Tuesday, April 30, 2013

An Icon of the Experience - The Abbey of Gethsemani

A Sanctuary for the Soul
...creating something new, an icon, an image which embodies the inner truth of things as they exist in the world of intelligible being.
-Thomas Merton
 Notes on Art and Worship, page 3   

  I always try to find one image from a location I photograph in that I can point to as an "Icon of the Experience".  Some image that sums it all up.  I was pleased to read that Thomas Merton also saw the iconic possibility for the photographic image.  This simple little photograph is the one I've chosen as my icon of the Abbey of Gethsemani.

   I made this image while I was waiting to meet Brother Paul to walk to Thomas Merton's hermitage.  I'd already left the abbey and gone to the retreat center at Bethany Springs but this was made, or I should say "received", on the abbey grounds.  I had not gone looking for it, it had found me.

   I was just sitting, relaxing, looking at the abbey buildings and remembering the wonderful, peaceful week I'd just spent there.  I was also thinking of the victims of the Boston bombing which was still so fresh in my mind.  I wasn't thinking about making any photographs at all.  I glanced over to a granite stone to my right.  There was the carved out hole, filled with tiny pebbles of varying colors and sizes.  To the left was a small red bud.  My metaphoric engine revved up!  That was the experience of the abbey for me.  The sanctuary of the abbey, where we all huddled close together, all of us different, coming to the abbey for different reasons but all contained within the closeting walls.  Of course, the red bud was the explosions in Boston.  I was so thankful to be in such a safe haven during that time so that I could slowly process the event before I had to "join the world" again.

The Path to the Statues
   This is one of the reasons I love contemplative photography so much.  I now have an artifact of that week to meditate on in the weeks and months ahead.  It takes me back in a visual way to relive the time and experience. As you photograph, try to discern these icons for yourself, it will be a worthwhile exercise.  The following short video is of a walk to the statues at the abbey, something everyone who goes there does at least once.  What I love about this video is it also demonstrates the idea that although it is good to have an end to a journey it is, in the end, the journey that matters most.  It also highlights the very real fact that Nature, in all her beauty and diversity, is the ultimate sanctuary for the soul.  I love the John Muir quotation: "In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks."

A Walk to the Statues

Some of you may have run into difficulties accessing the folios or links to my web albums. I believe the problem is solved so you can see the new folios of "Simplicity and Light" and the collection of images from my Bethany Spring weekend retreat.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Simplicity and Light...

Although I am not completely done with the images from Pleasant Hill Shaker village in Kentucky, I wanted to share with you what I have.  It really runs the gamut from still life to pure abstraction.  Seeing the Shaker philosophy played out in their constructed world was fascinating.

Click to view folio...
Let these pages be a testimony to the
unequaled creative imagination of
Shaker craftsmanship, which is all the
greater because it is never conscious of 
itself, never seeks recognition, and is
completely absorbed in the work to be done.

-Thomas Merton
Introduction to Religion in Wood

   I offer this image as an example of that aesthetic.  The wooden stick is a prop for holding the window open.  The two notches allow the window to be raised to two heights. Simple. But the Shaker craftsman design it so that the height of the opening was equal to the height of the window panes so that the mullions would line up properly when the window was open allowing for the perfect symmetry of the sash to be maintained.  Only the Shakers would have considered that a detail worth thinking about but, as they say, "God is in the details."  The Shakers truly embraced that concept.

   Photographing a built environment that is so inextricably linked to a contemplative philosophy is a wonderful opportunity for me. Reading Merton's book, "Seeking Paradise" has added to my understanding of this unique spiritual movement and their place in American history.  I look forward to re-visiting the New England Shaker communities in the months to come. Here is a video about the last Shaker community in my home state at Sabbathday Lake, Maine....

The Last Shakers 

   For a longer look at the history of the Shaker movement you can view this video.  It was made when there were still two active villages, the one in Maine and one in Canterbury, New Hampshire.  It was produced and directed by the master videographer, Ken Burns.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Contemplative Photography Retreat at Bethany Springs...

   The contemplative photography retreat at Bethany Springs was a wonderful opportunity for me to hone my perceptual skills.  The retreat organizer, Kim Manley Ort encouraged us to be open to what draws our attention, without prejudice or judgement.  This was an excellent experience for me and I think of it as a kind of boot camp for my visual listening skills. 

According to the book, The Practice of Contemplative Photography, a
flash of perception is a gap in the thinking process - a  moment when we
are suddenly stopped by something startling or shocking or absorbing.
Time comes to a standstill and we are totally present.  There are no
concepts, judgements, or labels - just pure, direct seeing.  - Kim Manley Ort

   No matter what form of contemplative photography you ascribe to (this weekend was rooted in the Miksang approach) clear, unedited perception is a necessary first step.  I only wish we had had more time but that is always a problem with these retreats...never enough time!

