Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thomas Merton : Contemplative and Photographer...

Father Louie
"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." 
Thomas Merton 

   I had known of Thomas Merton long before I picked up the camera again in 2005. A Trappist monk, "Father Louie"  was a 20th century mystic and poet. His book, "The Seven Storey Mountain"(1948) is considered one of the great  works of literature of the 20th century. It was through this book, in a comparative religion class in college, that I first got to know of Merton.  He conferred with the Dalai Lama and other world leaders. He was  most concerned with issues of social justice and inter-faith understanding. He became deeply interested in Eastern philosophy and was at a conference in Bangkok, Thailand to promote dialogue between Eastern and Western monks when he died, at the age of 53, in a tragic accident. All this I knew but I had no idea that he was also a photographer!
       I suppose Merton's photographs would be considered by some as a bit "unpolished", technically speaking. He was, after all, untrained and he had only practiced photography for a few short years before his untimely death.  But what his photographs may have lacked in technical perfection they more than made up for  in their purity of vision.  Merton was a true contemplative who saw divine presence in the natural world. For him, Nature was the perfect metaphor for the inner journey of the searching soul and he was able to beautifully photograph those metaphors. I consider him, like Minor White, a kind of mentor for the contemplative photographer who is searching for more meaningful and personally rich imagery in their own work.

Photograph by Thomas Merton
   I recently discovered a book of Merton's photographs; "The Geography of Holiness".  Published in 1980, the book contains photographs made by Merton in locations around the world.  It was an inspiration.  Here in his simple black and white images, like the Trappist habit he wore, were meditations on the divine...the holiness of all created things. Father Louie came late to the world of photography and only followed a  photographic path for a short time but in that time he created some memorable images.  The lesson here is that technical  expertise doesn't necessarily  make a great photographer, soulful self-searching does.  Merton's work also demonstrates the value of photography as a contemplative practice...a practice anyone can take part in.  Photography needn't be an exclusive club for those with expensive equipment and the latest Photoshop program. It is the most democratic of mediums. It is one of its greatest strengths to my way of thinking.

   I often think that some photographers pursue their imagery like a flat stone that skips across the surface of the pond.  Never resting but jumping from one spot to another, they see only the most superficial elements of the landscape.  I confess that in the beginning I too was guilty of this sporadic and superficial approach. I was always in such a hurry...afraid I might miss something!  Merton would be more like a heavy round stone which is tossed in a grand arch and drops with a gentle splash into the water. It sinks to the bottom and stays still, looking at the pond from the inside out. I have tried to become more like that heavy stone when I photograph.  I am now content to rest at the bottom and observe the landscape, and life, from the inside out.

   This post and the previous one on Minor White present a bit of a riddle, like the old "chicken and egg" one.  Which comes first, the photography or the contemplation?  These two men illustrate the answer, BOTH!  I have to admit to being in the Minor White group...I learned my photography before I discovered contemplative photography but it matters not a bit which way you approach it; what matters is whether it suits your soul as an artist.  Not everyone is cut out to be a contemplative photographer and isn't it wonderful that there is a place for every kind of photographer in this world!


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Minor White: Photographer and Contemplative....

"Exposure occupies my mind while intuition frames the images."
Minor White 

    Minor White is, indisputably, one of the 20th century's photographic masters. I would also call him a "Photographic Sage"(I hope he wouldn't mind!).  He never, to my knowledge, used the phrase "contemplative photographer" to describe himself but I would. White's work exemplifies every characteristic I believe contemplative photographers must have to practice their art. He was committed during his 40 years as a photographer to the transcendental aspect of the visual experience surpassed in this approach, I believe, only by Alfred Steiglitz. Although he was a highly skilled practitioner of the photographic medium, his prints were technical perfection, his concern was always for the spirit behind the image.

"I'm always and forever looking for the image that has spirit!  
I don't give a damn how it got made."

   White spent his life studying the photographic medium.  He studied with the best and he was a mentor for a generation of photographers that came after him. His most memorable achievement, in my humble opinion, was an idea he worked on his entire life. White expanded on a theory put forth first by Steiglitz in the 1920's; the concept of "Equivalence".  It is the metaphoric backbone of contemplative photography.

   For White, the very essence of photography's claim to being an art lay it this metaphoric capability.  Minor White practiced photography like some practice religion and he imbued it with the same spirituality,  This is why I consider White a true contemplative photographer and not merely a symbolist.

    This is more clearly shown in his idea that photographs act as a catalyst, merely a step in the process, and not an end in themselves.  A photograph is a function and not a "thing". This is a startling and far-reaching idea.

   For the contemplative photographer, the photograph's function is for shedding light on an inner truth.  One can share in that truth to the degree one is able to enter into this metaphoric relationship.  What is so exciting to me is that each person will see their own truth and this is the essence of the art.

"At first glance, a photograph can inform us.  At second glance it can reach us."
Minor White.



Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Photo Lectio - the Image as Icon...

