Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Contemplative Continuum...

 "The outer landscape becomes a metaphor for the unknown inner landscape."
   John O'Donohue

The Monks Fishing Hut-Cong Abbey
  Many years ago I chose to follow a contemplative path in my camera work. I had learned photography the "old fashioned way"...all f-stops and apertures and technical things about developing a print. I learned composition and value and what makes a "good" photograph but in time I learned that, for me, the "Why" of photography became more important, more interesting, than the "How" of photography.  I wanted a personally meaningful and expressive image not merely a technical perfect one.

From the Dark to the Light-Cong Abbey
    The advent of the digital camera and Photoshop liberated me in a sense. I could concentrate on the content of  my images. I could use the camera as a sketchbook and not worry about wasting film. I could make an image, view it and re-make it if necessary.  Photography became more spontaneous and more adventurous.  In many ways, I could make the photograph  a visual extension of my daily journal practice.   But it is hard to discard all we know; to truly "empty the bowl". I discovered that during the whole process of making photographs, I was on a sort of "Contemplative Continuum".

   I would move from an objective, analytic first step to a contemplative phase, to a purely intuitive time while I was actually making the photograph to a final subjective, and often hyper-critical, stage at the end. What I have tried to do over the years is to expand the contemplative/intuitive dimension of the continuum. I've even tried to by-pass that initial step of planning my images allowing, instead, the landscape to inform my work.  I wanted the experience to be much more of a dialogue than a monologue. The landscape had much to teach me and I needn't impose my will on it to make a beautiful image. I have found that my pure joy in the picture making process has increased the more I was able to do this. The critical inner judge became much more forgiving. Each photograph is merely a step in the journey. Even "failures" have something to teach. As a good Taoist would say, "It is what it is. Learn from it and move on." 

    I resisted the impulse to "capture" an image.  It always sounded predatory and aggressive to me. I pictured the photographer laden down with his huge lenses and tripod stalking the illusive landscape ready to "take" the photograph, by force if necessary.  Not an appealing picture to me.

     Contemplative photography is a gentle process. It is slow and thoughtful and we understand that we are waiting for the landscape to invite us in.  Only then do we make our photograph.

     If I had to define Contemplative Photography (and I hesitate to do this because once you write it down it seems to limit it) I would do so this way.

     Contemplative Photography is a focused approach which explores,
on many levels, an idea, an insight or a personal truth until its 
relationship to our individual lives is so clearly understood that
we can then translate it into a visual image.  It is also a way
of interacting with a subject which allows for an interchange
between what is and what is intuited within that reality.
 In the end it becomes, 
as contemplative photographer Diane Walker says,
"an act of faith".

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Photographic Dilemma...

   After several weeks of delving into the Taoist side of picture making, (with a short detour into "thin places") it is time to reflect on the contemplative dimension of photography.  Before I begin that series, I feel a brief discussion on what I call the "photographic dilemma" is called for.  It is a question each of us has to answer before we go too far on our journey as photographers.You'll have to decide on which side of the fence you stand or you may decide to hop back and forth over the fence as the spirit moves you.

     Basically, it boils down to one question. Do photographs reveal cultural codes or personal truths?  Or, to put it in another way,  do photographs merely record what is in front of the photographer or are they metaphors for what is inside the photographer?  The prevailing feeling in the art world today is the former. Personally, I feel both  are equally valid points of view.  It all depends on the motivation and intent of the photographer. However, the "art market", that self-proclaimed arbitrator of style and setter of trends, seems to favor the detached, impersonal type of image at the moment...sometimes, the more visually and conceptually shocking the better.  Any mention of the transcendental aspect of the photographic experience sets their tongues "tsk tsking" and their heads shaking. The metaphoric capabilities of photography seem certainly to be out of style.  That's fine with me.  I've never been one to follow the trends anyway and besides, I believe in, as Minor White described it, a "perpetual trend" that is always with us; that is the ability of photography to transcend the here and now and offer the viewer a more complex and symbolic vocabulary...the language known very well by the contemplative photographer.

 I offer one of my photographs as an example.

