Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Encountering the Unfamiliar...and the not so Unfamiliar!

   I leave for France in a couple of days and I am very excited.  Part of this trip is a kind of pilgrimage...to the beaches of Normandy...to pay tribute to my Father's landing on D-Day, 1944.  I hope the emotions of the day do not keep me from making some photographs but that remains to be seen.  The various encounters one has with the unfamiliar when traveling will produce unforeseen consequences and the photographs one makes - or does not make - as a result will be affected by them. That is part of the excitement of travel for me.

   When you travel to a new place there are many opportunities to encounter the "unfamiliar" and if you are, as I am this time, traveling with other people you may not have the time to sit and listen to the landscape as I like to do.   I've had to develop a set of strategies for these kinds of situations.  Primarily it requires me to rely on my intuition as a photographer.

   In February I wrote a post on the concept of Wu-Wei.  A mind in the state of Wu-Wei "goes with the flow, reflects like a mirror, responds like an echo."  These are all necessary requirements for photographing intuitively.  The hardest part of the process for me is switching off my brain which loves to analyze, rationalize, and control everything.  It "knows" and therefore "anticipates". It will apply all sorts of filters to what I see which makes it infernally difficult to really "see" anything at all.  I've used this quote from Dorothea Lange before but it bears repeating...

"The best way to go into unknown
territory is to go in ignorant."

   I think one of my greatest challenges in this up-coming trip will be in Giverny when I visit Monet's garden with my friends.  They will go to see one thing and I will, no doubt, try to see an entirely different thing.  I have never visited the garden but after 30 years of teaching art I feel I "know" it...through the paintings of Monet and numerous photographs, mainly on calendars my students would give me for Christmas presents.  What I "know" is other people's view of the gardens. My task, before I set foot in the garden, is to try and "unknow" it.  I must try to make the familiar unfamiliar...to go in "ignorant" so I can photograph it through my eyes not theirs!

Impression - pond weeds, Isles of Harris, Scotland 2005
   When I arrive I will wander off by myself.  I will try to tune out the hoards of tourists and find a solitary place, if I can, from which I can "read" the landscape.  If I can't apply my visual listening exercise and sketching for lack of time, I can at least read the "text" of the landscape.  It will be like reading the Cliff Notes for War and Peace and not the novel itself but it will have to do.  I will read not only the literal and most obvious notations of water and plants but the more subtle descriptions of shadow and reflection...the softer echos of Monet's created world. I will attend to the adjectives and not just the nouns. I will then make what photographic impressions I can...as Monet did when he painted the light in his garden.  Photography too paints with light and the contemplative photographer can also create  meaningful impressions based on their personal and intuitive  response to the landscape.  The "reflections" will have to wait for when I return home.

      I hope to post several "photographic impressions" of France in the days ahead...the contemplative photographer "on location" as it were.  I've chosen several interesting venues for photographic exploration like Mont Saint Michel and the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris but who knows what other sites will peak my interest.  I (and you, all my blog friends) will just have to wait and see what transpires...

Au Revoir for now!


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Journaling as Part of the Contemplative Practice...

     I simply can't conceive of being a contemplative photographer without my journal. I've written, faithfully, in a journal everyday for over 30 years. Long before I began my journey as a contemplative photographer, I recorded my thoughts and reflections in a blank book.

     On my flight back from St. John this Spring, I was writing in my journal when a woman across the aisle from me said, "It is so nice to see someone actually writing!" I was a bit puzzled by her comment until I looked around and saw all the softly glowing laptop screens illuminating the cabin and heard the muffled "click, click, click" of the keys.  I thanked her and said it's my way of slowing down so my thoughts had time to catch up with my words.

Field Journal Sketch - Daliburgh, South Uist
     The physical act of writing does slow you down.  I can type a great deal faster than I can write. I also like the look of my handwriting on a blank page. I can doodle and underline and cross out and all of it stays recorded...it is a record of the process of my thinking not just my final thoughts. I can even detect my level of emotion by the pressure I use on the pencil. I prefer the smudgy quality of it over a pen.

     On location I bring pieces of plain white paper to journal and sketch on. I don't treat these little drawings as works of art, just doodled impressions of a place and I write all over them. It is the way I have of slowly letting the landscape inform my later photographic intentions. I don't do it every time but I try to as often as possible. I do try to keep a more formal field journal that I write in at the end of every day. I record locations, of course, but more importantly, I record my impressions of the day and make notes of places I need to revisit.

Storm Clouds over Daliburgh
     The photograph on the left I made after my very hasty sketch, above.  The sky was quickly changing so I couldn't terry. I made the sketch, decided to change my angle of view by driving up the road a bit so the cemetery would be more in the center, made the photograph and finally sat in the car at the edge of the road to notate the sketch. Just in time too for the storm broke and the rain pelted down.