Click to view slide show...
   I want to share some of my images made during the weekend under Kim's instruction.  I've provided a link so you can to view a slide show.  She had asked us to concentrate on Light and Color, Texture and Pattern and finally, on the Space Between.  I've not labeled the photographs or edited them in anyway, they are the raw image as I saw it.  I leave you to imagine which image is a response to which prompt!

   I also want to call your attention to a link in the side bar to a PDF of my Field Guide for the Contemplative Photographer.  You can print it out and keep it to mull over and consider.  I also think you should spend some time with Kim's wonderful blog, 365 Days of Inspiration...it is a rich resource for the contemplative photographer.  I was so pleased to have finally met Kim as I have been a follower and admirer of her blog for some time.  She made the whole weekend flow seamlessly and she was able to get each of us to experience the world in a new and refreshing way regardless of our background or past experience...a true teacher!  You can read about our weekend at Bethany Springs and explore Kim's wonderful on-line workshops and retreat opportunities.   Enjoy!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Thomas Merton's Hermitage...

Click here to learn more about Merton as a teacher...
   I was finally there! I didn't think I would get the opportunity to visit Thomas Merton's hermitage as it was off limits to the casual visitor to the abbey but here I was, thanks to Brother Paul.  The late day light streaked the field in front of the simple cinder block building and I thought it appropriate that the dirt road ended several hundred feet from the door.  It gave the place an even greater sense of  separation from the world.  This is the place that Merton had called "home" for the last few years of his life.  I was very pleased to hear that it is still used by the monks for solitary retreats.  It is in no way a "shrine" except to the peaceful soul searching that takes place inside by whomever uses it.  We had come with Brother Paul to talk about his poetry but when we stepped inside I was overwhelmed my Merton's presence in the cool dark interior.  As we sat and listened to Brother Paul discuss the Boston bombings and the tortured souls who had conceived it, the wind chime on the porch began to tinkle...such a sweet and happy sound.  Despite the sad beginning to the talk, there was a sense of hope and lightness here. (Hear the late Fr. Matthew Kelty read one of Merton's most famous prayers...)

Click here to hear Merton recite his poem, Solitary Life...
   I have a greater appreciation for why Merton felt this need for a place of solitary reflection.  Since I've returned, I find I miss the quiet and peace of the abbey and the Shaker village.  The world can be "too much with us" at times.  This bench is on the porch of the hermitage.  It is a gentle reminder for those of us who pursue contemplative photography that it is necessary to just sit for a time, to be still and to just listen.  It asks us to not be in such a hurry.  I would like to end with another of Brother Paul's poems that he read to us at the hermitage.  One of my resolves from this trip is to pursue the poetic form.  It seems a natural extension for my photographs but I have a long way to travel before I approach Brother Paul's way with words...

The Gentle Folds of Contemplation
Jail Girls

Jailed in the same cage
of tree branches, vagrant girls
Venus and Moon
keep their separate sides,
uncomfortable strangers each
held on suspicion.

Come dawn, they sailed forth,
by trials of a night made
angels on a lark.

Next night say the pair -
Venus forging ahead,
Moon smudged, waning thin
slowly falling back - 
big girl just can't keep up with
sweet pearl of the sky.

They'll go separate ways,
and meet in a month or two 
for another fling.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Brother Paul Quenon, contemplative photographer and poet...

Listen to Brother Paul read his poems...
   One of the wonderful experiences I had at the Abbey of Gethsemani was my visit with Brother Paul Quenon.  He is a gifted poet and photographer who, as a novice, studied under Thomas Merton.  It had been my hope to meet with him during my time at the abbey.  I must say, it was an absolute delight.

   Brother Paul has been at the abbey for over 50 years but his ready smile and charming sense of humor made him seem much younger.  He was gracious in sharing his images and thoughts on photography with me on our first meeting.  What impressed me most was his ability to work for years and years in a single location.  He never tires of seeing the familiar surroundings of the abbey change from day to day, season to season, year to year.  For me, the world traveler, it was a humbling reminder that the contemplative photographer does not require new landscapes for inspiration, just an open heart and fresh eyes that see each day as a new beginning.  This should be an inspiration for all of us to re-examine the close at hand, the familiar locations near to home, in our own backyards, with sincere wonder and admiration.

   Brother Paul's poems and photographs are included in wonderful books that you can get from his publisher, Fons Vitae.   Monkswear is the one shown below, the one he graciously autographed for me.   Here is one of his most recent poems that he was kind enough to give me to include in this post.

My Last Poem

Other titles include Monkscript and his latest, Monkscript Two.
When I write my last poem
it will not say good-by
to poetry, but hello to itself,

will heave a glad sigh
it got into the world
before the door closed,

will look to its companion poems,
that it might have place
among these orphans,

that they might reach out hands
in company to go together
into oblivion or into memory,

or to some secret cove
where eternity sits, 
from time to time, and reads.