  This is a dresser that I photographed in the Outer Hebrides in 2005.  Most traditional Hebridean homes had such a piece of furniture.  Many still do.  Only the best china, special objects, and photographs were place in it. You could view it as just a cultural artifact or a nice composition of lines and circles or, if you took the metaphoric approach, you could, as I do, view it as a domestic shrine dedicated to the most cherished hopes and memories of a altar to the sanctity of belonging.

   Detractors of the metaphoric approach to image making insist that it is too personal, too reliant on individual interpretation.  It is true, you may not see what I saw in the dresser but that is the very point of contemplative photography.  Everyone brings to it that which is in themselves and takes away only what they need.  What more can you ask of a photograph?  Besides, I submit that we human beings are innately contemplative creatures at heart.  We long to find meaning even in the seemingly meaningless.  There is no harm in that.  In fact, it can inspire new revelations and insights and that is what contemplative photography is...a personal journey inward by means of thoughtfully created imagery of your outward experience.  It need only mean something to you.

     Very often we begin on one side of the fence, making a photograph of something that caught our eye, for whatever reason, and it is only later, when we really look at the image do we begin to see it's metaphoric intentions. Hop back over the fence. This is perfectly acceptable and I think Rene Margritte has a valid point to make, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" but ultimately, metaphor, as well as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If you are a person of a contemplative nature, you will see the metaphor.  If you aren't then you will see the beauty.  You both win!  Dilemma solved.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Annaberg Encounter

   I have always defined "Thin Places" as a site where the material world and the spiritual world co-exist and it is possible to move more easily between the two. I have always thought of them as peaceful, quiet places. Not so!  I found a thin place on St. John that stunned much so that I has inspired to create images in a radically, for me at least, new way.  That place is the Annaberg Sugar Mill.

   It was my first full day on St. John and I went by myself to the sugar mill site. Since I was alone I decided to sit and do my visual listening exercise. It was a beautiful location  high on a cliff over looking the sea and the ruins were well maintained and extensive. The sensation of the place was, however, foreboding and uncomfortable. The sun was shinning in a bright blue sky with soft white clouds but I didn't get the sensation of peace...just suffering and oppression.

   As a walked around later, trying to photograph the buildings, I knew that I had to find a different way to translate the landscape. Warm, soft color wouldn't do nor would my typical black and white style. I sat down and wrote, extensively, in my journal.  I knew that I would need to reflect for some time before I would know what I needed to do with this place.  These images are a rather unusual combination of solarized and infra-red processing.  It got me the effect I wanted to convey the emotion of the place. I'm not sure I'll use it again but isn't it wonderful that digital processing allows such experimentation!

   This is why I think photography, especially digital photography, is such a valuable way to enhance your contemplative practice.  It can make concrete your feelings and emotions in unexpected ways.  It also gives you an artifact to stimulate new thinking and reflection.  Later on, you have a visual record of the experience that transcends and illuminates the words in your journal. Some people bring back pretty postcards from their travels to new places...I try to bring back evidence of deeply moving encounters as well.

   When I got back to my friends house and told them of my experience at Annaberg, they told me some of the history of the place.  All the sugar mills on the island employed slave labor but the slaves at Annaberg sometimes committed suicide by leaping to their deaths from the cliffs rather than endure further torture by the slave owners. This was a unique and horrible attribute of the place. That must have been the energy I felt while I was there. I visited other sugar mill ruins on St. John during my week there. They all had a sadness about them but none had the profound affect Annaberg had on me. This was a totally new kind of thin place for me. Before I left Annaberg I spent some time sitting with my back to ruins and looking out to the sea.  I needed to try and clear my mind from what I had just experienced and, thankfully, I did. I felt an up swelling of  peace as I gazed out over the turquoise sea.  If we want to embrace the good in the world, we have to be willing to look at the bad. Taoism teaches that in even the deepest black there is a spot of light.  THAT was the message I took away from Annaberg that day. I think I will amend my definition of thin places by including an old Apache proverb:

"Wisdom sits in places."

      Thin Places are sites that prompt reflection and will always affect a person on a deeply personal level if you allow yourself to fully engage in it.  Sometimes the affect is peaceful and uplifting and sometimes it's immensely sad. In all thin places, you'll walk away a different person than you walked in as. For that reason, as a contemplative photographer, I will continue to seek them out wherever I travel.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Thin Places...

