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! 



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