Monday, September 30, 2013


My Bags are Packed...
A good traveler has no fixed plans.
-Lao Tzu 

 I recently met with a group of people who will be accompanying me to Ireland next year.  None of them have been to Ireland before and they were bubbling over with questions, which is only natural.  Before I began to approach travel as pilgrimage, I too wore the somewhat heavy mantle of "tourist".  Schedules, agendas, "must see's" were most important and I made lists and lists of  lists.

   Now I have a totally different approach because I try to travel with a pilgrim's heart and not a tourist's mindset.  I make general plans and reservations but the minute I board the plane I leave all expectations behind.  I keep my heart and mind completely open to the serendipitous, the spontaneous and the spur of the moment.  I expect, no, welcome, the unexpected.

   My week down east was a perfect example of the unexpected.  Coming across the books by Brian Flynn reminded of the stone beach I'd visited 16 years ago on Grand Manan.  Reading the introduction I discovered there was such a beach right there on Campobello!  I asked the attendant and she showed me a map of the island where I could find these marvelous stones and off I went on a search that certainly wasn't on my "agenda".  The serendipitous, the spontaneous and the unexpected all at once!

   My friends and I will spend a week together next May in "John's house" in Ballyvaughan where I'll introduce them to that magical thin place, The Burren.  It is the first leg of my month long Threshold Pilgrimage.  (You'll hear much more about that in the months to come.) After a week in community, I'll leave for a solitary retreat to Iona and they will be on their own.  I've encouraged them to just wander.  To follow their hearts GPS and see where it leads them.

   I've always had this wild idea of going to the airport one day and letting circumstance and whim decide which plane I board and where I end up.  No plans, no reservations, no expectations.  I would simply  trust I'd end up someplace interesting and meaningful.  I would try to be like those ancient Celtic monks who would put to sea in their tiny curraughs with no rudder and no oars...content to let the sea take them to a place of its own choosing, not theirs.  This complete suspension of control is the ultimate act of faith I think.

Click on the lovely quote by John O'Donohue below to learn a bit more about these wandering Celtic monks. 

- John O'Donohue

Sunday, September 29, 2013

PhotoTao Card #42 - Roots and Branches

Roots and Branches
The sage likens Tao to a plant whose
roots lie in our heart.  With proper
tending, Tao springs forth bearing 
flowers and fruit.
- Exercise -
 Think of keeping a daily journal.  You
could consider it your way of properly
tending that which is growing inside
yourself.  Daily reflection can nurture
a more thoughtful and intuitive approach
 to your camera work.  If you already keep
a journal, consider spending a few days
"cultivating the soil" before you embark
on a photographic project.

   This image is from my series The Well Worn Path which was made around Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. I have been visiting Walden nearly every year for over 40 years. It is as familiar to me as my own backyard.

   For most of those years I would simply journal and read while I was there. For some reason, it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I brought my camera and recorded images along my walk.

   I had spent so many years reading and writing about Walden that the soil was well and truly cultivated by the time I began photographing there. Now, I don't recommend you wait 30 years but spending some time prior to a visit preparing the soil of your contemplative mind to make it more receptive to receiving your images is time well spent.  Every gardener knows that seeds sprout best on carefully tilled soil.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

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

K is for Kindle (and also for Knowable and Kindred and...)

To stir up, arouse; 
To bring into being

   I know that when people hear the word "kindle" they immediately think of the e-book reader but for the contemplative photographer it has a more intimate definition.

   When we are in the landscape, awakening to the power of its subtle message, it will kindle a profound effect in our hearts.  We want to respond, to translate this subtlety into a concrete artifact...our photograph.

   Traveling this week with a "non-photographer", it was interesting to note our different reactions to what we experienced in the landscape.  She reacted as most people do, a casual and brief "How nice." and then it was on to something else.  From time to time I had to separate myself from her so I could spend more time in a place that had kindled my fascination and almost demanded my attention.

   I think this is one of the side affects of devoting yourself to contemplative photography.  You can never be content with a mad dash through landscape.  It is as if you have a built in frequency that is always tuned into the landscapes powerful force.  You are more aware of the under current of energy that flows through every place and it affects you...deeply.  All your senses are enlivened and if you try to travel with a pilgrim's heart, as I always try to do,  you will not be content with the superficial experience.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt...

Women are like teabags.
They never know how strong
they are until they are
in hot water.
  - Eleanor Roosevelt
 The day on Campobello was rainy but my spirits were high.  After all, I was visiting the summer home of a woman I had admired for years and we were having tea with her!

   Well, actually, it was with two Eleanor Roosevelt interpreters but it was a wonderful experience nonetheless.  The stories and antidotes were fascinating.  I've always admired Eleanor Roosevelt for her humanitarian causes and selfless work for the downtrodden but to find in her an inspiration for my photography?

We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear
in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot. 

   If one wishes to travel with the heart of a pilgrim one must expect to encounter difficulties...they are inevitable.  It is how we deal with those difficulties that makes all the difference. The irony is that those very same difficulties can often lead us to create our most memorable work.

