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

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