Saturday, August 31, 2013

The A, B, C's of Contemplative Photography - G

G is for Glean (and also for Generate and Guide and Gather...)

To gather slowly...bit by bit.   

    You are probably familiar with the famous painting by Millet called the Gleaners.  Peasants were allowed into the harvested fields to "glean" or gather whatever shafts of wheat were left behind.  I think this is an apt metaphor for contemplative photographers.  After the casual photographers sweep a place clean of "worthy" images, we contemplatives are left to glean the abandoned fields for left behind and overlooked possibilities.  The gleaners must move slowly and look carefully to find these left over tidbits but they will find them.

     That is why it is beneficial, and perhaps crucial, to return again and again to a place.  Each time you return you will mine deeper and deeper levels of awareness and understanding.  On first look, we see what everyone else sees...what most are content to see, photograph and move on from.  Gleaners are photographers who are patient and persistent and always prepared to look more closely and ever deeper.  It's the kind of photographer I want to be.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Personal "Reflection" - More Than Meets the Eye

   This is one of the images I received during my Star Island stay.  I was sitting on the wide front porch of the Oceanic Hotel in one of their rockers waiting for the sunset, which on Star Island can be quite beautiful.  I thought I was done photographing for the day.  These little rowboats moored in the harbor had other ideas though.

   I looked up from the book I was reading from time to time and my eyes kept focusing on this pair of boats.  I tried to ignore their insistent invitation to come closer.  Finally, I succumbed.  I put my book aside and wandered down to the shore.  What in the world did these little boats have to tell me?  Why was I so attracted to them?  Now, I must admit that 5 years ago I wouldn't have given these boats a  second glance but as I said in a earlier post, we are drawn to contemplative imagery because we earnestly seek it out, even unconsciously.  This was one of those occasions.

   It was the reflections.  The beautiful still water and warm late day sunlight created lovely rippled reflections but as I drew near I could see one boat's reflection seemed to sprout an extension...a softly undulating line.  It was, of course, the reflection of a large sailboat mast moored a distance behind it but it looked as if it was coming out of this little boat.  It made me smile and my mind was a whorl with ideas.  I made the photograph and hurried back to the porch to write in my journal.  This is what sprouted from my pen as a result of that image...

We all have dreams and asperations...we all are so
much more than meets the casual viewers eye.  There is a 
depth and complexity to each human soul that extends
 beyond our ordinary, day to day existence.

   My take away from this little experience was, when the landscape tugs at your heart strings, get up off your duff and go hear what it has to say!  It's bound to be enlightening.  The more you practice contemplative photography, the more these little interludes will occur.  I am reminded of a Rumi quotation which I have used before but which is particularly apropos to this experience...

What you are seeking is
also seeking you.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

On Location - Star Island

Ceila in her garden by Childe Hassam
  It's funny how we tend to overlook the near at hand in favor of the faraway and exotic.  Star Island is one of those near to hand places I've known about for years but just never got to.  In this year of exploring the nearby, it was time for me to head to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and take the ferry out to Star Island in the Isles of Shoals.

   I had first come to know about Star Island and its surrounding islands through the writings of Ceilia Thaxter who lived on Appledore Island.  Thaxter was a poet and compatriot of many notable 19th century writers and artists.  With her friend Childe Hassam, a Boston painter, she wrote and illustrated An Island Garden, which still sits on my bookshelf, having survived my winter purge of no longer needed books.  Hassam's paintings, masterpieces of American Impressionism, have long been favorites of mine.

   Appledore would have to wait for I was headed to Star Island.  Although I wouldn't see her garden, there is a museum of her writing and life on Star Island so I was content with that.  I caught the morning ferry in Portsmouth Harbor.  It is an hour ferry ride and as the little boat pulled away from the dock, you could feel the separation begin.  That is one of the main reasons I love journeying to islands, despite my tendency to suffer from the mal de mer! You literally turn your back to the world and venture to a self-contained sanctuary and retreat.  People have been seeking this sanctuary on Star Island for nearly 250 years.

   Here is a link to the Star Island website.  You might just want to put a visit on your "bucket list".  It certainly is one of those special places in New England and for the contemplative photographer, it is an amazing experience.  Some more images and impressions of the  place tomorrow...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Inspired by Kim Manley Ort: A Guest Post

Hello, everyone. Patricia Turner asked me to talk about what being a contemplative photographer means to me. So, here goes.

My mission is to live a contemplative life, so first I'd like to talk about what contemplation means to me.

Contemplation is about meeting life from a particular stance.