   Eleanor Roosevelt had to overcome so much in her life but it never compromised her principles or her great heart.  I am staying in Pembroke, Maine with other photographers who do not take a contemplative path with their work.  That's fine and as it should be.  We are all who and what we are and we should celebrate our differences.  One photographer lead me to explore a subject that was somewhat unfamiliar to me.

   I have never been much of a floral photographer but at the Roosevelt home I was inspired to create a "bouquet" of images in tribute to this amazing woman.   I offer them in the link below along with a last bit of wisdom from her... "Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Location - St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada

   St. Andrews is a charming seaside town that holds its Celtic culture firmly by the hand.  I was very content to just walk the streets and sample some of the shops.  I felt very much the tourist!

     This sweet dalmatian was "parked" outside of one of the shops.  St. Andrews is very pet friendly apparently as many shops had these parking places for pooches complete with water bowls.

   I think that from time to time it is a good thing to put the contemplative brain in neutral and simply enjoy the place you are in.  This was one of those days.  No deep thoughts, just the sheer pleasure of experience!

   The highlight of the day for me was a visit to Kingsbrae Gardens.  Even this late in the season it was lush and blooming.
Gardens of any sort are lovely places to study color and texture but, as I said, I was just there to savor.

 At  Kingsbrae they also have a sculpture garden that juxtaposes works of art with the natural plantings.  This was especially delightful.  Many of the sculptures were kinetic and whimsical and that only added to the delightful excursion.  Here is a bit of wisdom for this kind of day.... 

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” 

- Eleanor Roosevelt

   Tomorrow I visit the Roosevelt summer home on Campabello Island to have tea with "Eleanor"!  Should be quite an experience....

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On Location - Down East, Maine...Early Morning Light

   Monday dawned in all its splendor.  The waning Harvest Moon was still high in the sky as the sun rose bathing the landscape in a lovely racking light.  It is a wonderful time to go out and photograph even if you do it in slippered feet and your bathrobe!

   I still haven't figured out the it ebbing or flowing?  The tides in this region are some of the highest in the world...40 feet in some places.  But we are on a quiet inlet from the sea called Pennamaquan River.  Most of the names are derived from the native Abernaki tribes that populate the area.

  Yesterday, when the rain abatted for a bit, we went to see the famous reversing falls and watched the seals body surf in the rushing torrent.  It was one of the few times in recent memory that I wished I had a telephoto lens!  But I was content with just sharing the moment with these playful creatures.

   This would be an absolutely perfect place for painters.  The early Autumn colors are subtle and enchanting.

   With a day promising to be much improved from yesterday, we are off to St. Andrews-by-the-Sea in New Brunswick, Canada today.  It is an area rich in history and amazing landscapes.   Many Scots settled in this area in the mid to late 1800's so I will feel right at home!  


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On Location - Down East Maine, Pembroke

   First day and the Cobscook Bay area was preparing for a squall.  Heavy rains were expected later in the day but the morning offered some lovely filtered light.

   The temptation is to run to the edge of the sea.  To see the elements that make Maine so world renown...the rugged rock strewn coast...the lighthouses in the fog.  It is so easy to look beyond your own backyard but I found that there was a wealth of beauty very near to hand.

   I photographed this"remnant" in the landscape right behind the house.  It had a wonderful rusted surface that contrasted beautifully with the glorious asters that filled the fields on both sides of the road.

   It is a bit early for the shocking Autumn colors Maine is noted for but the subtle hues of early fall were almost ethereal.  The grasses turned to pale wheat tones and along with the asters it was breath taking.

   Honestly, I thought the field below, which is directly across from the house we are staying in, was one of the most beautiful sights I've seen so far.  The filtered light offered just the right amount of contrast and the blue and white asters were alive with bees.  

   I promise to photograph the rugged Maine coast later in the week but on this first day, that later turned out to be "blowing a gale" with rain pelting in at right angles, this brief moment before the storm was heavenly.

  The approaching squall turned the heavily clouded sky a gorgeous deep blue that, along with the soft hued yellows and reds, was  really striking. 


Summer passed
Now dancing asters
have a blast
as golden roadsides
 roll in shawls of fuzzy faces
soft and small.

fire flake
snow works
call -
Love now.
We will not last
It's fall.

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Contemplative Look at the Visual Elements - Texture

   The last of the visual elements is texture.   In photography, texture is only implied.  The paper is smooth.  Contrast enhances the illusion of texture in a photograph and low, slanted light exaggerates it.  Rough or smooth or anywhere in between, texture animates the surface of objects.  We experience it in the photograph because it is known to us through our day to day lives.  We've all felt the smooth skin of a child or the coarse sand on a beach.  Texture is tactile.  For most of us, we often think in terms of "rough" wood or "soft" skin.  Things we know how they would feel if we touched them.  But texture can be so much more than that.

