Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Contemplative and the Photographer...

    In two earlier posts, I looked at the photographers, Minor White and Thomas Merton.  I looked at them from two viewpoints.  Minor White, as one of the 20th century's greatest exponent of the art of photography and Thomas Merton, as a 20th century mystic and contemplative.  The former emphasized the outer vision and the later the interior view.  I have had this conversation with myself ever since I began my photography again in 2005...which do I emphasize? Am I a photographer that uses my images in a contemplative way or am I a contemplative that loves to make photographs?

   I don't think there is a hard and fast answer to that question.  I seem to drift between the two.  In the beginning I felt I had to commit myself totally to one or the other but as I've made this journey over the last 8 years I've come to realize that both approaches are part of who I am and to favor one exclusively over the other would be to deny an essential part of myself.

   I was, I suppose you would say, "classically" trained in the medium back in the mid-1970's.  Then, it was all about creating the perfect print.  The excellent education I had during that time did develop my photographer's eye, as it related to composition and subject matter, and a love for the beautifully crafted print.  It also introduced me to the camera work of Paul Stand and that, eventually, brought me to the Western Isles of Scotland 25 years later.

   When I traveled to the Outer Hebrides in 2005 I believe I arrived as that classically trained photographer but I left as the contemplative photographer I now am.  I went, recently, in search of the image, the moment I made the transformation.    I had to consult my field journal but I found that photograph...the one that would change how I approached the medium from that point on.  The photograph above was taken just a few days after I arrived on North Uist.  I was thrilled to catch the two horses, the old white horse (notice his sway back?) and the young grey horse pointing in two directions but I didn't think much of it at the time. Later that day, back at the hotel, I was looking through a copy of the Carmina Gadelica, (a collection of Hebridean prayers and poems I had brought with me) when I came across a poem that changed everything for me.  The first two lines read, "As it Was, As it Is, As it shall be ever more...."  The image of those two horses immediately sprang to mind...the old horse looking back, into the past, and the young horse facing forward, into the future!  That was the Hebrides to me...the ancient past and the contemporary world standing side by side in perfect harmony.  It was at that precise moment, July 22, 2005, that I began to see photography as "a function not a thing" as Minor White said and the neophyte contemplative photographer was born!  For the rest of my trip I could no longer see the landscape as only a technical exercise of composition and exposure, it became a vast metaphoric canvas just waiting for me to explore.

   I still have my photographer's eye, my love of composition and design, but I have a contemplative's eye as well.  I will continue to work on both sides of my craft, sometimes emphasizing one, sometimes the other but, if truth be known, it is the contemplative eye that now gives me the greatest joy.  Perhaps I am moving slowly but surely toward Thomas Merton's approach...time will tell.

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