And that stance looks like this - being open and transparent; being curious about life. It's about listening well, without judging, controlling or comparing. There's no punishing; there's no winning or even losing. There is love, compassion, and kindness.

From this stance, I see and recognize that everything is about relationship. We are impacted by everyone and everything, and vice versa. We have the power and the privilege to make an impact with our every action, which makes it so important that those actions spring from contemplation. 

Do I always operate from this stance? Of course not, but these are all habits that can be cultivated and photography helps me to practice.

Mentors in Contemplative Photography

I'd like to share with you some of the people who have influenced my thinking about contemplation. It's a diverse mix, and from them I've come to my own way of living a contemplative life.

Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant, well-known Canadian photographers, taught me to see the underlying foundation of everything – the visual design inherent in every image. They were the first to show me how labels limit our seeing.

Frederick Franck, artist and writer, wrote the classic book The Zen of Seeing. He taught me to experience wonder and essence through drawing.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, demonstrated the value of solitude and taking a long, loving look. He was really in love with the world.

And more recently the Miksang approach to contemplative photography, taught by Michael Wood and Julie DuBose, showed me how to become more aware of my initial perceptions.

These are the perceptions that come before we put labels on things. We don't really realize how quickly our perceptions are covered over by conceptual thinking.

Finally Seth Godin, who is a business blogger, not a photographer, is all about seeing and noticing in new ways. What he's taught me is that everyone has a unique way of seeing and that it's important to share that with the world.

So how does photography fit into this?

Photography is the tool that helps me to slow down, be present, and pay attention to my life. And then, to engage.

Being a contemplative photographer means everything to me. I see things in really new and exciting ways all the time. The more I practice, the more there is to see.

Photography also helps me to be more self-aware because what we see and notice reflects our inner state to some extent.

For example, my photography tends to go in themes and last winter I noticed that I was photographing vines growing on surfaces. Then, in the spring I was noticing blossoms at my feet. I like to write about how these themes reflect whatever's going on in my life at the time.

Contemplative photography is a really joyful experience for me and helps me to handle whatever comes my way in life, hopefully with grace.  

Thank you Kim!  It is always good for people to read about how others approach this diverse and fascinating field of contemplative photography!  You can visit Kim's blog, 365 Days of Inspiration for more of her thought provoking commentary on contemplative photography.  There is always a link to her blog in the right sidebar.  Here is a link to her manifesto for living a contemplative life entitled Widen the Lens...short, concise and very much to the point.  Read it here and sign up for here weekly newsletter and download the poster for free! 


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Contemplative Look at the Visual Elements - Color

   I know I've said this before but here it goes again...I can't believe I really didn't embrace color photography until 2009!  For four years I only  created monochrome images.  But there is a whole range of contemplative possibilities in the use of color.  In some respects, it is the visual element that has the longest history of psychological associations. (To explore some of these associations, visit this link.)

   Color is also very culture specific but, as in all the visual elements, how you react to certain colors can be based on all sorts of reasons and non-reasons.  As I talked about in the post  about attraction, you will pay attention most to colors you find "pleasing" and you will not see others.  I could list all the standard implications for specific colors, like red = passion and yellow = happiness but that's like telling everyone there is only one shoe size and you just have to deal with it.  People get very passionate when the talk about color. 

   Explore your own personal responses to color in your journal. (You can read my post, The Power of Green here.)  Go to a paint store an pull out two samples of colors you really dislike...then go in search of them and photograph them.  Make it a point to find as many examples of them as you can.  As you create your "color collection" do you find your initial repugnance modifying?

   Then there is the whole area of color harmonies; specific pairings or groups of colors that designers/artists use for creating certain effects.  Color theory is an important field of study in art schools and you can find out about some of the basic theories here.  But all this is really irrelevant to the contemplative photographer. Whereas some knowledge of color theory will help you create more dynamic images, in the end it gets down to the old question of creating vs. receiving your images.  How much manipulation is necessary?  Enhancing is one thing, controlling is another.  You have to decide how far you want to go and how important all the theory is.

   In her wonderful new book,  Eyes of the Heart , Christine Valters Painter mentions the 1938 movie The Wizard of Oz.  In the beginning, the film is black and white and only when she opens the door of the farmhouse that has landed in Oz does the film become color.  A lovely metaphor for awakened perception and I can't help but see myself as Dorothy, awakening to the power of color in my camera work.  Below is a video which uses this device of showing something in black and white and then slowly bringing out the color.  It will get you thinking about...