   What does all this mean to the contemplative photographer?  For me, texture often comes into play  through juxtaposition. Putting a wrinkled, weather hand on a smooth white apron.  It seems to amplify both.  But I must say I love the idea Kim Manley Ort raised in her recent post on texture.  She describes texture as a symbol of communities and relationships.  Read it here.  Interesting thought.  After all, textures are a repetition of lines or dots that taken together "feel" rough or smooth, a community of like elements.  I thought of this old photograph I made back in 2005 on Harris in the Western Isles.  I certainly wasn't thinking of "community" when I made it.  I was thinking of repetition and pattern but seen in the light of Kim's post it gives me a whole different range of possibilities to explore.

    That's what happens.  Over time we can re-visit old images and see them in a whole new light as we expand our visual vocabulary.  From now on, thanks to Kim's post, I will forever see texture as community!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

PhotoTao Card #41 - Returning to the Source

Returning to the Source
When the time comes to make the
journey back home we must first
remember that there is such a place.
- Exercise -
 Contemplative photography is a process
of moving out into the world so that we
can then move back into ourselves - to
return to our source.  The spiral is a
perfect metaphor for this journey.  Move
out into the world and gather your images
with great thought and careful consideration
then let them lead you home.  Create an
album of your journey and fill it with 
images and reflections.

  On Star Island there was a labyrinth. It was not very well maintained and in places the rocks had rolled into the paths. The paths were also very narrow and hard to navigate. You had to put one foot in front of the other and hope you didn't loose your balance. But you could still make it to the center and there was a lesson in this. The journey is often difficult and littered with obstacles but you get there by putting one foot in front of the other and just walking. As the Taoist says, all journeys, no matter how difficult and lengthy begin quite simply with taking the first step. The way home is exactly the same...

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Last Rose of Summer....

"Fall has always been my favorite season.
The time when everything bursts with its last beauty,
as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale."
Lauren DeStefano

  Today is the last day of summer and I thought I'd post an appropriate image...a solitary yet lovely rose.

   It always seems as if there is a final burst of beauty just before the landscape resigns itself to the coming change.  When, at least here in Maine, it prepares itself for the cooling days and frosty nights.

   I too am preparing for my time of inward turnings.  The wood is safely stacked in the barn cellar and I'm alright with letting the garden go for this year.  Like the robins and the swallows, it will be back in the Spring.

   After teaching for so many years, September always seemed like a beginning to me...the beginning of a new school term with all its anticipation and hopeful optimism.  Now it is the winding down time of year for me.

    I leave today for a week in Down East Maine with a group of photographers.  So, instead of writing lesson plans and grading projects,  I will be writing in my journal and photographing the amazing landscape.

    I've had some wonderful travels this year and they aren't over yet. I'm looking forward to seeing the Maine coast dressed in its Autumn colors this coming week and in November I will again travel to St. John in the US Virgin Islands, to where it is always summer.  That will make a very interesting comparison!

   The Fall Equinox is a liminal time, when we leave the sunny, warm days summer and cross over into the cool, crisp days of autumn here in New England.  It is a transformational time and there is a real feeling of the circularity of the the seasons here.  As much as I love visiting the Caribbean, I would never want to leave, for too long, the changing seasons of the Northeast.  My "inner chipmunk" is already storing away things for the coming winter months.  It will be a time to sit with my images of this year and reflect.  But that in-dwelling time is still in the this pilgrim is off on another adventure and I'll share the fruits of that adventure with you all next week!

   Here is another perspective on the transition time of Autumn by Karen Horneffer-Ginter...


Friday, September 20, 2013

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

J is for Juxtapose (and also for Judgement and Joy and....)

"place or deal with things that are
 close together for contrasting effect"

   One of the strongest ways you draw out the hidden wisdom of the landscape is through justaposition.  The resulting contrast engenders many possibilities for reflection.  We tend to respond intensely to these occurrences.  I look for them wherever I am...I am drawn to this kind of image.

   It is the sometimes innocuous quality that draws our the tiny flower growing from a crack in the dirty sidewalk.  Had the flower been in a garden, we may not give it a second glance but justapose it with the harsh concrete and it stops you in your tracks.

   I prefer to find these sorts of images in the landscape rather than to create them but that is also a possibility for the contemplative photographer.  Some photographers like to carry a small, personally significant object with them and then find unique places to put it.  I've only done this once, on St. John in the US Virgin Islands.  I carried a small, silver starfish around and found interesting places to put it.  It seems a bit contrived to me but there may be other ways to create your juxtapositions in less obvious ways.  It might be fun to think about this and then try it...see what comes of it.


Thursday, September 19, 2013


   Lots of photographers experiment with the idea of the distorted image.  Some create their distortions through Photoshop and others, like myself, prefer to find them in the world around us.  This image is a self portrait in a reflective surface that has the effect of one of those fun house mirrors.  But this blog is not about is about ideas so I would like to talk about the idea of distortion.

   There are a lot of ways to define distortion but the one that makes the most sense for the contemplative photographer is:

a lack of proportionality in an image resulting from defects in the optical system.

