Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part II "The Eye not the I"

"Photography is  drowning yourself, dissolving yourself, then sniff, sniff, sniff - being sensitive to coincidence.  First you loose yourself and then it happens." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

    The second characteristic of the Photographic Sage is their reliance on the "eye" and not the "I".  Simply put, the Sage attempts to rid themselves from their sense of Self.  If the photographer has truly listened to what the landscape is trying to teach them, then, in a sense, it's the landscape that makes the photograph, not the photographer.

   This may seem, at first, contradictory to what I have previously written about.  The Contemplative Photographer seeks their own soul in what they photograph, how they compose it and how they later edit the captured image.  They make it a very personal process.  I would reconcile the two by saying that contemplation brings you to a particular moment, a special place... it leads you gently by the hand and then tells you to "sit down and shut up!"  You must clear your mind, let go, and listen. You can't do that if your mind is cluttered with "I's"...I want to do this, I want my image to look like that, I want people to like my work, I want to make a "significant" image (whatever that may be!).  There is a great danger in this way of thinking.  When a sense of self predominates it's like closing one eye and squinting with the other - it narrows your world to a pin point and makes it a whole lot less likely that you will let yourself go "off script".  It also makes you reject subjects or places as "not you".

If you hunt only where rabbits live
then all you will catch is rabbits!
Yours Truly 

   I was completely committed to black and white photography from the start. Until a trip to Ireland in 2009, I hadn't produced one single color image.  On that trip I allowed myself to go "off script" quite by accident and there is no going back.  I was walking the Burren in County Clare on a very inhospitable day....chilly, windy, a slight mist in the air...I didn't think I'd be making any photographs that day.  I sat on a rock and thought I'd just "listen" to the land for awhile, maybe come back another day when the light was more favorable to the black and white landscape photographs I usually make.  I thought about the amazing caves deep and out of sight and the underground rivers that permeate the land.  I could almost feel this life blood of the Burren rushing beneath my feet. That thought made me  look down. There was a circular opening cut into the rock with tiny plants growing in the dark recesses, life seeking the light in a most unlikely place. I turned my lens downward, away from what everyone else was looking at, like the crashing waves and the rock strewn hills, to this tiny world beneath my feet...this little spot of color in a black and white land.  I was hooked.  Had I let my "I" interfere with my "eye" I would probably have just returned to the cottage complaining about not being able to make any "decent" photographs that day.

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Tao te Ching - 2

Now Some Practical Stuff... 

   Put together a collection of 20-30 photographs you think represent your best work. Really look at them to see if there is a common thread that unites them.  Do you see a specific "style" to your work?  Good!  That means that you have found a voice that suits you! You have found your "I"!  Make a list of words that would describe that style.  Now look at some of the photography books on your shelf. Take any photographer, make a list of words to describe their style...their particular way of photographing the world around them. It works every time. It is easy to find the "I".

A Little Practice for the Week:

    Now is the time to go searching with the "Eye", not the "I".  Take your list of words that describe your style and go to a place that you find interesting. Before you start to make photographs, review your list. You can not use any of those words!  You must put the "I" away and use only your "Eye".  Try to see the landscape in a new way, with new eyes. If you only shoot in color, shoot in black and white...if you mostly use a horizontal format, hold your camera vertically....if you only make crisp, in-focus images, try some soft focus ones...if you like the "long shot", get up close and personal. You may discover that your style is more flexibly defined, less restricted by past accomplishments. You might also find that over time, your "I" may subtly shift...evolve. This is what the artistic process is all about!

"When I have won a victory, I do not repeat my tactics
 but respond to circumstances in an infinite variety of ways."
 Sun Tzu

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part I, "The Empty Bowl"

 "To create one's own world in any of the arts takes courage." 
Georgia O'Keeffe

  It seems reasonable to now discuss specific characteristics possessed by a Photographic Sage. This term is the best one I could think of that would fuse the two things I feel passionate about, the contemplative photographic process and  Taoist philosophy.  I profess to being an expert in neither. Rather, I consider this blog as an opportunity to clarify and refine my own thinking on those topics  in a public forum where, I hope, others will offer me their insights and reflections.  As a retired teacher of 35+ years, I firmly believe that all it takes is one mind sending and one mind receiving for learning - and therefore growth - to occur and it is most definitely a two way street.

   The first characteristic of a Photographic Sage can best be illustrated by "The Empty Bowl". Let's begin with a story....
   A young photographer went to visit a Photographic Sage to discover the secrets of his amazing images. He thought that he had prepared himself well. He had purchased all the latest equipment and had attended countless workshops with the renown experts.  He had read every book he could find on technique and composition and his bookshelf sagged with the weight of instruction manuals on Photoshop. He had committed the style of every master of the photographic medium to heart. He could speak fluently in f-stops and apertures.  Finally, he felt himself truly worthy to come before the Master. "Tell me, oh wise one, what are your secrets? I am here to learn all I can from you."  The Photographic Sage just smiled and asked the young photographer if he'd like a bowl of tea. He began to pour slowly into a beautiful and ancient tea bowl. Even when the bowl was full he continued to pour out the tea. It ran over the table and onto the floor but the Sage continued to pour. "Wait!" cried the young photographer, "The bowl is full! It won't hold another drop!"  "Ah", said the Photographic Sage, "you begin to understand."