Monday, August 26, 2013

Photographic Subject Matter - The Interior

   Since visiting the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky I have been enraptured by the subtle light in their quiet, simple interiors.  The image on the left was made in the Center Dwelling there.  Interiors provide the photographer the opportunities of controlled light and subtle ways to reach the character of a place without the people.  This window could be anywhere but the addition of the starkly simple notched window prop says "Shaker" to me...the people without the people.

   I came across this interior just at the right time of day so that the light cast shadows in a lovely way and I was fortunate that there was this gauzy curtain to filter the harsh light and create the undulating folds.  For an interior scene to be contemplative, it must stir thoughts and reflections beyond the photographs basic elements.  If a photograph just says "pretty" or "pleasant" it is just an image of pretty and pleasant "things"...not a bad thing of course.  Just not a contemplative thing.

   Most of the time, these reflections or thoughts come long after the image is made when I practice Photo Lectio...a way to systematically read the image.  You can read about that here.  The most important part of the contemplative practice of photography is to still your mind and let the setting, whether it is inside or out, inform your work.  So much of the process becomes, in time, intuitive.  We become drawn to contemplative subject matter because it is what we most earnestly seek.



Sunday, August 25, 2013

PhotoTao Card #37 - Effort

Try daily to make a little space for
nothing, suggests the sage.  Expend no
effort and you will create great things.
- Exercise -
    Take time to sit in complete stillness.
Quiet your mind and slow your
breathing.  Allow Tao to flow through
you.  Only then is it time to pick up the
camera but keep the stillness in your
heart and proceed slowly as if you had
all the time in the world and nowhere
to go.  Do not rush off to another 
location...bring a lunch and stay for the
day.  Watch how the light changes.

    This is a view of Monhegan harbor, a short walk from the cottage I stayed in for the week. I could have sat here for hours. Just sitting in a place and letting the Tao flow through you is such a relaxing thing to do regardless of whether you make any photographs or not. The Tao is a difficult thing to describe. I think of it as the energy that flows through everything and it is present everywhere. We are normally so preoccupied with other "stuff" that we don't experience it.   I urge you to find a place and spend some time in it. Watch the clouds shape shifting, smell the grass, listen to the bird songs, and feel the wind on your cheek. If you feel like it, make some photographs...or not.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The A,B, C's of Contemplative Photography - F

F is for Filter (and also for Feeling and Focus and Frame and Faith and Fascinate and....) 
 In a recent post I spoke about the negative effects filters have on our ability to fully perceive the world around us. You can read that here.  But is there a positive contemplative connotation to the word?  The word, as a verb, can be defined as:

Pass (a liquid, gas, light, or sound) through a device to remove unwanted material.

   Viewed in that way we could say that a contemplative photographer filters out extraneous and superfluous ideas of the landscape and is left with the pure essence of place.  This is actually something we have to make a conscious effort to do because of our unconscious tendency to label things and places.  To "know" them before we see them.  This also happens when we read about a place we will visit.  We run the risk of seeing it the way those who wrote the articles saw it.  While some information about where we are visiting is helpful for putting it into context for us, if we don't guard against it, it just becomes another label.  We must employ our contemplative filter to remove these labels so we can really see the place with fresh eyes...with our eyes.

   All this year, as I re-visited places from my past, I had to pass the experience through this contemplative filter.  It isn't the place I saw way back when and I am not the person I was then either.  Seeing a familiar place as if you never saw it before is the reason to employ this filter.  Be sure it is in your camera bag!  When you use it effectively, it makes the experience so much more enriching.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, 
for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”

Friday, August 23, 2013

In Praise of Shaker Stone Walls...

   I'm a huge fan of stone walls.  I've even done two posts praising can read one here and the other one thereBut the stone wall along Shaker Road  at Canterbury is really quite unique...not in the way it looks but in the way it was made.

   This wall, made with smaller stones than the others that surround the property, was built by a man working alone and with one arm!  Sister Bertha, who I had conversed with at length in the late 1970's told me all about him.   His name had been forgotten but his accomplishment wasn't, at least by this lovely Shaker lady.  He adapted by using smaller stones and coming up with devices that allowed him to roll the stones into place with one arm.  She saw it as a metaphor for the patience, flexibility and perfection of effort that characterized the Shakers.  I see it now as a metaphor for the contemplative photographer who sometimes needs to adapt to what she finds and to also practice patience and persistence.  

    When I visited the village last week, I asked a couple of people who worked at the village if they knew about the story of the stone wall and they didn't.  It doesn't take long for stories to slip from memory and be forgotten.  Sister Bertha died in the early 1990's.  Thankfully, it didn't take me much effort when I got home, thanks to the wonder of the internet, to find the story again in an article in the New York Times printed in 1990 and I'm including a link below.  Luckily, she had told the story to someone else who had written it down.  Stone walls, a common sight in rocky New England, have tales to tell, so do contemplative photographers.  One particular wall at Canterbury Shaker Village has a story that should never be forgotten.  If you have limitations this doesn't mean you can't overcome them and they shouldn't keep you from contributing to your community.  You adapt and persevere and you will succeed...simple as that.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hidden in Plain Sight...