   "Defects in the optical system" can read that as defects in the way we regard the world around us.  If our vision was blurry or we all of a sudden saw double, we would rush to the optometrist and get ourselves a pair of glasses!  But it seems we are content to let our distorted perceptions influence our images.  Seeing clearly is seeing without distortion and that is a skill that must be nurtured over time.  Time may be one of the things that inhibits our ability to see clearly.  When we are in a rush, when we skip from place to place, we see only the superficial.  To see clearly and without distortion, we need to sit still for awhile and let it all sift through our conscious mind.  It is what contemplative photographs strive for...clear, undistorted perception.  We judge and edit and define everything we look at.  One of my favorite sayings is:

"It is what it is...and it's all good."

   I mean that quite literally.  That phrase keeps everything in proportion for me.  I am never disappointed by what I find in the is all meaningful and important and relevant to my contemplative practice.  There are no unworthy places to photograph.  When we truly accept that then we have eliminated on major distortion in our perception, that of worthiness.



Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words"...

   We've all heard that one.  There was a time when the photograph was considered the ultimate snapshot of reality. Ansel Adams once said: "Not everybody trusts a painting  but people believe photographs".  He wouldn't say that now with the emergence of Photoshop I'm sure!  Now we cannot trust our eyes, what we are seeing may be a totally manufactured reality.  I have to admit, I still struggle with this.  The creative side of me argues, "It's art, you can't tie a persons hands!"; the contemplative side of me replies, "Isn't the world beautiful enough... amazing enough without altering it?   Do we have to play god with our photographs?"

How does this image speak to you?
   I suppose there are degrees of manipulation and I keep mine as minimal as possible but this post isn't about the pro's and con's of Photoshop.  It is about that old phrase..."A picture is worth a thousand words."  I totally agree with that but not in its original intention.  A good, heartfelt photograph should be able to generate a thousand words in response to its visual message.  You should be able to go on and on in your journal about what you see and what feelings you receive from the image.  If you can't then something is lacking.

   A photograph should elicit a personal reaction that stimulates something more in the viewer.  It should be like a chain reaction...the initial response leads to another feeling, and maybe another after that.  That is what happens when I'm able to create my "icon of experience"...the image that says it all.  It is  really the landscape that is speaking to me through my photograph, if I've done it well.  I think I would rewrite that phrase to say, "A picture can speak a thousand words" just have to listen to it with an open heart.

   If you have any reflections about the photograph above, send a comment.  Let's see all the different ways a photograph can speak to the individual viewer!


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Inspired by Paul Caponigro...

In my years of photography I have learned that many things can be sensed, seen, shaped or resolved in a realm of quiet, well in advance of, or between, the actual clicking of shutters and the sloshing of films and papers in chemical solutions. I work to attain “a state of heart”, a gentle space offering inspirational substance that could purify one’s vision. Photography, like music, must be born in the unmanifest world of spirit.         - Paul Caponigro

   In this year of exploring close to home, I turn, again, for inspiration from the New England photographer, Paul Caponigro.  His book, New England Days, is one of my favorite photography books...for many reasons.  He has such a wonderful sense of place, no matter where he works.  He peels back the layers of obstruction to reveal the essence, the purity of a landscape, an object, or a structure.

   I love his goal of attaining a "state of heart".  How perfect for the contemplative photographer to ponder!  His mention of the space before or between clicking the shutter reminds me of the importance of photographing with the mind before you use the camera, visualizing your images.

   Caponigro has photographed the Olson House in Cushing, Maine many times.  It is the same house Andrew Wyeth made famous in his painting entitled Christina's World.  You can read my post about it here.  Unfortunately, you need special permission to photograph in the house but the outside has plenty of potential.

   Caponigro is also famous for his studies of the landscapes detail as well as for his still life work.  I think it is important to find out about photographers working in your area and not simply look to the more world renown practitioners of the photographic medium.  Check out local galleries and museum and begin to become acquainted with the local talent.  I'm sure there will be much to inspire you.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Photographic Subject Matter - "Street" Photography

   The last category of subject matter I will be doing in this series of posts on the topic is so-called "Street" photography which has a long tradition in our medium.  The great proponents of it, like Paul Strand and Walker Evans, made the idea of recording people unawares as they went about their life a real art form.

    I have very mixed feelings about it.  The thought of photographing someone without their permission has never set well with me.  Sometimes my "street" photography is actually the street, or in this case, the dock while I waited to board the ferry to Star Island.  I loved the arrow and the old fashioned picnic baskets.  The people were going to the island to have a "Great Gatsby" luncheon at the inn.

    Every photographer has to grapple with this idea of photographing people who are unaware of your intention.  Several years ago I did do a few street images in Galway, Ireland but since then I've modified the way I work.  If I come across people that I find fascinating, like this woman spinning off her angora bunny at a craft fair, I always ask permission to make a few photographs.  I try to not include their faces and focus only on their hands or feet so I don't have to worry about release forms. I suppose it really isn't what one would categorize as true street photography but it is how I now approach it.  You have to decide how this subject matter works for you.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

PhotoTao Card #40 - Tao and Te

Tao and Te
Tao is essential and unknowable.  Te
understands Tao and is Tao's protector.
Te allows Tao to flow uninterrupted.
- Exercise -
  Seek out an "unknowable location...a
busy street corner or a crowded
amusement park - any place that is visually
overwhelming.  Pass through and absorb
the chaos.  Distill it into a series of 5 or 6
 images that are "knowable".  What have
you chosen to "know" in this location?
What does this choice reveal to you?