   Brother Paul  allowed me to accompany him and some visiting poets to Merton's retreat, the hermitage, the following day.  This was an especially rare treat as the hermitage is usually off limits to guests of the abbey and I didn't anticipate being able to visit it.  It was an experience I will always treasure, thanks to Brother Paul.  My impressions of that visit, and another of Brother Paul's poems, tomorrow....

Thursday, April 25, 2013

PhotoTao Card #25 - Knowing Oneself...

Card #25

Knowing Oneself
When you are insecure you resist
change.  Knowing yourself, one may be
insecure but one can always adapt.

- Exercise -
   Invite someone whose opinion you 
value to view a collection of your work
and ask them for their critique.  How 
does the collection of work make them 
feel?  Do they see a stylistic unity?
How do their comments fit in with the
intention of your work?  How do their
comments make you feel? Do you
need to adapt? 

Rush to the Sea - Harris, 2005
   Exhibiting one's work, even just to a close friend, can be daunting and a bit scary.   What if they HATE it!  What if, even worse, they don't GET IT!  But sincere critique is absolutely necessary for an artist to grow in their medium.  The essential element of the process is to seek input from someone whose opinion you value.  They needn't be photographers but they should be thoughtful observers and be able to articulate their perception of your work. 

   Keep in mind that contemplative photography is exquisitly personal and they may, very well, not see what you see, that doesn't matter.  They will offer you some things to consider as you move forward and fresh eyes will always bring a fresh perspective.

   This post brings us to the half way point in the PhotoTao Card series.  For those of you who may be new to this blog, you can visit the link to the right under "Subjects" to see the other 24 cards.  I intended that people would copy and paste the content to create a deck of their own cards.  Feel free to do that.  They won't be helpful to you if they remain buried in this blog!



Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Contemplative Stroll at the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village...

Marvelous, silent, vast spaces around the old buildings...Some marvelous subjects.  How the blank side of a frame house can be so completely beautiful I cannot imagine.  A completely 
miraculous achievement of forms

-Thomas Merton

      I began my walking meditation of the village with a reading from Merton.  It seemed to fit in so perfectly with my weekend workshop with Kim Manley Ort.  On Saturday she asked us to look at the "spaces between".  (More about this contemplative photography weekend in a later post.)  Merton understood this "spirit between".  It seemed to infuse my experience of the village.

    Sitting meditating on the beauty of the "spaces between", I waited until the clouds had arranged themselves just so before I made my photograph.  They truly were in charge...I just needed to be patient.  There really is no more wonderful feeling than to see the man-made fuse with the natural landscape as it does in this image.

The moments of eloquent silence and emptiness in Shakertown stayed with me more that anything else-like a vision.

-Thomas Merton

   It is something of the core spirit of the place, what Merton called the logos, that is what the contemplative photographer strives to reveal in their images.  It seemed so present here at Shakertown in its unique form of simplicity and light.

   Whether it is the space between buildings, fence rails or wisk brooms hanging on the wall, there is a simple rhythm and structure that reflects this "logos".

   Spending time sitting with the landscape, and in this case with the buildings and details contained within the landscape, you will find that you can tap into its unique logos.  

   I hope these last two posts will inspire you to find a beautiful build environment to study and photograph.  I plan to revisit the Shaker communities in New England this summer to continue my study of simplicity and light.

The old Shaker colony at Pleasant Hill is a place that always impresses me with awe and creates in me a sense of quiet joy.  I love those old buildings...They stand there in an inexpressible dignity, simplicity, and peace under the big trees.  -Thomas Merton


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Inspired by the Staircase at Pleasant Hill...

   I had come a long way just to see a staircase! This is one of two three story spiral staircases in the center family dwelling. When I was able to begin making photographs of it, I was overcome with the sheer beauty of its design.  A greater perfection of architectural form is hard to imagine.  The luminous light made it all the more incredible but then the Shakers were known to work diligently to bring light and a sense of space into their buildings.

   I had learned about this staircase many years ago.  With my immersion in all things Thomas Merton this last week it was only natural that I had to visit this site.  Merton's Abbey of Gethsemani is only about an hour away and he visited here at least nine times. Of course, during his days the village was just beginning its resurrection and the images Merton made in the village showed a much different reality.  I've never seen a photograph made by Merton of this staircase but he said of it:

...marvelous double winding stair
going up to the mysterious clarity 
of a dome on the roof...quiet sunlight
filtering in...

   I think you could photograph this staircase dozens of time and never repeat yourself.  The staircase inspired me to focus on the interplay of light and shadow in the village and my weekend contemplative photography retreat got me dwelling on the simplicity one can achieve with one's images.  The two thoughts - simplicity and light - will define the folio of images I make here.