   Prohibited from photographing inside the buildings at the Canterbury Shaker Village, I went in search of exterior images.  I do love the simplicity and symmetry of the building facades but nothing really spoke to me until I notice this little robins nest above the door of the building where I'd spoken to Sister Bertha all those years ago.  It was the dangling bit of grass and fluff, blowing in the breeze, that drew my attention to it.  Sheltered beneath an overhang, the nest was in clear view for anyone who bothered to look up.

   So many of the images I receive are like this little nest, hidden in plain sight.  No one else who walked by the door while I was there looked up at it and I think Sister Bertha would have appreciated this metaphor.  The Shakers lived apart from the world but in plain view for anyone who took the time to stop.  They practiced open armed hospitality taking many poor people in and sheltering them when the weather turned cold.  They knew full well that they would leave in the Spring just as the baby robins did.  "Winter Shakers" they were called.  It didn't matter to them.

   Contemplative images are often "hidden in plain sight" and when you open your heart to them you will find them.  Limitations or restrictions don't matter, the images you need to receive will be there.  Slow down and look up....

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On Location - Canterbury Shaker Village, New Hampshire...

Canterbury Shaker Village - One View
   After spending 3 days at the Pleasant Hill, Kentucky Shaker village I was quite excited about re-visiting the one in Canterbury, New Hampshire just an hour and 45 minutes from my house in Maine.  I had visited it last in the late 1970's and spent time talking with a Shaker sister, Sister Bertha.

    There were only two sisters still at Canterbury by then and most of the buildings were closed and things were looking a bit shabby.  A few were open to visitors but it was my time with Sister Bertha that meant the most to me.  They had decided to close the society and after the few remaining sisters in the Sabbathday Lake, Maine village died, the Shakers would slip into oblivion.  I asked Sister Bertha what she wished people would remember about the society and I still recall her reply.  "Well dear," she answered, "I hope people don't just remember me as a chair!" 

   When I arrived last week, I was amazed to see two new buildings.  One a re-creation of the 19th century horse barn that now serves as a restaurant and another which housed a lovely new visitor's center and gift shop.  The building that I sat and talked with Sister Bertha in was closed but many more of the buildings were now open to the public and clearly restoration work was in full swing.  I enjoyed a stroll through the village.  Interpreters guided people around clearly being sure that the Shakers would be remembered as much more that just chairs.  I think Sister Bertha would be proud.

   I made one interior study and then found out that photographing inside the buildings was prohibited, unlike Pleasant Hill.  A bit of a disappointment because I saw so many images that I would have love to photograph but one must mind one's manners when you visit places and so I was content with this one simple image to add to my Simplicity and Light folio.

   Rather than worry about this restriction, I went in search of exterior views that would be thought provoking.  This was clearly meant to be a lesson in "expectations".  One that is important to remember when you are on location.  I received the images I needed.  I'll tell you about one of those images tomorrow...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Contemplative Look at the Visual Elements - Shape

   The second visual element is Shape.  Of course, everything has a shape of some sort.  I've chosen this image because of the shadow shapes.  Sometimes we overlook the power of shadow shapes, focusing our attention on the objects that cast the shadows but they are shapes nonetheless.

   This image also has strong line elements. But what does it all mean for the contemplative photographer?  Well, at least, this contemplative photographer?  Everything, lines and shapes, seemed to draw my eye to the open gate. It leads to the monks garden at Gethsemani.  It was an area that was off limits to guests but the gate stood ajar.  I can't seem to separate the metaphoric quality of line or shape from the context of the image.  The metaphor, rather than any generalized or symbolic meaning of the triangles, squares and cylinders is what defines the image for me and to understand the metaphor you have to know the context of the photograph.

   The geometric and regular shapes of the architecture add to the sense of order and balance, which of course is part and parcel of the monks daily life at the abbey, but the sharp triangle on the ground adds an altogether different points away from the open gate to the parking lot of the abbey.  Of course, you wouldn't know that without me telling you.  Shapes, like lines, have generalized or symbolic implications but, for me, all that is subservient to the context of the photograph.  After all, I didn't arrange the shapes or line patterns, I found them in situ.  I did wait until the sunlight created the shadow pattern but again, I didn't create it.  I can, however, interpret them through my carefully thought out symbol system which I've developed after years of thoughtful reflection on my images.