Into the Center
    The cathedrals in France were places that I found visually overwhelming. The hoards of people and the interior ornamentation, there seemed no place to rest the eye.

    This image was made in Chartres cathedral when I stopped and looked up at the vaulted ceiling. This was "knowable" to me. The lines leading into the center...coming to rest in the tiny void.  Paths can lead this way...into the center, into a place of rest.  Taoist painting always gives the viewer a place for their eye to rest.  It is what I find so appealing about it.
   This is a wonderful exercise to try when you find yourself overwhelmed with choices of what to photograph.  Look for the calm within the storm of visual imagery.  Close your eyes, take a deep breath and then look for the point of'll find it.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

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

I is for Introspection (and also for Image and Imagination and Icon of Experience, and Imbue and Impart, and Interior Landscape, and Illuminate, and Inspire, and Intimate, and...)

  "the examination or observation of one's
own mental and emotional processes"

   I think this is one of the primary ways contemplative photographers differ from other photographers.  It is not so much about the image as object or artifact as it is about image as idea.  The image represents as much the interior landscape as it does the exterior and observable one.

   Why we photograph what we do is part of this introspection.  Why this and not that?  What draws our attention and what can we learn about ourselves through that process of attraction?  So many times, when I am in company, people will ask me, "Why are you photographing that?"  Sometimes I know but often it is a somewhat unconscious attraction that I need to think about.

   Thinking about your images, sometimes long after they are made, is an essential process for the contemplative photographer.  After all, it is inherent in the title..."contemplative" photographer!  Illuminating the inner world through our camera work is part and parcel of what it means to practice our art.

Friday, September 13, 2013

I Am a Fragment of the Landscape...

   In the exhibit I say recently of Toshio Shibata's photography, I saw a quote from photographer Robert Adams that really made me ponder its implications.

I tried to keep in mind a phrase
from a novel by Kawabata
"My life, a fragment of a
landscape.  The same applied,
I thought, to each of us..."

   I've often said, "I am my photographs" but am I a fragment of the landscape as well?   Interesting thought.  If all time, all creation, all people are part and parcel of a grand and infinite landscape, how does that effect our sense of ourselves?   It reminded me of something I read a long time ago about standing very close to a wall tapestry.  You can see the individual stitches but until you step back, way back, you cannot see the overall design.

   It also reminded me of a 19th century poem about blind men and an elephant.  You can read it here.   Each blind man understood the idea of "elephant" only from what they could actually touch, what their senses proved to me true.  As the poem said, they each were partially right but also totally wrong!

    Am I just a pebble on the beach in a landscape I cannot even begin to comprehend?   I only know the pebbles near to me and perhaps I think reality is limited to "pebbleness" is all there is because it is all I can see.    How wrong I would be!   Not far from the crevice I lay nestled in is a pounding sea but I cannot see it so for me it doesn't exist.   Do I trust only what my senses tell me and what my mind can rationalize and my science can prove?   Or is there a hidden truth that lies beyond that pebble beach?   Perhaps some of the pebbles on my beach can imagine that other reality...even if they can't see it or prove its existence in concrete, scientific terms.  They imagine forests and mountains, rushing rivers and the salty sea.  The other unimaginative pebbles laugh at them but they keep on imagining.  Maybe someone will come by one day and pick up those pebbles and toss them into the sea and then they will know they were right to imagine another reality.   I hope I am that kind of pebble...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Thought For Today...Balance

   Life is about balance.  Everyday isn't sunny and warm but neither is it dark and stormy.  One thing will balance another in time.  This is at the heart of Taoist thought and it is a wonderfully reassuring idea.   I found this image in Ireland when I'd stopped by the side of the road to rest from the tedium of driving.  The day had been very full and a bit overwhelming and this image resonated with me in it's explicit metaphor of balance.  After a wee rest I was restored and continued on my way.  Some, the skeptical  perhaps, would say it was mere coincidence, me pulling over at just this place.  I knew otherwise. I was meant to photograph this little boat and to receive this message from a landscape that knows full well the importance of balance.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Staring into the Void...

When you look into the abyss,
the abyss also looks into you.
- Friedrich Nietzsche 

 One of the wonderful things I've gained from my study of Taoism is the new relationship I have with emptiness.  The void is not a thing to avoid (interesting word) or fear; it is something to embrace and welcome.  It represents potential and mystery.  Besides, this "emptiness" is the majority of what is.