   This is, of course, a paraphrasing of a  famous old story but the lesson is still clear. You can't begin the journey if you are weighted down with every other photographer's ideas.  You must take on the characteristic of the empty bowl. There  must be space to add new insights and understandings.   A Photographic Sage knows nothing and, therefore, knows everything. The Tao is full of such paradoxes and at first it seems irreconcilable. How can you know "nothing" yet know "everything"?

   For the sake of our discussion, it means a Photographic Sage does not let his knowledge or past experience interfere with his response to a subject.  He approaches a subject each time with new eyes instead of old mind sets.  He tries to avoid photographic cliches - already seen and expected - and lets his inner voice direct his lens. 

   Learning is an important part of becoming the best photographer you can be but the trick is knowing when to let go of all that learning.  This requires a kind of supreme trust in yourself or as O'Keeffe says, courage.  As I wrote in my previous post, I went on my first photographic trip in 2005 as a pilgrim seeking to worship at the shrine of Paul Strand.  I was indeed fortunate to come to my senses. I let it go. I did not forget everything I knew, and loved, about Strand's work, I just tried to not let it interfere with my own response to the landscape. I wanted to experience the Hebrides through my own eyes and not through Strand's lens.

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
Tao te Ching - 36

   As a contemplative photographer, I try to generate questions rather than looking for answers. The "why" is far more important to me than the "how". But all this musing and reflection I confine to the pages of my journal.  When it's time to make photographs, I step away from it and try to simply be in the moment.

"It took me years to learn how to draw like Raphael
and a lifetime to learn to draw like a child." - Picasso

   I have found in my study of Taoism a certain child-like quality to the philosophy.  That's why I love Benjamin Hoff's books so much. They make that quality so clear.

A Photographic Sage knows when it is time to learn and when it is time to put the learning aside. They make photographs from the inside out and not from the outside in.

Now Some Practical Stuff...

   Do you have book shelves sagging with volumes on photographic technique and the work of  the masters of photography?  I certainly do.  They are valuable building blocks for your foundation but be careful not to merely follow their blueprints when you start constructing the house where your photographs will live!

   Consult them frequently but also add to your collection books about famous painters you admire and other cultures approach to the visual image.  I love the watercolors of Andrew Wyeth, Japanese prints of the 19th century, and Chinese landscape scrolls  All of them have contributed to my photographs in some way.

A Little Practice for the Week:

   If you are lucky enough to have a young child, around 5 - 7 years of age, or know someone who does, give them an inexpensive point and shoot digital camera and take them out one afternoon.  Tell them to just take pictures of anything they want while you do the same. Later, down load their images and compare them to yours. They are truly "empty bowls" and you may be surprised by what they chose to can be a very humbling experience.

"Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?"
Tao te Ching - 10

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Visual Listening....

"Thinking should be done before hand or afterwards, never while actually taking a photograph." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

   This blog will focus on two primary discover what it means to photograph contemplatively and to try and understand ways we can follow the path to becoming a Photographic Sage by using the teachings of Taoism as a guide. (For a delightful introduction to Taoism, pick up The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Winnie-the-Pooh is a perfect example of one who is completely in tuned with "The Way"! The Te of Piglet is the companion book and an equally charming read. I have posted a link to the books.)   Both of these topics could, and do, fill books but we will look at specific elements of each in my weekly postings. I am, as I have previously mention, merely a "photographic sage-in-training". I began the journey seven years ago and I will be, most likely, on that journey until I finally put the camera down for good.  What I will offer in this blog are simply thoughts, insights, and musings that may be of some interest to others who are making a like journey.  There are no "right answers",  just a lot of thoughtful questions.

Visual Listening

   The quote above, by one of the masters of the photographic medium, is a great way to start our discussion. So are the photographs I've chosen for this weeks post.  They were made at the very beginning of my journey in 2005 and are an excellent illustration of the need to practice what I now call Visual Listening, the first step in becoming a contemplative photographer, at least it was MY first step.

   Perhaps a bit of background may be helpful before we proceed.  I majored in photography and film making in the 1970s but became an art teacher instead of pursuing a photographic career. I was content with that until 2005 when I felt the need to begin again with my photographic pursuits.  I applied for and was given a sizable financial grant to equip myself with new digital equipment and to journey to the Western Isles of Scotland.  I was drawn there by the work of Paul Strand, specifically his published photographs in  Tir A' Mhurain which documented his 3 month visit in the 1950's to the Outer Hebrides. I journeyed to the Western Isles with the half  formed intention of somehow following in Strand's footsteps, my first mistake.

