is to photograph people doing what they love to do.  Ask permission to photograph someone while they work at their craft.  I did this in my First Person Rural project and it was a wonderful experience.  I also love to seek out people when I travel and photograph them at  their daily chores.  The everyday, the commonplace makes for wonderfully revealing images.  The photograph on the left was made in the Hebrides at a sheep shearing that I stumbled upon one day.  I have always been in love with "hands" and this photograph is one of my favorites. 

   In many respects, this blog is my way of sharing what I love, contemplative photography, with all of you.  After 30+ years as a teacher, I find it is a way for me to continue that side of myself, the teacher, while exploring the other, the contemplative photographer...the best of both worlds!


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Samsara...the movie

   I'm taking a break from my PhotoTao cards today to tell you about a film I saw on Sunday that was awe inspiring.  It had such an impact on me that I feel compelled to share it with you.  If you read this blog then the photograph is important to understand the power of the visual image to communicate emotion and to stimulate deep reflection and meaningful contemplation.  This film does all that in a superb way.

   Samsara is not your ordinary documentary.  There is no verbal narration just exquisite music to accompany the stunning imagery.  It is an emotional roller coaster that will have you high with ecstatic beauty one moment and then plunging to gut wrenching despair the next.  Without words, the film makers allow you to form your own associations, balance the subtle juxtapositions and come to your own conclusions.  If you allow yourself to be drawn into the experience I assure you, you'll never look at the world in the same way again.  If there is the perfect film for contemplative photographers, this must be it.  See it if you can. The link below will take you to their website to view a trailer and to find a theater near you.  Give yourself the gift of seeing this film...

Friday, October 5, 2012

Photographing the Familiar...

"Photography deals exquisitely with appearances,
but nothing is what it appears to be."
Duane Michals

     When I first studied photography in the mid-1970's, it seemed that many of the great photographers traveled to far away places or chose striking landscapes to document in their photographs.  Their images all had an element of the exotic about them - at least it seemed so to a young woman from rural New England.  I think I was a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz in the beginning, running away from my ordinary, exhaustively familiar life to find meaningful images.  And like Dorothy, I eventually came to realize that everything I could hope to find "out there" was in my own backyard all the time.  I learned to embrace the familiar.

"The diameter of a circle..."
   My series First Person Rural - a portrait of a Maine town was an attempt to photograph the familiar; the people and places in my own backyard here in Maine.  It is my series Rural Geometry, however, that I want to refer to in this post.  The entire series was created over several years in the tiny village of Tamworth, New Hampshire.  I have been visiting Tamworth for nearly 30 years, mainly to attend the summer theater productions at the Barnstormers or to have dinner at the old inn.  When I began my work as a contemplative photographer in 2005 I decided to re-visit Tamworth with my camera and try to see it all anew. I didn't try to over think it, I just walked around the village and let the buildings invite me in.  Later, I discovered a wonderful book, "The Old Way of Seeing" by Jonathan Hale. It gave me a whole new appreciation of the proportions and beauty of rural 19th century architecture.  I often find books that support my photographic work in some way, enriching it and bringing additional clarity to my vision.

"Three squares and a right angle."
     After several visits, I laid out the photographic "rough drafts" on my dining room table and spent several hours studying them.  What became clearly evident was that all of my images focused on specific geometric elements of the buildings; I rarely photographed a whole building. From then on I would visit Tamworth from time to time searching for these geometric forms; sometimes they were in the building itself and sometimes the shadows cast by the building and sometimes, like the image to the left, both!  It became a kind of a treasure hunt for me.  The series concluded with an exhibition at the Tamworth Lyceum in November, 2011.  

     The point of all this is to say that nothing is so familiar that we can not see something new in it.  It only calls for you to create a new frame of reference.  I could visit Tamworth over and over and as long as I changed my frame of reference, I would get a whole new series of photographs.  Just photographing in different seasons opens up all new possibilities as the image below demonstrates.  This particular photograph started a whole new series I call "Winter Etchings" which I'm still working on.
"Hexagons - positive and negative"

     There will come a time when all my traveling will become more problematic and I will probably stick closer to my home in Maine rather than jetting off to distant lands.  It's good to know that my work as a contemplative photographer needn't end just because I let my passport expire.  I once heard of a woman who followed her cat around her house and made photographs from the cat's viewpoint! (Watch out Emerson!) I will just photograph the familiar, the everyday, the close at hand and like Dorothy I will be able to say, "There's no place like home!"

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

PhotoTao Cards #3 - Wu Wei

Card #3

Wu Wei
Learn to not interfere with life.  Stay out of way
and allow life to come to you.

- Exercise -
Find a bench in a park or some place to just sit
 and wait.  Photograph only what comes your way.
This is a great exercise to practice while waiting at 
an airport!  Avoid the temptation to get up and
"chase the shot"...let it come to you. Be Patient!

   Sometimes, I put my camera on the table and periodically release the shutter.  I turn it occasionally but I don't "frame" the shot in any way.  It's set on automatic exposure of course.  The photograph on the right was taken that way at the cafe in Shannon airport in Ireland.

 Another dimension of Wu Wei is allowing for the spontaneity of the moment...especially when you travel.  It is so important not to over plan your time and rigidly adhere to agendas.  The Sufi poet Rumi has a lovely way of putting it...

"Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange
pull of what you really love.
It will not lead you astray."