   Any discussion of shape, or any of the visual elements for that matter, rely on the photographs specific context.  Without that, without the metaphor, it seems a bit empty and purposeless to me. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Contemplative Portrait....

   I will continue the discussion of photographic subject matter by looking at the portrait.  Although most of the images on this blog are landscape and still life, I have, in fact, done many portraits.  My series, First Person Rural: a portrait of a Maine town was a four year effort to created contemplative portraits of my friends and neighbors in my small Maine town.  You can view a few of the portraits in the folio of the same name on the right.

   Portraits can either be staged and formal (like your high school yearbook picture) or informal and candid.  Neither forms are necessarily "contemplative" in nature.  I recently saw the video biography of Annie Leibovitz, who is the reigning queen of the staged portrait.  Her images are insightful and evocative but certainly not contemplative.

   This portrait of a little boy was made on a bus in Japan.  I had no intention, when I boarded the bus, of making a portrait but when I sat down across the aisle from this mother and child I was transfixed.  The light from the window was lovely and I was enthralled by the mothers long white gloves.  Japanese women do not like "tanned" skin so cover up with gloves and  umbrellas when they are out in the sun.  The little boy was clearly ready for a nap.  I asked politely, in my very broken Japanese, if I could make a photograph of her and her son and she agreed.

   The resulting portrait reminds me of the Madonna and Child images I love from the Renaissance and speaks to the tender relationship between the two. It is a universal and immensely contemplative theme. When I worked on it later in Photoshop, I was careful to darken the edges, obscuring the mothers face, to focus the viewers attention on the mother's hands and arms and, of course, the child.  I must admit I was thinking a lot about Rembrandt's portraits when I was working on this image.  I love the way his figures seem to come out of the darkness and are only partially illuminated.

   Contemplative portraits have to speak directly to the heart of the viewer.  They must be more than a mere rendering of physical characteristic but an intimate study of character and emotion...a portrait of the soul.  I love the monochrome image for my portraits.  Someone once said that color portraits showcase the sitter's and white images showcase their soul.  I think I would agree with that.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

PhotoTao Card #36 - Going Abroad

Going Abroad
The sage travels the inner landscape and
finds that in self-knowledge she attains all
that can be attained.  By going nowhere,
she is at ease to explore what is.
- Exercise -
  Take a tour of your own back yard.
Approach this exercise as you would a trip
to an unknown location - a place you've
never seen before.  Try to uncover the
universal in the close at hand.  Choose
twelve images that would give a viewer a
complete "sense of place".  How does this
series alter your own sense of this
familiar place?

   The new term is "staycations"...vacationing in your own back yard. This is actually a wonderful exercise for the contemplative photographer.  If you are an apartment dweller, chose a nearby park.  The important thing is that the place is very familiar to you.  

   This is also much more difficult that you would imagine!  When we "know" something, our mind and therefore our eyes just skim the surface.  It is very difficult to "unknow" it!  It is an exercise that is worth trying though.  If you can see the familiar with fresh eyes you will be able to approach new landscapes with heightened awareness.

   When you have created your 12 images, show them to someone who isn't familiar with the place...see what observations they have from looking at your work.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The A, B, C's of Contemplative Photography - E

E is for Evoke (and also for Emphasis and Essence and Educe and...)

   "To summon or call forth; to re-create imaginatively..."

   When I first picked up the camera again in 2005 my interest was in documentary photography.  It was the work of Paul Strand that brought me to the Outer Hebrides.  I may have arrived  a documentary photographer but I left a contemplative one.

   The documentary photographer describes the world around them in an impartial way; the contemplative photographer evokes a very different world.  Whereas the former is a detached and objective eye behind the lens, the latter is heartfelt co-conspirator with the landscape.  It is a world of difference.

   When a photographer evokes something in the landscape they are drawing out some essential element that is contained within it but not immediately obvious.  By the way they frame the image, the way they subtly emphasize tones or shadow, the image passes from being merely a recording of the perceived landscape to an image that draws out its spirit.  It is a much more difficult process because it takes a lot of thinking before hand, before the finger tip presses the shutter release button.  It takes patience and, just as important, it takes the desire to see the world in this way.


Friday, August 16, 2013

Symbol or Metaphor?

   I spend a lot of time on this blog discussing the metaphorical connotations within the photograph.  It is a very crucial element in my particular approach to contemplative photography.  But how does a metaphor differ from a symbol?  They are related on one level but subtly different on another.