"Art, monastics of every century knew, gives
us new ways to see the unseeable."
Joan Chittister
The Monastery of the Heart

     In my last post, I spoke about my "Thought Flow", the process I go through as I approach a landscape to photograph, hopefully, in a contemplative way. At the end of that post I talked about re-visiting the photograph long after the fact, to look at it as an image that might illicit thoughts on some essential truth. This post again speaks to a process. It enumerates a kind of disciplined approach to looking at - and "reading" your image.  It is simply my way of reflecting on the finished photograph and can be seen as the end result of the entire process of contemplative photography for me.

     The ultimate goal of every contemplative photographer is to create images that inspire us to a greater understanding of essential truths.  Through the simple vehicle of the photographic image, a person can reflect on ideas that transcend the reality of the recorded subject.  The Carmelite William MacNamara defines contemplation as "The long, slow look at the real" and what is more "real" than a photographic image?  A photograph is an artifact of a moment in time. Dorothea Lange said "photography alters life by holding it still." In contemplative photography, we can enter into this trans-formative relationship with the image...we can alter how we think of life by reflecting on essential truths contained within this "stilled moment".

     Lectio Divina is a monastic practice of contemplating sacred texts. Icons served the same purpose but as a visual reference rather than the written word. They were vehicles to focus prayer and contemplation.  I use this practice to look at the photographic image in a kind of Photo Lectio.  I try to "read" the image as a visual text to see if it stimulates any thoughtful reflections.

    I refer readers to the wonderful book by Christine Valters Paintner, Lectio Divina which has an in-depth summary of the process .  I'll summarize it here and see how we can apply it to our photographic images.

   There are four steps (Christine calls these "movements") in Lectio, reflect, respond, and rest. With only slight variation, we can apply this process to looking at our photographic images as well.

     Look carefully at your image.  I'll refer to the photograph above for this exercise.  What are the essential elements that draw your attention? This is the basic "text" of your photograph.

The open widow space...the rough stone work...the plants
growing on the stone...the beautiful sky...the trees in the distance

     Take one element or a combination of elements to focus on.  You can always come back to the image for other reflections so try not to be to broad in your reflective scope. Write your thoughts in a journal.

 I will focus on Nature, as represented by the green foliage  
It seems to grow out of the Man-made structure, trying to 
emulate the trees outside the window. Nature will always
return to reclaim Man's constructions for it is more 
powerful than any of his grand designs. Nature is 
Divine presence.

     This is the time to personalize your observations and reflections. This can take any number of directions...from relating the reflection to something in your life or something you see in the world around you. Write again in your journal or you might try composing a poem.

We must make room for our lives and
in our communities. Gardens, green spaces, a pot
of herbs on the window sill...we loose an essential
part of our soul when we become detached from 
the natural world.

      After I've concluded my contemplative reflection on the image I created I just let it sit quietly on the table next to where I sit each morning. I look back on it from time to time before I put it away. Resting with the image is an acknowledgement of your efforts and the landscape's wisdom you were able to record in your photograph.  Remember, it is a dialogue, not a monologue!  The landscape still speaks to you through your photograph.
     I have begun to put together images, quotes, and personal reflections into small hard-covered books that I can look back on from time to time.  My first attempt at formalizing my thoughts in a more concrete and easily accessible  way is The Annaberg Encounter.  It was such a profound experience for me and I reflected at great length about the experience, that I ended up writing extensively and making a series of very altered images. It just seemed the most likely next step to bind it all into a tiny book!
   I am sure that this is just a beginning for me because my other passion is book arts. It is a wonderful thing to be able to combine the two.  I have created small books of my photography before, most recently, my Hebrides images but this is the first time that I've made a book that is more contemplative in nature. It includes lots of quotations as well as my own reflections along with the images. It is my "illuminated" manuscript.
     I hope this inspires others to try putting their images and reflections together in a book! 



Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Contemplative Photographer's "Thought Flow"...

   There are many reasons for your arrival at a certain place at a certain time.  You might be called to it by an intense inner yearning or it may be mere happenstance that finds you there but something in the landscape awakens a wonder in you. However you arrive, by whatever road you take, you will experience that place in your own unique way.  Even when you travel to popular "tourist" destinations photographed millions of times, you will see it with your own insights.  As a contemplative photographer, I have tried to develop an series of experiential steps that allows me to reach the moment I want, the moment I can say, "Yes, now, make the photograph". I call it  my Contemplative Thought Flow.  Mainly, it is a series of questions I ask myself before and after I make an image.  "Work Flow" is a term that refers to a specific way a photographer approaches their images in the digital darkroom...the technical steps they take to arrive at their final photograph..  My Contemplative Thought Flow is the way I approach each landscape I encounter on location.  I  find that employing this series of actions I am more likely to arrive at the kind of contemplative image I seek.