   I was thrilled to see a new book on Merton's writings and photographs here at Pleasant Hill. Naturally I've added it to my collection of books from this trip!

   When I finally return home to Maine next week I will have days of work ahead of me putting this folio together.  I will share it with you when it is done.  This may inspire you to go in search of a place of profound beauty to photograph.  Architectural studies are always a fascinating way to contemplate Man's striving for perfection.


Monday, April 22, 2013

In Praise of Viriditas...

There is nothing in creation that
does not have some radiance - either
greenness or seeds or flowers or
beauty - otherwise it would not be
 part of creation.

- Hildegard of Bingen

   As I go in search of "remnants", leftovers in the landscape, I am always in awe of Nature's ability to absorb Man's constructions.  Slowly but surely, Nature begins its process of reclamation, obliterating, eventually, the hand of Man.

   On Inis Oirr, there is a place few people visit, tucked away on the back side of the island.  It is the site of a small Medieval monastic settlement, long gone.  It is a place of sheltering peace.  Here you can feel the immense sense of history but also the wonderful presence of ever enduring Nature.  I am reminded of the Mayan ruins in Mexico that lay hidden for centuries, obscured by the lush vegetation. 

   On the Burren, you can walk the limestone and marvel at the way Nature seeks to fill every void with the living.  Nature abhors empty places.  I'll never tire of exploring that area or photographing the "fertile rock".

   This greening of the earth is slowly starting in Maine, as it does every year. (Here in Kentucky it is in full bloom!) What has lain hidden, buried in white, now seeks the light and warmth of the sun.  On this day, when we celebrate the Earth and its greening power (Viriditas is the Latin word for "greenness"), let's hope Man comes to his senses and begins  a new and positive relationship with the natural world for the message is clear.  Man and all his vanities will ultimately succumb.  Nature will endure, one way or another.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Search of Silence....

The Silence of Inner Worlds
   Many photographers use a thematic approach to their camera work; at least part of the time.  They even become known for specific subject matter.  Ansel Adams had Yosemite and Alfred Stieglitz had O'Keeffe's hands and his "equivalents".  I wondered recently what mine might be.  I think I would say "Silence". By silence I mean that hushed image; one that seems to be holding its breath.

   Silence, photographically speaking, is not merely the absence of compositional "noise" but a deeply personal place of in-dwelling. It draws the viewer in and the mind can rest inside the edges of the photograph.  For me, it is a sanctuary where I feel most profoundly the sense of place, wherever I am.  In this photograph I was in Boston, Massachusetts.  Boston is a rich, dynamic city pulsating with life but I was still able to find a place of silence in the empty room just visible behind the ornate facade.  Made late in the day, with long shadows emphasizing the rich and varied texture of the building, this space within the space created the sense of silence I was looking for in that busy city.   Given the chaotic nature of our world today, these centers of silence become all the more important; at least for me.

   The words "silent" and "listen" have the same letters, simply re-arranged.  This is certainly something to contemplate.  To seek out silence we must first be able to listen...to sit back and wait for the place in which we are photographing to communicate its hidden, less obvious nature to us.  Boston can be viewed and hence photographed with all its vibrant interactions and "busyness" or one can go in search of its places of "stillness".  I seek out these counterpoints.  We can't hear those muffled messages if we are rattling on with our own agenda.   It is a very difficult thing to do, to clear ones mind and  just listen. I struggle with it all the time but I have found that whenever I am able to do it, to just sit still and truly listen to the landscape, I always find what I most dearly wish to record in my images...the essence of silence.

(This entry was written a few weeks ago but after my 5 days at the Abbey of Gethsemani,  it is even more personally poignant.  The retreat house and many areas of the abbey have signs that read, "Silence is spoken here".  It was wonderful to be surrounded by such a pregnant silence.  Full of thoughts and energy but no spoken words.  It is something I plan to take back with me at the end of this trip...to leave room in each day for silence.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What is Contemplation?

Contemplation cannot be taught.  It
cannot even be clearly explained.  It can
 only be hinted at, suggested, pointed
to, symbolized.
-Thomas Merton

   For those who wish to practice contemplative photography or even just explore its scope and meaning, one has to first wrestle with the notion of contemplation.  While I admire and respect Merton's writings, the above quote is not particularly helpful for those of us struggling with the idea of contemplation, whether we chose to apply it to photography or not.

Out of the Cloister Walls
   I turn, instead, to Richard Rohr's definition - from his wonderful book, The Naked Now: learning to see as the mystics see.  In it he says, 

Contemplation is an exercise in
keeping your heart and mind
spaces open long enough for
the mind to see other hidden
-page 34

   That works for me.  Whereas an open (and I would add, patient) heart and mind is the right hand of contemplation, I've learned from my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani that silence and solitude are the left hand.  Perhaps, in that context, Merton's words make sense.  Contemplation is something that must be experience to be understood but the more you do it, the better you get at it.