   Science tells us that 74% of the universe is "empty" space, 22% is dark matter - particles that are there but that we can't see.  Matter, the concrete stuff, the things we make pictures of, is just a tiny fraction - 4% - of the whole.  This empty space, the void, is actually teeming with invisible energy, called dark energy.  It is anything but "empty".  Of course any good Taoist knows that it is the empty space of the cup that holds the greatest potential.
Lao Tzu
  The fact of the matter (no pun intended!) is that what we can see is just an infinitesimal part of all that exists but what we can sense is perhaps slightly larger.

   That is why spending time with visual listening exercises, guided meditations or simply resting into the sense of the place is so important for the contemplative photographer.  There are no pure voids or total emptiness.  After learning about James Terrell's theories on the consciousness of light, Nietzshe's words make even more sense.  When we embrace all of existence, even the parts we cannot see, which may be the most important parts of all, then we can become true partners in this eternal and divine dance.  I can only believe our photographs will be all the better for it.

Stand at the precipice,
That existential darkness,
And call into the void:
It will surely answer.

from 365 Tao - Daily Meditations
by Deng Ming-Dao

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Contemplative Look at the Visual Elements - Space

   The visual element that most new photographers have the greatest difficulty with, is space.  We are so conscious of photographing objects that we often overlook the space between.  But it is this "empty" space that is often the most telling and evocative and in Taoism, it has great meaning.

   I first began to seriously think about space when I read a book by John O'Donohue called, To Bless the Space Between Us. It was his last book, published a few months after his death in 2008.  John understood this "in between space", not as empty but as charged with meaning and potential.  The book wasn't about photography of course but it set me to looking at contained space and this "in betweeness".

   I even named one of my photographs I made on the Burren in 2007 in honor of John.  Blessing the Space Between,on the right, recognizes and pays tribute to the beauty and power of these in between places.

   Next time you are out photographing, spend some time looking for these in between places.  Try to see it as potentiality and not emptiness.  Find out what blessings it holds for you.

   As every good physicist knows, there is no such thing as truly "empty" space.  I'll explore this topic tomorrow in a post entitled, Staring into the Void.  It is a subject that holds a great potential for the contemplative photographer.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Contemplative Landscape...

Big Sky, Little Church
   After portraits, photographic landscape is perhaps the most notable subject matter.  I find the natural world captivating and, in some respects, my contemplative landscapes are really portraits of Nature.  They must contain the same evocative elements as my human portraits.  They must invite the observer into the space and prompt some sort of emotional response beyond the "isn't that pretty" one.

   I often like to look for instances where the man-made elements are shown in stark contrast to the natural world as in this photograph I made on the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  I believe this view generates some thoughtful speculation on Man's relationship with Nature.

   Big Sky, Little Church is decidedly a "large view" landscape but contemplative landscape photography can also encompass the "small view" or intimate detail photograph. This image is one of my favorite landscape detail...the old heather and the rock.  It was also made in the Outer Hebrides and speaks profoundly about age and endurance and steadfast determination, all characteristics of the islands and the people.  I might even say, it is a portrait of the people without the people!

   Contemplative landscapes go far beyond the lovely sunset or the flower filled field.  They speak about universal themes that are worthy of spending time reflecting on.  If the photograph doesn't grab hold of your heart in some profound way then it probably isn't a contemplative one.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

PhotoTao Card #39 - Fear of Life and Death

Fear of Life and Death
Through Tao you will know that which
truly lives.  And through it you will
know that which will never die.  You
will know the eternal nature of things
- Exercise -
  Nature is the supreme metaphor for 
the eternal.  In the small flower
sprouting in the crack of a city
sidewalk, Nature shows that it endures. 
Look for these metaphors today. 
All things begin and all things
end so that they may begin again.

The Circle of Life
   There is a place on Monhegan Island where debris from a ship wreck litters the rocky shore. Pieces of the hull are scattered over the rocks and lie quietly rusting in the sun. I love the color and texture of rusted surfaces. In this piece a circle lets grasses grow through. Maybe they get some nourishment from the iron or the metal warms the rock and encourages growth. I did see it as a kind of symbiotic's death brings another life. It is an eternal circle and we are just a tiny part of it. It has gone one long before we arrived and will continue on long after we depart. There is something wonderful about that idea to me.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

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

H is for Hidden (and also for Habits of Mind, and Harbor, and Haven, and Heartfelt, and....)

"Something that is concealed or obscured."

   The contemplative photographer is always attempting to delve into the hidden meanings of what they photograph.  Sometimes it is hidden in plain sight and sometimes it takes a bit more thought and consideration.  Those who have a good imagination will find that they have no trouble recognizing these hidden truths.  You can read about the role of imagination in contemplative photography by clicking on this link.

    The rationalist, bound by the strictures of the physical world, often has difficulty with this.  Things are what they are and that's all that they are.  I prefer to take Minor White's approach and "photograph things not for what they are but for what else they are." 