   You can not follow in anyone's footsteps. You can only be inspired by another photographer's work and then seek your own path. Fortunately, I corrected my initial intention and spent the next month traipsing the length and breadth of the Outer Hebrides in search of my own voice with which to render its amazing landscape.  It was while I was at St. Molaug's on Lewis that I had a tiny epiphany of sorts.  I had come to St. Molaug's because the guidebook said I should. It was a terribly impressive site and I rushed from the car park to walk around it and explore it's dark interior space. Mistake number two! This is the exact opposite of what being a contemplative photographer means but at the time I had no notion of the concept.

   After an hour or more I was completely dejected. Every photograph I had made, and thanks to the digital play back  could review, was lacking.  None of the images conveyed the feeling of the place.  I walked back, more slowly this time, along the narrow path.  For some inexplicable reason, I stopped and looked back. There it was, the photograph that said it all!  The church seemed isolated in the vast landscape and the straight and narrow path, well, that spoke volumes!  I made the photograph and then sat and looked more carefully at the landscape and the old church.  Instead of listening to the guidebook, I listened to the landscape. I went back and made a couple of more images, one I've added above,  that were much more in keeping with the feeling I now had of the site.  This is the essence of Visual Listening. It was the first time I employed the technique, although I wouldn't name it such for some time yet, but it would change the way I made photographs from then on.

   A landscape speaks to us in soft and subtle ways but your mind must be silent - unengaged - to hear the profound lessons it has to teach.  You cannot rely on the guidebooks descriptions, you must rely on your own impressions.  Now it's time for a little Taoist wisdom...

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water clears?
Can you remain unmoving
 till the right action arises by itself?
 Tao te Ching - 15

Now some practical stuff....

  How do you listen "visually"? Well, I often do it with a sketchbook.  It might seem odd to draw before you photograph but sketching slows me down a makes me focus on essential elements of composition and value.  It allows me to filter out extraneous input.  The little thumbnail sketches needn't be works of art, just a form of visual "note taking".  Another way I listen to the landscape is to journal...I just sit and jot down impressions formed while looking at a landscape.  Sometimes, if there are no time constraints, I return another day to actually make the photographs.  I let the impressions simmer a bit.

   A Photographic Sage is one who sits, quietly and patiently, and listens to the landscape.  They trust that the right approach will come in time. Better to make a few considered images than a hundred mindless ones.

A Little Practice for the Week:

   Find a location where you can just sit and "listen" to the landscape.  Bring a small sketch book and doodle some impressions. What is drawing your eye? What do you think are the crucial elements of the landscape? Where are the shadows and light and how can you best render them?  Jot down thoughts along side the drawing. Why did you chose this landscape? What significance does it have for you? What would you like to tell someone else about it in your photograph?

   Now go home a mull over your notes and sketch. An important dimension of contemplative photography is thinking about how a subject speaks to who you are as a person.  In some respects, every photograph becomes a self portrait. What do you want this photograph to say about you and what you think is important?

   Finally, return to your location and make some photographs. Try not to think too much about it at this point - just respond to the landscape. Things may have changed dramatically...the light for one. Don't worry about it,  just respond to what is in front of are in "intuitive mode" right now. You can switch your "contemplative mode" back on while you are editing your image in photoshop and especially as you reflect on the finished image. That is the perfect time to pick up the journal again.

   Now, needless to say, you can't practice this method each and every time you make photographs especially if you are traveling.  It's primary function is to train your mind to look at the essential elements and you will be surprised at how this becomes ingrained in your subconscious over time.  It is nice, however, to slow down from time to time and try this approach. 

The Sage observes the world
but trusts her inner vision.
She allows things to come and go.
Her heart is open as the sky.
Tao te Ching - 12

Saturday, January 7, 2012

And So The Journey Begins.....

The Way

"One looks, looks long, and the world comes in." - Joseph Campbell

  To photograph contemplatively means to resist the need to "point, shoot and run"; the need to accumulate dozens, maybe hundreds, of images to justify a day on location. It is to be intensely mindful of the special quality of a place, or a person, or a thing and your response to savor the unique experience of that particular moment and to internalize it before you ever reach for the camera.  It is that and much, much more.

    This blog will focus on the musings of one contemplative photographer who also has a love of the wisdom and teachings of Taoist philosophy.  In Taoism, a sage is a wise person, someone who has attained perfect harmony with "The Way".  I've always considered it a beautiful metaphor for the aspiring photographer so I decided, some years back, to become a Photographic Sage-in-Training. 

    Through this blog we will take the journey together. I will offer insights and musings on my particular journey to becoming a Photographic Sage and I look forward to your comments and reflections.

    I will also be posting various links that I think may be helpful to  my Fellow Sages-in-Training. You can never learn enough about this wonderful medium we have committed ourselves to.

    In the meantime, you may wish to visit my website to see a sampling of my photographic work.

 Enjoy your Journey!