   For me, Contemplation is a method of deep regard that reveals a hidden mystery that casual observation overlooks.  It's like trying to see your way on a dark, moonless night.  All you can discern are vague shapes.  Put on night vision goggles and your world changes in an instant.  Contemplation = those night vision goggles.

Now, this shouldn't discourage you in anyway from exploring the practice of contemplation because it is well worth the effort.  I did wonder if after my retreat and contemplative photography workshop I would have to modify my "4 BE's" in anyway.  I think they still work as good starting point.  For those of you who are new to this blog, I will mention them again.  To practice contemplative photography you need to...

Be Still
Be Present
Be Patient
Be Persistent

  (Last night I began my weekend retreat at the  Bethany Retreat Center - right down the road from the Abbey, with contemplative photographer, Kim Manley Ort.  I am sure that by the end of it, my understanding of the concept of contemplation will be greatly expanded and I will be sure to pass on whatever I learn in future posts.)


Friday, April 19, 2013

Exploring New Landscapes...

In Prayer
   One of the results of my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani was I began to explore a new way of approaching color.  Keep in mind, my foray into the wonderful world of color photography is relatively new. I explored it in a limited way with my Burren series in 2009 and then jumped right into the deep end with my landscapes from South Uist in 2011.  With my contemplative time at Gethsemani I was inspired to go one step further.

   When I was learning photography, way back when, I did very little color work but one thing I remember doing, as an assignment from my professor, was to try "cross processing" my color negative.  This is when you use the chemicals for color slide film development for regular color print film.  The effect was a bit surreal but not unpleasing I remember.  Luckily, Picasa provides a way to cross process your digital files quite easily.  Yes, there is a way more complicated method, and probably a better way,  to do it in Photoshop but I didn't have the time for that.  (You can download a tutorial here if you want to give it a go.) 

   I tried the Picasa version on my work at Gethsemani and I really liked the effect.  There's a softness, an almost ethereal quality to the image and it seemed to compliment the feeling of my time there.  Compare the sycamore tree image from my earlier post to this "cross processed" version.

   There is almost a painterly feeling to it, like an old, 19th century watercolor.   Picasa allows you to control the degree of the effect from subtle to intense which is helpful.  It was fun to see how different images responded to the effect. The brighter the light, the greater the effect it seemed to me. When I get home I will try printing some of these to see if this is a technique I will use more often or not.

   I'd never really thought about how the "processing" (Sorry, I still think of it that way!) of the file would effect the contemplative quality of the image but it is one of the "new ideas" I will bring back to Maine with me.  Why don't you try exploring "new landscapes" with some of your old negatives...opps! I mean files!  It could be quite enjoyable!

Thomas Merton's Gethsemani...

   I bought a wonderful book at the abbey bookstore, well, actually six books but I want to talk about one in particular.  It is a book of stunning black and white images by Harry Hinkle and some of Merton's own images as well.  It is combined with excerpts of his writing and a thoughtful text by Merton scholar Monica Weis.   What struck me profoundly is that much of his writing on nature reminded me of Thoreau.  Both retreated to live the life of a forest hermit and both found their personal self-culture in the natural world.  It is one of those rare photography books that is an inspiration in both words and images.

A Solitary Sycamore - Gethsemani Abbey
   This is a view of part of the abbey grounds enclosed by the cloister wall.  The stunning tree which is the focal point is, I believe, a "whitewashed sycamore" that kind Merton refers to in the book.  I thought it a particularly effective subject for a black and white photograph although I have a color version of this as well.  (I plan a folio...a "Good Crop" from Gethsemani shortly!)  The small mountain in the background is one of the "Knobs" Merton loved to hike.  Thoreau would approve of the abbey's trails and wilderness areas I'm sure.  This final quote by Merton would have also earned an approval from dear Henry...

"No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees."

                                                               — Thomas Merton from "Honorable Reader"



Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thoughts from Behind the Cloister Walls...

The Cloister Walls - Spring
    After posting yesterday, I fairly flew back to the abbey, back to the security and serenity behind the cloister walls.  I went first to the wonderful visitor's center.  The have a small theater there and the day before I had watched a biographical film of Thomas Merton.  Today I wanted something...anything that would blot out the horrible images of the Boston bombing.  The kind lady suggested a film about Father Matthew, a much beloved monk of the Abbey.
   The film began with Fr. Matthew saying, "When bad things happen, we always ask ourselves, why?  Why would God allow this to be?"  I had to smile.  A very fitting response to the range of emotion swirling in me.  Why indeed.  I knew that this film was just what I needed, right now.