   I will admit that this ability to perceive the hidden meaning of things is something that gets easier with all things do.  I also think it is the thing that people have the most difficulty with when they begin to practice photography as a contemplative practice. Fr. Richard Rohr, of the Center for Action and Contemplation, puts it so well:

It Is All About How You See

Meditation 26 of 53

I think the contemplative mind is the most absolute assault on the secular or rational worldview, because it really is a different mind—a very different point of view—that pays attention to different things.
   The mind that I call the “small self” or the “false self” reads everything in terms of personal advantage and short-term effort. “What’s in it for me?” “How will I look?” “How will I look good?” As long as you read reality from the reference point of the small self of “how I personally feel” or “what I need or want,” you cannot get very far. The lens never opens up.
   Thus, the great religions have taught that we need to change the seer much more than just telling people what to see—that is contemplation. It does not tell people what to see as much as how to see.
Adapted from CAC Foundation Set: Gospel Call to Compassionate Action
(Bias from the Bottom) and Contemplative Prayer
(CD, DVD, MP3)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Contemplative Possibilities - Wabi Sabi

      When I traveled to Japan in 2007 I was introduced to the aesthetic of Wabi Sabi.  It is an aesthetic of transience and imperfection centered around the core principles that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.  Finding examples of this aesthetic is one of my favorite things to do.  People think it amusing to see me photographing rusted metal and peeling paint but I find them so lovely.  This example was in the attic of an old building near my home in Maine.  Time and weather, and lack of heat, had curled the paint into beautiful shapes and the light enhanced the texture of the surface.

   What makes these images especially significant for me is it is the first time I used my smart phone to make a photograph!  I initially thought, "Darn, I don't have my camera."  But then I realized that I had the camera on my cell phone so I made a few images and emailed them to myself.  I felt so modern and "with it"!  I do love the spontaneous nature of cell phone photography.  I will never be at a loss now when I come across an image that pulls at my heart, I'll just take out my cell phone!

   Of course, the contemplative possibilities in this subject area are endless.  As we try to forge permanent memorials to our achievements, to our unquenchable egos,  all around us are countless examples of how futile this pursuit is.

Everything flows and nothing abides,
 everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.
-Heraclitus (c.540 - c.475 BC) 

   I have a board on my Pinterest site dedicated to this fascinating Japanese aesthetic and you can click on the link below to take you to it.  Perhaps you will be inspired to begin your own Wabi Sabi folio!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Lesson from the Swallows...

   In late August the Eastern tree swallows congregate on Star Island.  They come from all over Eastern Canada and Northern New England and they come by the thousands.  This is their staging location, where the birds rest and fatten up on the ripening bay berries and rose hips before they begin their long and exhausting migration to Florida and the Gulf coast area.

   I think people come to Star Island for similar rest their culture weary souls and feed their hungry spirits through the various conferences held there each year or, as in my case, to be a solitary retreatent and just bask in the tranquility of such a unique place.

   The swallows know that there is safety in community and perhaps they encourage and give each other strength to face the daunting journey.  People here do the same thing.  There was a feeling of camaraderie; a "we're all in this together" feel to the place.  It is a lesson we all could learn.

  During the Saturday night candlelight chapel service we all sang this lovely opening song.  I think it is a fitting song for both humans and swallows alike and I had a feeling the little birds were listening through the open windows as we sang...

Come, Come, Whoever You are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again, come.

   And people do come again and again.  I met a couple whose grandparents and parents had come to the island during summers past.  Both they and their children spent the summer as "Pels" (short for Pelicans, their affectionate nickname), the young college age kids that work in the hotel and in various capacities around the island.  It is a place that generation after generation visit year after year.

   I bought a hooded sweatshirt (the nights get cool 4 miles out to sea in late August) that had their logo on it... Star Island - My Spirit's Home.  I think I would agree.  I can't believe this wonderful place was on my doorstep all this time and I never took the opportunity to visit...another lesson there.

  Here is a link to a small album of photographs from my stay on Star Island.  I present it to give you a small sense of place...this unique and special place...


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

On Location - Star Island...My "Icon" of the Experience

   This is the icon of my experience on Star Island.  It is an image that speaks to the whole of my time there in a single photograph.  I always try to find one such "icon" when I return from a trip and have had time to sit with my images for awhile.

   The little chapel represents the historical context of the island and was a focal point during my brief time there. The cloudless strikingly blue sky was a daily occurrence.  The stone landscape, prevalent all over this island is what gives the Isles of Shoals their name.  And finally, the beautiful colored yoga mats, laid out in the sun to dry is a nod to the educational emphasis on the island.  Conferences of every description are held there every summer.  (Hmmm....what about a Contemplative Photography retreat to Star Island in 2014?)

   I loved the way the yoga mats seemed to be laid out to determine which best matched the blue giant paint samples!  I nearly missed this because it was located off the main pathways, behind the hotel.  It is where the back door of the kitchen is and the less than picturesque propane tanks and building materials are stored.  This is a very good example of why it so important to get off and explore these "back door" areas when you are visiting a new place.  Remember, there are no "bad" locations....