The Narrow Path
   A metaphor is relational.  You are using one thing to illustrate another.  Something that is contained within the photograph seems to suggest and expand upon another idea or concept.  The metaphor gives you a new and more complex understanding of the idea. Think of a metaphor as a door that opens into a new room of reflection.  You don't reach that level of understanding until you open the door and pass through.

     A symbol is a stand is equal to another idea or abstract concept and can be substituted for it.  This is most obvious in the symbolic use of color which can be intensely personal and also cultural.  In the West, black is a symbol of death but in the East they use white to symbolize death.  In Scotland's outer Hebrides, the white horse is a symbol of the goddess Epona who comes to lead a soul to Tir na Nog...the land of eternal youth. Many artists develop intricate and personal symbol systems that can only be recognized by observers of their work if they understand the "code".

   I think the two concepts - metaphor and symbolism - have powerful roles to play in contemplative photography just as they do in literature.  One thing I do know, some people seem more willing and able to see the world in these ways while others do not.  One is not right and the other wrong.  But I also know that once you begin to see the world as a grand stage for metaphor and symbolism it is very hard not to see them everywhere!  If nothing else, they are great writing prompts for your journaling.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Stepping Over or DIving Into the Abyss...Your Choice

It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. 
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. - Joseph Campbell

   It is such a foreboding word...abyss.  It conjures up dread and apprehension in most of us.  A place to most definitely avoid.  Finding Joseph Campbell's quote got me think of the abyss in a whole new way.

   Even an eight year old will tell you that treasure is buried, usually by a swashbuckling pirate.  But for some reason, as we grow up we imagine that it is simply lying on the surface, ready for us to pick up whenever we feel like it.

   No, treasure hunting is hard work and the most important treasures - self awareness, deep and abiding peace and spiritual connection - are buried beneath layers of ego and denial.  Sometimes it takes a pickax to break through.  Breaking through won't occur if we simply go through our lives stepping over, avoiding, the abyss.  We need to get down on our bellies and stare into it.

   On the Burren in County Clare, Ireland the limestone pavings are separated by gaps.  Some are just inches deep, others can go down several feet.  You must be very careful as you walk the pavings, a wrong step could mean a broken ankle.  But the most amazing things grow in those gaps in the stone.  It is why the Burren is also called The Land of the Fertile Rock - you can see a wonderful video of it by clicking on the link.   Next May I will return to this magical landscape to see it in its full bloom  when it reveals its most precious treasure, the amazing wildflowers and orchids that bloom for a very short time during May and early June.  I've never been able to be there at that time so it will be part of a three leg pilgrimage to my cherished "thin places" in Ireland and Scotland.  You will be hearing much more in the months to come as I begin to "pack my scrip" in preparation for what I am calling my Threshold Pilgrimage.  You can check out my series, Traveling with a Pilgrim's Heart here...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


   As photographers, we have a huge range of filters at our disposal to alter the acquired image.   Diffusion filters, neutral density filters, polarizing filters, special effects filters...the list goes on and on.  But what about our personal filters?  What do we carry around with us everyday that alters our perception of the world around us?

Through a Window, Dimly
   Those of us who have had formal training in photography carry the filter of photographic knowledge.  This was the filter I had the most difficulty disposing of when I took up the camera again in 2005 and discovered contemplative photography.  I "knew" what made a good photograph and I thought I knew what didn't.  The rules were an inhibiting filter to my experience.  It was like looking through a rainy window all the time. 

   One way to ascertain what your personal filters are is to look through a diverse collection of photography, either in a book or in a museum or gallery.  It is helpful to record your initial reaction to each photograph, maybe with the thumbs up and thumbs down judgement.  Then ask yourself...why do I like this particular photograph and why do I dislike this other one?  Somewhere along the line you will find yourself bumping into some sort of filter.  Something that is getting in your way of appreciating a particular style or technique or subject matter.

   It's perfectly alright to have preferences, it's only natural, but when they are getting in the way of your ability to explore new ideas or push your personal image making envelop just a bit then they are acting as inhibiting filters.  Best to be aware of it and put them aside from time to time.  Try seeing the world without your personal filter.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Contemplative Look at the Visual Elements - Line...

Fork in the Road
   This is the first in a series of posts I will do that will explore the visual elements and design principles of art from a contemplative perspective.  We begin with the visual element - LINE.

   As an art major and teacher, the visual elements were considered the building blocks of art.  All art, be it drawing or painting, sculpture or photography, is made up of these elements.  This series will, however, approach the visual elements from the perspective of the contemplative photographer not as a graphic designer...not through their manipulation but through their implications.  In painting and sculpture and all of the visual arts except photography, the artist is in charge of creating and manipulating the visual elements.  In photography we don't create the elements, we discover them in the world around us.  Our main "control" is how we choose to frame what we see.  It is a very different process.