   A fair amount of my journal work is done after I make the image.  Then I can sit quietly with it, sometimes weeks after it is made, to reflect on the image. I will then go back to  my field sketch or journal and make more notes on how to enhance the image to reflect the thoughts I had after looking at the "rough draft" of the photograph. (That's what I call the quick prints I make before I employ any techniques such as burning, dodging or cropping; another writing term I'm afraid, it's the teacher in me!) One of the great benefits of digital cameras is the play back mode.  No more waiting until after a trip to see if you were able to make the images you wanted. If you have to, you can return on a different day, with different light, and try again. Persistence is a quality I try to cultivate when I'm on location. If a landscape has special meaning for me, I'll go back as often as it takes and it very often pays off by providing me with new impressions of the landscape. This view of Daliburgh is a case in point.  I drove by this landscape dozens of times in the month I was in South Uist.  I even stopped and did a few photographic "sketches". I knew I wanted to make a significant image here, the lone house, the cell tower and the distant cemetery called to me but it took time for the right sky to emerge.  I was thankful to be there when it did. As the storm approached from the West, the sun broke through for just a moment illuminating the middle ground and part of the sky...it was breathtaking!

     I think my sketching on location is a by-product of my 35 years of teaching art.  I'd always tell my students to make a series of sketches before beginning a piece. It just never occurred to me not to do the same when I made photographs! I know very few photographers do this but I think the most important reason I do it is to make myself slow down and really look, look deeply, at the landscape. Photographs take only a fraction of a second to make but my goal is not to "click and run". By writing and sketching I constantly remind myself to practice my four "Be's"... "Be Still, Be Present, Be Patient and Be Persistent".   It is a crucial part of the contemplative process for me.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Role of Imagination in Contemplative Photography...

     "My imagination is a monastery,
and I am its monk"
John Keats
St. Francis in the garden.
     The Contemplative Photographer dwells in a monastery of the imagination.The term 'contemplative" is often associated with a person who lives a religious life, like Thomas Merton who lived at the Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky.  He was a contemplative and a photographer.  I am, however, using the term "monastery' in a metaphoric way.  It is a place of in-dwelling and retreat.  A place that welcomes your hidden self and provides a safe haven for reflection. Imagination is, in fact, the voice of that hidden self. 
     I seem to have monasteries on the brain of late.  I just received two lovely books about monastic practice and, as usual, I turned what I read back to my love of Contemplative Photography.  It seemed a natural fit.  Time is not rushed or frantic in a monastery...it moves slowly with it's own rhythm and cadence. As I wrote in my post, "Sight and Insight", the contemplative photographer needs down time, time to reflect on the work they've done.  But what is the role of "imagination" in all this?  It is a question worth considering.

     A contemplative photographer could not create the images they make without a well practiced imagination.  It is, in fact, what those who dispute, or at least down-play, the metaphoric capabilities of an image throw, gently I hope, back into our faces.  "It's all in your imagination!"   "You're reading WAY too much into it!"  I can just "imagine" the conversation between the Analytic Left-Brained Realist and the Metaphoric Right-Brained Imaginist (my invented term...don't look for it in a dictionary!)  as they discuss this woodland path at St. Anthony's Monastery in Kennebunk, Maine which I photographed recently.

MRBI - "What a lovely sight! I can feel the sensation of being transported into another place and     

ALBR - "Oh please...it's just a path in the woods with a statue of St. Francis and a dog at the end."

MRBI - "Really? I thought it was sunlit stepping stones into a greater spiritual understanding."

ALBR - "No, no, NO!  It's right there in front of you, can't you see it?  Plain as the nose on your

MRBI - "I must have left my glasses at home."

ALBR - "That's alright. We'll buy a postcard of it in the gift shop."

     I sometimes feel a little like "MRBI" when I talk about the contemplative dimension of my work.  After all, most people don't see what I see and that's fine. I've had to come to terms over the years with the burden of having a vivid imagination. Which brings me back to the original subject of this post...The Role of Imagination in Contemplative Photography. (I am meandering a bit today!)

     I don't think there is a person alive who is totally devoid of imagination. (Well, maybe one or two but they work at the census bureau and probably wouldn't be interested anyway.) If there were such people then they'd just have to give up the idea of photography as a contemplative practice. You need imagination to see the metaphors and you have to have an imagination if you want to think of photography as more than a merely mechanical process of capturing photons. Those people "take" photographs on vacation.(or just buy the postcards). Contemplative Photographers make their images as a reflection of an inner dialogue between what they see and what they feel. Contemplative photography is more about the process of making photographs than the photographs themselves.

     I have been an avid reader of the Abbey of the Arts blog for some time now and love Christine Valters Paintner's new book, The Artist's Rule - Nurturing your creative soul with monastic wisdom.  I encourage you to visit her site and read the ArtMonk Manifesto.  It is wonderful way to approach your art, whatever it is.

     The Art Monastery Project is an amazing project to develop a place of contemplative practice for artists! The pilot program is up and running in Italy and there are plans to open another monastery for artists in the San Francisco area of California. A fascinating idea! Sign me up!