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Contemplative Look at the Visual Elements - Value

   To a photographer that works with the monochrome image, value is perhaps one of the most important of the visual elements.  I remember when I was studying photography we were often, at least in the beginning, encouraged to create the "well balance" image, tonally speaking.  Clean lights, deep blacks and a good range of values in between.  The worst thing you could do is present a "flat" image at critique!  Perish the thought! That idea actually crossed my mind when I photographed these stairs at the Canterbury Shaker village recently.  My, wouldn't my Photography 101 instructor be proud of this!

   But the consideration goes far beyond the mere discussion of an arbitrary range of tonality.  Value can have profound effects on how we think of a photograph.  Photographs that use a range of values in the darker tones are called Low Key images; those on the opposite end of the tonal spectrum are referred to as High Key photographs.  I must confess that I prefer low key values most of the time.  I like the dark, velvety tones.

   Recently, I've been experimenting with high key images...such as my "white on white" abstraction in the Shaker folio.  I found another such image in Canterbury.   Now, this could be viewed as an incredibly boring photograph by some.  Centralized focal point, repeating linear elements, a real "hohum" kind of photograph.  But in context with the ideas of Shakerism it takes on a whole new meaning and becomes a metaphor for the balanced simple life they lived which sought to obliterate unnecessary detail and ornamentation.  Again, we see that image context is crucial to the interpretation of the photograph.  The Shakers strove for clean, light "high key" environments in an age where heavy, dark, "low key" Victorian interiors were in style.  That contrast says it all.

   Value in the color image is a bit more difficult to see since we see the color first then the value but it is every bit as important.  The point here is that all ways of using the concept of value in our images adds to their contemplative potential...simply be aware of how you perceive and react to value.  Do pale, soft values seem ethereal and slightly mysterious?  Or do the dark rich values heighten the mysterious for you?  Again, this is not a "one shoe fits all" sort of thing.  In understanding how you react to value, you can begin to understand yourself.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Photographic Subject Matter - Architecture

   My most extended and in-depth photographic study of architecture was my Rural Geometry series.  You can see the folio if you scroll down the right sidebar.  You can read the post, Photographing the Familiar, in which I talked about the long-term project involving the buildings in Tamworth, New Hampshire.

   There seems to be a trend in photography lately of photographing abandoned buildings - either rural or urban.  I must confess I do like exploring these decaying edifices.  I'm constantly on the lookout for interesting surfaces, peeling paint being a favorite.  In the Outer Hebrides of Scotland you often come across these types of buildings.  It is a good way to contemplate impermanence.

   Specific architectural features like doors and windows are also excellent contemplative subject matter.  I've devoted a board on my Pinterest site to the subject...check it out here.

   The image on the right is of an abandoned house in the Western Isles.  The grass and flowers growing on the window sill makes one think that this is a house that's been vacant for a long time.  Birds and other creatures had taken up residence yet the walls seemed strong and solid.  The house is being consumed, albeit slowly, by nature.  No matter how well and sturdily we build, without our constant vigilance our best efforts decay and return to the earth.  There certainly is a message in that.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

PhotoTao Card #38 - A Trusting Nature

A Trusting Nature
Trust is an absolute assurance that all is
well.  Trust is a conviction that does not 
falter.  Trust knows truth; It is simple and
- Exercise -
  When you go out to make photographs,
trust that you will make the ones you
need to make.  Do not have an agenda.
Have the firm conviction that you will
succeed even if the images you end up
with are not what you set out to make. 
Photographs made with a trusting heart
will always be sincere and authentic
expressions of self.

   I had come with an agenda.  I wanted to photograph the softly lit interiors of the Shaker buildings as I had in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.  I soon found out that that agenda needed to be put aside since interior photography was not permitted.  I had to trust that the day would not be "wasted".  I would receive the images I needed to receive.  (You can read about the rather unusual image I received here...)

   Looking at the exteriors of the buildings was one approach but embracing the landscape itself was another and it gave me much to think about.  The Shakers always chose the most beautiful locations for the communities.  I've been to several and they all have a sense of space and distant horizons.  They were open and airy and incredibly ordered and neat, just like the interior spaces.  In fact, sitting in their landscape was very much like sitting in one of their buildings.

   For the first time I connected the Shaker communities to the monastic enclosures I'd visited and stayed in.  There was that sense of being out of "the world" here as I've felt in the monasteries.  The Shakers lived a completely communal lifestyle as monks do.  And as in monasteries, there is a sense of security and peace here even though it is no longer an active village.  But I know where there is a village with Shakers quietly carrying on their lives, apart from the world, of it but not in it...Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The most real experience was closest to home.  I thought, that will be my next stop, perhaps this fall.  Here is a link to a wonderful PBS interview with two of the last Shakers living at Sabbathday Lake.  I do sincerely hope they will not be the last Shakers but time will tell.

   It was a glorious late summer day in Canterbury and to gaze out at the lovely landscape was an excellent way to spend a few hours.  For much of the time I didn't even bother with the camera...just sitting taking it all in was enough for me.  Yes, you can always rely on a trusting and open heart to make the very most of a day whether you make photographs or not!