   The three photographs I've included in this post are my Loch Bee series. You may be familiar with #3, the culminating image, but here are the two photographs I made prior to that one. The first was a  good enough image but as I looked at it the landscape seemed to beckon me to continue. Photograph #2 moved me closer to the feeling I was getting as I encountered this landscape but the conversation wasn't quite over.  With #3 I felt I had said what I wanted to express. I could bring the conversation to a close.

Loch Bee Reflections #1
1. Be still.  Become aware of what is around you and quiet your mind. Be present with all your senses. Most importantly, what does your 6th sense, your spiritual inner sense, reveal to you?
2. The landscape is full of metaphors - do you see any?
3. The landscape contains a range of emotion - what do you feel?
4. The landscape holds wisdom it wishes to share with you - do you hear it?  Begin your conversation with the landscape...ask your questions then listen for the answers.Write these in your journal.

Loch Bee Reflections #2

1. Of all that is in front of you, all that you see, and feel and hear, what draws you in?  Focus your attention.
2. Does it ask you to move closer or step back?
3. Which angle provides the most interesting viewpoint for interpreting the subject?
4. A cardboard viewfinder is helpful for framing possible images...sketching also helps you discern the essential elements of the landscape.
5. Be Patient! The landscape will tell you when to release the shutter.

Loch Bee Reflections #3
1. Does the image I made say anything about the experience?
2. Are there ways I can technically enhance the image to more clearly match my experience?
3. Does the final image complete our dialogue?
4. Do I need to return?  Be Persistent.  You will know when the conversation with the landscape is complete.
5. Consider experimenting with the final image in are not  making postcards but personal icons of your encounter with the landscape.

   Much later, after I have had time to detach myself from the experience, I look again at the images I made.  This is the time I like to look for the greater message...those eternal truths I've spoken about before. Sometimes, if I'm very lucky, an image will become an icon of a image that I will return to over and over to reflect on and learn from. Loch Bee Reflections#3 above is one of those universal icons for me. At times the landscape will tell me something that I didn't particularly want to hear as happened at Annaberg on St. John. (See "The Annaberg Encounter" post of April 11, 2012)  Both kinds of encounters are important to a contemplative photographer. Always, it is the emotional impact of a landscape on the photographer that counts...not the surface quality but the layers of meaning below that reality

    These truths, "these layers of meaning" whatever they are, are really relevant only to me. Others looking at the image may not see what I saw at all and that is as it should be. Contemplative photography is not about some universal language or a set of defining principles.  Everyone  must make their own metaphoric equivalents. Contemplative images are open-ended photographs...they ask questions and rarely give an answer and they may ask a different question each time you look at them.  They will serve each viewer in a different way.  Fortunately, as Minor White has observed, "Photography is a language more universal than words." It is enough that they have meaning to you.  It should be the only reason you make them. Make them, reflect on them and then let them go.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Contemplative Eye...

"With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony,
and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things."
William Wordsworth

      I was reminded of this quotation by Wordsworth as I wandered the grounds of a Franciscan monastery in Maine last week. Spring hadn't made a full appearance yet and my woodland walk was punctuated only by the singing of a cardinal and a cool breeze off the ocean. It was a very peaceful stroll.  I had come to the monastery with two friends and, for a time, we each went our separate ways on the grounds. One friend was photographing the site, as I was, the other was just enjoying the walk and I wondered how each of us was experiencing the same place.  Did we see the same things?  How much of perception is directed by our thoughts, feelings, expectations and needs?  How does seeing with a "contemplative eye" differ from any other way of regarding the reality of the world around us?

     As so often happens, when I think intensely about something, some ray of inspiration comes into my life to illuminate the thought. The day after I began to write this post, I received my weekly "Sounds True" email with it's wonderfully inspiring "A Good Minute". This week the speaker was my constant source of lovely reflection, John O'Donohue.  I have mentioned John several times on this blog-most recently at the beginning of my April 28th post- and I often think about what a gentle soul he was and so brilliantly intuitive. Although I had corresponded with him via email for several months, it was such a blessing to have finally met him in 2007 just 6 months before his untimely death. Finding this week's "Good Minute"  was like John reaching out to me and giving me the words I needed to communicate the thoughts in this post.

A contemplative eye is the quiet eye of the heart.

     To answer the questions I posed above, I would simply say that each of us saw a totally different place that day because we were all approaching it for different reasons and from different mindsets.  Each viewpoint was correct and it served the needs of the viewer at that moment. I doubt my two friends thought a single moment about their process of "seeing".  When you begin to see the world with a contemplative eye, however, it is nearly impossible to revert to ordinary ways of looking at a landscape and every moment is an opportunity to reflect upon some larger truth.  When I cease to judge or analyze what is in front of me, when I listen to the landscape with an open heart, then I begin to truly see and not merely look at the world around me.

an on-line course in contemplative photography from
The Abbey of the Arts

     I love this site and enjoyed taking this course this past winter.  Christine is writing a book based on the course content and I look forward to adding it to my collection.

"I begin to object when I cease to understand it."
-Henry David Thoreau