   Later on in the film I learned Fr. Matthew had grown up and gone to school in Milton, Massachusetts - the very town I had taught in for 30 years before I retired! (You're right Janet...there are no coincidences!)  His words were comforting and poignant.  In an answer to his opening question he said, (and I paraphrase) "Sometimes there is no rational or satisfying answer, we can only go on living and do the best we can.  Most importantly, we can not give into despair."

A Garden Moment
   After the film I retreated to the garden...just to sit and feel the sun, smell the freshly cut grass, listen to the birdsong and the abbey bells.  It lifted my soul.    When I leave here tomorrow morning to attend my contemplative photography weekend workshop, I will take the peace of this place with me.  We all have this place of sanctuary within us, everyday and everywhere.  You don't have to travel to an abbey to get it!  We each have our own cloister walls behind which we can retreat in times of trouble.  In the end, however, we must open the gate and go out, rejoin the real world and just live our lives as best we can.  We can be content with the knowledge that we will be given what we need - in words or in images - always.

   (On my way to the library to post this, I checked in on the little birds in the nest I'd seen on the day I arrived.  They had left the nest, both of them.  The nest was empty.  Again, how fitting...I will leave this abbey "nest" tomorrow as well and I can't help but wish the little ones well as they explore their new and expanded world!)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Moment of Reflection at Gethsemani....

Rest in Eternal Peace
   On Tuesday I took a stroll to the sculpture area on the Abbey grounds.  Through beautiful woodlands, birds singing and the Abbey bells marking the time ringing softly in the distance.  It is a place of infinite peace.  It is hard to reconcile the horror of the bombings in Boston on Monday with the serenity of this landscape.

   This bronze sculpture seems a fitting image for today as I struggle with the terrible event and the twisted minds that would conceive it.  When I made this image, I was blissfully unaware of the tragedy in Boston.  Now, I will always associate this image with hearing the news of the bombings. It is quite fascinating that an image imagined in peace can turn, in a heartbeat, into one of grief. 

   I had already published today's post before I read about the bombing...I was saving this image for tomorrow but you will understand why I need to use it today, right now, to express my grief at the evil that exists in the world.  It is one of the ways contemplative photography can help one work through these kinds of events.

On Location - Gethsemani

   I simply must share some of my experiences here at the Abbey so I've traveled into town to access the internet.  The Abbey is located on 2,000 acres of beautiful, rolling landscape dotted with lakes and surrounded by the "Knobs", a series of small hills.  It is a serene and tranquil place.  It is easy to see how Thomas Merton would consider this his paradise on earth.

   I had absolutely no expectations when I arrived here Monday afternoon.  I simply entered into the spirit of the place and allowed it to direct my time.  There is a spiritual presence here  that is outside of any religious quality it might have...after all, it is a Trappist monastery.  That spirit runs deep and it is what inspired Merton's writing and poetry.

   What greeted me as I approached the Abbey's retreat house on my arrival was this momma bird, caring for her two fledglings.  It was a gentle way to begin my retreat and I allowed it to remind me that, for a time at least, I would be nurtured and cared for.  I would be given what I needed and I would receive the images I needed as well.  I think that is something we all must remind ourselves every time we go out into the world to gather our photographs.  As contemplative photographers, we will receive what we need...always.

   At the end of my first day I made this image of the sunset and the silhouette of the tree.   I was reading a prayer written by Merton after I had made my initial photograph.  I was just about to get up and leave when I looked again.  The tiny jet trail had appeared and three doves had settled on the branches.  It seemed appropriate to this excerpt and a peaceful way to bring to a close my first day...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On Location - Peter's Valley Swamp

The Living Among the Dead
   This is a new one for me...photographing in a swamp!  I had to fight hoards of nasty black flies but the light and color was so lovely I couldn't resist.  Even in this seemingly most undesirable of locations there is beauty.  There is surely a lesson in that.

   Travel to new places opens your eyes and your heart to the unexpected.  It is why I make a real effort to get out of my comfort zone!   Today, I am at the Abbey at Gethsemane in Kentucky.  To walk in the footsteps of Thomas Merton will be a wonderful experience I'm sure and I'm hoping to connect with a monk that knew him well and who is also a poet and photographer!

   Internet access is very limited here, so unless I am able to pull myself away from the monastery and journey into town to the local library, I will be "out of touch" until Friday.  Perhaps you can go back to earlier posts that you may have missed but know that I am thinking of you and wandering the grounds photographing this lovely place!  I will have a lot to share with you in a few days.  Contemplative photography in a place of contemplation... what could be more perfect!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Some last thoughts on Peter's Valley....