Photograph by Andy Ilachinski
   As I wrote about in my series of posts on the Characteristics of the Photographic Sage, Qi is the essential energy that flows through all things and in all places. It is what the contemplative photographer seeks most earnestly.  Some places seem to allow you to tap into this energy more easily.  As you sit quietly, listening to the landscape, you can hear  its message with crystal clarity.  Sometimes, your sense of time is warped and while you may think you have only spent a few minutes there you discover that, in fact, it has been much longer. These places are called "Thin Places".

    There are many famous thin places all around the globe.  The Ancients viewed them as sacred sites and built many of their monuments on them.  Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides is one of them and the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands (located off the Northern edge of Scotland) is another.  Photographer Andy Ilachincki wrote about his experience among those stones in his wonderful blog. (I've included a link to it on this site.)

 "As I wandered around with my camera, looking for angles and compositions,
.....I felt myself drift in and out of the time of the "here and now" into a more
ancient, and ineffable, time; a time that lurks somewhere in the shadows,
and is part of the very fabric of the megaliths themselves.....The Ring o'Brodgar
is - for  me - a physical symbol of timelessness and transcendence.  It is 
a place for serious contemplation and meditation."

Andy Ilachinski

     The real challenge for the contemplative photographer is to find these thin places in ordinary settings because I believe they do exist everywhere not just in the established sacred sites like Callanish and Brodgar.  They may be a bit more difficult to find in places where the modern world seems so dominate and the energy is more material than it is spiritual.  That is what I found when I visited St. John in the US Virgin Islands recently.  Nicknamed the "Beverly Hills of the Caribbean" (there was my first red flag!), I knew I would need to look deeply to find its thin places but I can assure you they were there!

   It is not by coincidence that you need to step away from crowed locations and seek out a quiet retreat....someplace where you won't have the noise of modernity to muffle the sound of the landscape. And, for heaven's sake, put the Ipod away!  I'm not opposed to music but all your senses must be alert. When I see tourists walking around in amazing landscapes with those ear plugs I feel a certain sadness. People have become so detached from the natural world, even from human contact, that their senses must be numb. This is no way to experience the world and definitely not something a contemplative photographer would consider.  I'll get off of the soap box now but it is something to reflect upon.

   One of the thin places on St. John was a remote site along the Reef Bay Trail, deep in a gorge in the middle of the National Park where archeologists have found petroglyphs carved into the stones around some natural pools and a small waterfall. (Both of these are nearly non-existent on St. John...perhaps that is why the ancient peoples thought this site was special.)  The moment I stepped onto those stones you could feel the energy and peace that surround the location. Sitting amongst the carvings, which some say could be as old as 10,000 years, with dragonflies hovering nearby (the only ones I saw on the island) you are truly transported. The image on the left reminded me of one I found on the Burren in Ireland and it immediately connected me to that magical landscape. There are fascinating sacred places all over the world and they are all thin places.

   I discovered a wonderful site for those interested in traveling to some of these special places. Not all are sacred in the normal meaning of the word. One of my favorite places, a place I have returned to year after year, is Concord, Massachusetts.  You can see it on this site.

   I could have sat there, listening to the whispers of these stones, for hours.  Unfortunately, we could only stay for a brief time as we had to meet a boat that would take us back.  These stones are accessible from the road after a 3 mile hike but we came up from the beach, a much shorter, 1.1 mile walk.  I do advise those visiting  this place to pack a lunch and plan to stay for is worth a much, much  longer stay than I was able to make.

   One of my favorite blogs is THIN PLACES written by Mindie Burgoyne.  She is a writer and she leads travel groups to explore the thin places of Ireland.  I recommend you visit her blog.  I've provided a link below to one of her posts on visiting thin's excellent. I agree totally with the title:

   She also lists 5 keys to visiting these kinds of places and they are well worth noting in your travel journal for your next encounter with a thin place.

    In my next post I will talk about a place that gave me a complimentary experience to the Reef Bay site and which gave me way to reflect on phrase that has always haunted me.  "Where is God when the earth shakes?"  It was a terribly uncomfortable  place. My encounter with it stunned me and I had to find a whole knew way to create my photographs of that location. Was it a thin place?  If it was it was a kind I'd never encounter before.