     What are some of the ways line speaks to those of us who use photography as part of our contemplative practice?   First of all, line is directional.  Your eye follows a line and it can lead you in all sorts of directions.  By following a line you create movement in the otherwise static image.  The  photograph above has several line elements.  Three of them curve gently and to the right.  They lead your eye into the distance.  One pair of lines, however, the broken black ones on the bottom, force you to look to the left.  They are opposing line elements that try to pull your eye away from the others.  By framing the photograph so that the lines emerge from the lower right, I've emphasized their importance in the image.

   Lines themselves, have a symbolic power of suggestion.  Vertical lines are up lifting while horizontal lines are more static and calm.  Curved and zig zag lines create a greater sense of movement.  Even the thickness or thinness of a line adds to its impact.  All can enhance the metaphor for the contemplative photographer but in the end the metaphor is related to the context of the image not merely the lines themselves. 

   In the image of the two roads above, the metaphor is not obvious until you know that the road on the right is the road that leads you by the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and the road on the left, the road with the black lines that are pulling you away from the main road, is the driveway of the Abbey.  There is a wealth of reflection I could do on this image around my experience at the Abbey.  I photographed this otherwise unremarkable scene for that metaphoric possibility.  Those lines were the focal point for me that added to and expanded the metaphor...they were not the metaphor themselves.

   Whenever I've lectured on contemplative photography I've urged people to develop their own symbol system to aid them in reflecting on their images.  Lines have some universal implications (pick up any good book on design and you can read all about is a link to a general discussion of the visual elements) but it matters most what they mean to you.   Since our photographs are not meant to influence another persons perception of our work, only illuminate out own meditations on the image, then how the visual elements are perceived by you is all that matters.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Photographic Subject Matter - The Still Life

   One of the photographs that had a profound influence on me when I was studying photography was Edward Weston's famous image of a pepper.  It was a revelation to me that such a common, ordinary object could be the subject of a fine art photograph.  Weston's handling of the light was breath taking and when I think of  still life photography, this is the image that comes to mind for me.

   I haven't ever experimented with studio still life photographs.  I prefer to find my nature morte out in the landscape.  I jokingly told a friend that when I am too old to travel I'll start my studio still life series!  Since I work exclusively with natural light this will require me to learn lighting.  I'm not sure if Weston used artificial lighting on his pepper or not but my studio in Maine has a lot of natural light so perhaps I can dispense with the artificial light and rely on reflectors and slow shutter speeds.

   Weston was making a reference to the human body with his pepper photograph and I think, as a contemplative photographer, still life photography presents a kind of dilemma.  If we stage the photograph we must have a notion of what it is we are trying to communicate through the image before hand.  There is a bit of artificiality about it.  That's something each photographer must work out for themselves.

   This is still, after 8 years, one of my favorite still life images.  The Dresser, made on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides.  It speaks so clearly to the culture of the island people and I've described it as an domestic altar to the sanctity of belonging.

A more recent still life study is this image of the drapery folds in my bedroom at the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.  The extreme simplicity and lovely late afternoon light was quite wonderful. I know that when people think of "still life" they often think of the proverbial bowl of fruit but it can be so much more.

    Still life is a fascinating subject matter for the contemplative photographer no matter how you approach it whether through staged studio set ups or through objects you find along the way.  One of my favorite venues for still life is old grave can't get much more still than that!


Sunday, August 11, 2013

PhotoTao Card #35 - Passion

Allow your passion for beauty to lead
you to the experience of beauty.  Let your
passion to know lead you to self-
- Exercise -
    Create an album of the "beautiful"
(as you choose to define the term) by
seeking it in unusual places.  In the
margins of the album, write your
responses to each image by answering
this question..."Why do I see this 
particular thing as 'beautiful' ?"  By the
end of the album has your definition of
the "beautiful" altered in any way?

      I think the thing that has altered most in my thinking over the years I have pursued contemplative photography is my concept of "beauty".  Oh, I still love the field of wildflowers or the spectacular sunset but a tiny pink petal on a gravel road made me stop and stare.

Beauty for me is often found in the juxtapositions I come across. Those subtle pairings in unexpected places most often inspire me.  Perhaps it is the contrast of the rough grey gravel and the soft pink petal...the delicate and the rugged.  The beautiful is often found in these contrasts.  They can also be found in the more marginalized places in the landscape.  Actively seek out beauty in these usually passed by is there.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The A, B, C's of Contemplative Photography - D

D is for Discernment (and also for Discriminating and Dualistic Thinking and Discovery and Delve...)