A Foggy Morning in Peter's Valley
  It was an interesting weekend at Peter's Valley.  Most of the participants at the retreat were large format camera aficionados.  I was mesmerized by watching them set up their big wooden box cameras.  Many had been on retreats with Tillman Crane, the Maine photographer I'd come to meet.  I must say, I felt a bit at sea with all the technical talk.  You always learn something though and it was delightful to hear Tillman expound on his various venues and his platinum printing techniques.  Visit his website here, you'll be very impressed I'm sure.

    The history of this area is very interesting.  The federal government bought up all the land in the Delaware Water Gap region back in the early 1960's with the idea of damning the river and creating a huge reservoir.  Many homes and whole towns were bulldozed.  The people fought back and after lengthy court battles they won and the government turned the area into a national park.  That's why there are so many abandoned houses and churches.

   This little waterfall was on the Peter's Valley School of Crafts property where I stayed and is an image that symbolizes this region for me.  The little guy can still win when there is a strong effort and determination.  I'll post one more image from this past weekend tonight.

   My photographic retreat this coming weekend will be an entirely different experience for me.  Led by Kim Manley Ort, it is a contemplative photography workshop.  Something tells me that I will feel a bit more at home with this group!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

More Remmants at the Zimmerman Farm...

   I love the way the tree is growing right out of the top of this derelict gas pump!  I am always amazed at how nature finds a way to thrive even in the most unlikely of places.

   The color of the hinges on this old ice box was what attracted me to it.  That and the lovely worn white washed wood.  The aqua seem so out of place!  The simple graphic quality of these images is appealing.    On to Kentucky and Abbey  of Gethsemane tomorrow...

On Location - The Old Zimmerman Farm

Wood, Stone and Rust
   The Zimmerman Farm is one of many abandoned farms in this area of the Delaware Water Gap Region of Northern New Jersey.  I spend the day yesterday adding to my "Remnants" series!

   The worn and weathered wood and stone was beautiful...even the rusted hardware was striking.  This farm was still in fairly good condition and the soft light of the morning played up the texture and muted colors.  I love the date scratched into the stone!

   I was attracted by this image of the bare vines on the weathered wood and thought it was especially effective in black and white.  In another couple weeks it will loose its calligraphic quality as the leaves sprout and cover the wood.  Timing is everything!

   I make all my images in color even if I intend to later convert them to black and white.  I like to keep my options open but over the years I've come to know that some images are just perfect in monochrome while others need the soft use of color.

   Today I move on to West Virginia but I think I'll post some additional Remnants from the Zimmerman Farm this evening.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Peter's Valley Pond Impression...

   The reflection effects on this pond in Peter's Valley were stunning.  It almost doesn't look like a photograph...more like an Impressionist painting. I did very little with the image...this was really what it looked like!  This is one of those wonderful gifts nature gives you from time to time.  I was very happy to be at the right place at the right time!

The Right Balance - a Personal Reflection...

Find the Right Balance - South Uist, Scotland
  ( This is another in my series of Personal Reflections.  It is where I engage in the kind of reflection that characterizes contemplative photography for me and I hope it stimulates your desire to think about the images you receive through your camera's lens. )

  It seems we, as a society, are always engaged in some sort of conflict...a tug of war of opposing views.  There never seems to be a shortage of folks who will try to persuade you to follow their particular viewpoint. We have become a world of "us vs. them" no matter what the question is.

    Personally,  I try to look at both sides of every question and I can usually find positive points for even widely differing viewpoints. Which way do you turn?  As someone who tries to follow a Taoist path in my life, I usually seek the middle ground and avoid extremes of "left" or "right".  It's not that I don't have strong feelings about issues but I try to keep an open mind and a balanced perspective.  I never thought I would find an image that could serve as an icon for my way of living in the world!  That's what I love about contemplative photography...the truth is often hidden in plain sight.

   The Western Isles of Scotland are clearly divided along religious lines.  This photograph was made at just about that dividing line.  The Southern islands are strongly Catholic and the Northern islands are strictly Protestant but there is no animosity between them. They each go their own way and respect their neighbors beliefs. In our wildly polarize society, where everyone is absolutely sure that their direction is the RIGHT direction, I offer this photograph.  The tiny church sits confidently in the middle and there is a lovely sense of balance here.  Oh, how I wish the rest of the world could reach this kind of equilibrium!  Agree to disagree and dispense with the name calling and hateful rhetoric!  Care for those who need our care and compassion...ask each to pay their fair share and play by the same rules...and just be kind!  Is that too much to ask?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Finding Your Lodestone...

   A lodestone is a phenomenon of  nature.  A rock that has a natural magnetism.  The word has also come to mean something in our lives that draws us to it...something that has magnetism for us.

   One of the challenges of being a photographer of any sort is to discern what is magnetic for our camera's lens.  What draws us in?  For the contemplative photographer it is even more important because these lodestones, in a subtle way, define us.
The Standing Stone at Pollachar, South Uist, Scotland

   One of my lodestones is actually stones! I love ancient monuments, especially standing stones.  In the Western Isles they are quite prevalent and, it seemed to me, random.  This stone is located at the tip of South Uist and sits in solitary splendor looking out to the bay as it has for thousands of years.  No one knows for sure what its purpose was because there are no other standing stones with it...no evidence of any other monuments or settlement.  I suspect it was placed as a marker to guide sailors.  I just know that I love to sit with my back supported by the ancient stone.  I feel such a connection with the past here as well as an indefinable sense of continuity and permanence.

    I leave today on my long awaited road trip.  What will my lodestones be on this trip?  What are your lodestones?  What draws you in?  When you can recognize these in your life you will be closer to discovering what defines you, as a photographer and as a person.

I am unsure what internet connections I will
have available to me on this trip. I plan to
continue my daily posts, if possible, so stay
tuned for some new "On location..." posts!


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Self Culture...

"Our personal growth can fuel our photography
and our photography can fuel our personal growth."

-Brooks Jensen

   At the very basis of the concept of contemplative photography is the notion, so wonderfully put in this quote by Lenswork editor, Brooks Jensen, that there is a subtle give and take between the image and the "imaginor" (photographer).  As we evolve our need to live a more contemplative life, our photographs will reflect that evolution and, in turn, these images will lead to greater self-understanding and realization.

   The 19th century Transcendentalists called this process "self culture".  It is a wholly individualized process.  In effect, it is a journey we all must make on our own.  Concord Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, practiced self culture through their reading and writings.  Thoreau, more specifically, found the path to self-realization through his on-going study of the natural world.  I often fantasize about the kinds of photographs they would have made had that avenue of expression been open to them! On April 28th I will lead a group of photographers on a contemplative stroll.  We will have the opportunity to practice self culture in a place Thoreau himself walked and commented upon. It is a follow up to my talk last November at the Thoreau Farm and I look forward to our time to "practice what I preach"!

   As contemplative photographers, we all walk this spiral experience; first turning inward to the core of our being and then moving outward to manifest that being in our photographic images.  To the degree we our successful with either process is entirely dependent on our commitment to the entire journey.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guided Meditation...

Passing into the Storm
   I've written extensively about my practice of "Visual Listening", something I do before I begin my camera work on location. This is simply my term for the guided meditation I engage in before I begin the Deep Play of the photographic experience. I want you to realize how simple I try to make this process. I think everyone needs to establish their own way of approaching this phase of contemplative photography but it is a crucial phase for me. In fact, I might go so far as to state that without some form of guided meditation, preparing your mind for receiving the images, there can be no true contemplative photography! Without this preparation, you are just on a "click and run" mission snatching fragments of the landscape and missing the essential truth of it.

    I sometimes just do a simple breathing meditation to quiet my mind but I often begin the process with an inspiring poem, a quote from a writer I admire or another written form that seems to have the possibility of generating a new way of regarding the world. Simply reading and re-reading the piece, perhaps narrowing it down to just a phrase or even a word, can induce a meditative state. Music is also a lovely way to guide your mediation. It serves to block extraneous noise in the environment that may distract your meditative mind. But use it with caution. The natural sounds of the landscape, wind and bird sound for instance, are very important to an understanding of the place so be careful not to block these sounds completely! If I use music, I am sure to turn it off and listen for these natural sounds as well. They are part and parcel of the landscape and can guide our thoughts (and our photographs) in the most unexpected ways. Once in a meditative frame of mind, I find I am more receptive to the whisperings of the landscape which I then record in my field journal. This is often simple, rambling "word trains" but whatever comes into my mind I record. Then and only then do I pick up my camera a begin to receive my images.

    However you chose to guide your visual listening experience, be sure that your primary objective is to enter into a shared experience with the landscape. You can visit the link below to explore other ways of employing guided mediation in your contemplative practice.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Way of Water...

The Ocean at Peace
Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.
-Margaret Atwood

   Water is the ultimate metaphor in Taoism and this passage from Margaret Atwood explains it so perfectly. I especially like the sentence that reminds us that we are half water.  When we are born we are nearly 75% water but we continue to loose water as we age.  We never loose our attraction to the watery world though.  Years ago I had contemplated a move to the Southwest but I just couldn't do it.  I couldn't be that far from the sea!  The sea pulls me to it, that's probably another reason I love islands so much...I'm completely surrounded by water!

   Photographing water, reflections, light on the surface, it's movement or stillness, is a wonderful resource for contemplative photographers. With 70% of the earth's surface covered with water, we have lots of opportunities to explore this metaphor.  I have friends who grew up in the mid-west who prefer lakes to the ocean.  I'll admit, the sea can be a bit scary in its vastness and power but that is part of its attraction to me.  After all, we are creatures of the sea and we are reminded of it every time we taste the salt of our tears.