 "The act or process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment."

   That definition offers the two sides of Discernment...insight and judgement.  As a contemplative photographer we try to nurture the former while at the same time shying away from the latter.  The insightful regard for the landscape is a crucial skill for the contemplative photographer.  However, to judge is to limit perception and this is something to avoid at all costs.

    The exercise of looking for the alphabet in the details of the village of Monhegan was a great way to hone my discriminating skills. So is photographic beach combing.  (You can read about that here.)  Training your eye to observe the small details of a landscape opens up a whole new world...a world of the intimate viewpoint.

   Kim Manley Ort has written a lovely essay on discernment and you can read it  here. It explains quite succinctly the moment, after the initial flash of inspiration, where the photographers discriminating process begins.  Another insightful essay on judgement and discernment is from Diane Walker's blog, Wooden Hue.  You can read that one here.

   For me, discernment is an internal shift or movement that subtly realigns the perception of a place or thing.  It can also be a whole intuitive process that occurs without conscious direction.  The more I practice discernment in the field, the more adept I am at creating images that go beyond mere description and that is always my goal.



Friday, August 9, 2013

Following Your Path...

   Being with six other photographers for a week was an interesting experience, both inspiring and challenging.  We all had different focuses for our work and each of us approached the process of photography in our own unique way.  We were each following our own paths.

   Contemplative photographers too have their own paths to follow whether it is to focus on the quality of their perceptions exclusively, as in the Miksang approach, or to delve more into the metaphoric capability of their images which is the path I'm on.  Of course, we can never tell what lies around the corner, as in this photograph of a road on Monhegan Island.  It might take us in a completely different direction or it may even become a fork which will force us to decide which path we want to take.  But the really cool thing about roads is that they go in two directions!  We can always travel back along the path we've already walked and take that other fork.  We can also decide to sit down by the side of the road for awhile and just enjoy where we are at the is not a race and it doesn't come with a time table for completion.

   It is very easy to begin to question yourself, question the direction of your work when you are in a group of other photographers.  I tried very hard to stay focused on my own path.  Others may join you for a time and you can enjoy their company and learn from their experience but in the end you must continue on your own way and be true to your own vision.  The only way your work will be authentic and worthwhile is if it remains a pure expression of your own soul and not a mirror image of someone else.  That is something you want to keep in mind especially when you take photographic workshops.  Listen, absorb, digest and then keep only what contributes to your special way of photographing the world.  Just because you are on a different path doesn't mean you're lost!


Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Return to The Mount...

    The last time I visited Edith Wharton's home in Lennox, Massachuestts, The Mount, was in 1970.  I have always been a fan of Wharton's writings - The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and Ethan Frome ( The last, a book that was required reading in my high school literature class.)  When I visited in 1970, The Mount was a sadly neglected remnant of the Gilded Age,  a time of great wealth and privilege in America.  This era lasted from about 1870 to the start of the first World War.  It seemed as if The Mounts days were numbered and it would slowly slip into obscurity.

Late Afternoon Light at The Mount
   This was, thankfully, not to be.  With the help of a enterprising new director, the funds were found and The Mount was brought back from the brink.  I visited it recently to see the transformation for myself.  A friend, visiting from Utah suggested, on the spur of the moment, that we make the 2+ hour drive from Boston to the lovely Berkshire village of Lennox and I jumped at the chance.  My cousin declined to go, too far to drive, too late in the day but after all, this is the year I have tried to revisit special places near to my home in Maine so off we went.
   We got a late start and heavy traffic delayed our arrival to 4:15.  We missed the last tour but since it was close to the closing time of the house, we got in free.  There also was a jazz concert planned for 5:00 pm on the terrace, also free, so after a run through the beautifully restored house, we walked the exquisite gardens that were bathed in glorious late afternoon light.  With soft sounds of the jazz quartet playing on the terrace, it was a magical hour.    Had we left earlier we wouldn't have had this amazing experience.  The lesson here is, when the spirit moves you just GET UP AND GO!

   My friend told me about a book she was reading, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Re-Read 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School by Kevin Smokler.   This certainly fit into the theme of this year's travel and I've already ordered Ethan Frome to re-read.  It isn't just a nostalgic return to some romanticized past but a way to reflect on your own personal growth and transformation during the ensuing years.  I saw the Mount with totally different eyes this time and the wisdom I glean from Ethan Frome will be different as well I'm sure.  We can reflect on the person we've become by looking at how we revisit our past experiences.  A worthwhile enterprise I think.