I will close this post with a passage from my favorite monk/contemplative photographer, Thomas Merton. (Well, to be perfectly honest, he's the ONLY monk/contemplative photographer I know of!)  If you substitute the word "photography" for "imagination" you would have a nice description of contemplative photography...

Imagination is the creative task of making symbols, joining things together in such a way that they throw new light on each other and on everything around them.  The imagination is a discovering faculty, a faculty for seeing relations, for seeing meanings that are special and even quite new.  The imagination is something which enables us to discover unique present meaning in a given moment of our life.  Without imagination the contemplative life can be extremely dull and fruitless.”
Thomas Merton
Contemplation in a World of Action




Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sight and Insight...

"The further we delve into what we are and
what things are, the more mysterious we 
and they become."
Wynn Bullock

     As a contemplative photographer I must feel comfortable with the knowledge that my reflections will lead to many more questions than to answers.  Those great "Ah ha!" moments are few and far between. For me, the contemplative practice is more like a wandering journey with no specific destination in mind, just the joy in the traveling.  Each photograph, or photographic series, grows inexplicably out of the one that came before and although I may make a conscious decision to photograph in this or that location, I know that experiencing those places will somehow lead me to the next. It is often not until long after the trip that the meaning of the work becomes known.

Church with Barbed Wire-Santa Fe, NM
     The photograph on the right is a good example of  this "hindsight". (I love the phrase: "Life can only be lived forward but can only be understood backwards." I think photography is like that as well.)  It was taken in Santa Fe, New Mexico back in 2007 and shows the back wall of a church surrounded by a high stockade fence edged in barbed wire. I remember thinking, as I made the photograph, how oddly discomforting it was.

    It was my first trip to Santa Fe and I was, of course, impressed with the rich culture of the city.  I was also amazed at the art market there...second only to New York City!  But there was another feeling I got from my trip to New Mexico, a realization of  the two worlds that exist side by side...the upscale and the down trodden...the art market and the drug market...the sacred and the profane. I saw it everywhere.  This photograph summed it up for me in one image.    From then on, I looked for these kinds of juxtapositions wherever I travel.  One experience alter my work.

     I have come to realize that my year is roughly divided into two parts...the active, gathering part (usually in late Spring - early Autumn) and the quiet, ruminating part (late Autumn to early Spring).  They are my times of "Sight and Insight".  As a contemplative photographer, image making serves another purpose, as a stimulus for reflection. This takes time. I allow myself the gift of taking time to reflect on the images I make often over several weeks or even months.

     Before I fully committed myself to the contemplative dimension of photography, the quest for the "perfect" image (whatever THAT meant) was compelling.  It could over-whelm you if you let it.  Now that I have found a method of working that suits me, this compulsion has faded. Sometimes I even go to a location and make no photographs at all!  I might just journal and sketch.  It seems now that I am content with less and less "out put" and more and more "in put".   A solitary image can satisfy me.

     I suppose, it all comes down to why you make photographs in the first place.  What purpose do they serve in your life.  The range of possibilities is endless of course...and all are valid. There is also the question of what to do with the finish work but that element of the process I prefer to leave up to the fates.  For me, it is the making that propels me on.  Now, I define the "perfect" image as the one that touches my soul most profoundly ...one that enlightens me with an intrinsic truth.  Someone once said that if you want to know what is important to you, imagine what you would like to hold in your hands as you die...what is the last thing you want to see. I think mine will be a photograph...I just don't know which one yet!

"Light to me is the most profound truth in this universe. 
My thinking has been deeply affected by the belief that
everything is some form of radiant energy."
Wynn Bullock

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Pilgrimage of Annie Leibovitz...

   I would never have refered to Annie Leibovitz as a contemplative photographer. Her amazing and technically slick portraits of the rich and famous, the privileged 1%, have graced the covers of magazines for decades. Accomplished commercial photographer yes, contemplative photographer, a most resounding NO...well, maybe...

    I recently visited her exhibition at the Concord Museum entitled "Pilgrimage".  Here was a woman who, for many reasons, turned to contemplative photography as a way to rebuild and nourish her artistic soul.  I'm not sure she would use that label herself  but I found that the images she produced during her pilgrimage have all the metaphoric qualities of a contemplative photograph.  In fact, I can think of no more profound and evocative example of the power of the contemplative image to link us to the essential question of self-exploration than  the  Leibovitz's series simply because it is such a huge departure from what she is known for...what she has built her entire career on.  She turned her back on what had made her famous, as many past pilgrims have done, and went on an extended pilgrimage across America and England.  While some images, such as Georgia O'Keeffe's pastel box and Marian Anderson's dress, were truly stunning photographs, some are significant, I suspect, only because Leibovitz made them.  Celebrity, as everyone of us in the 99% category understands, has it's privilege.
Portrait of Annie Leibovitz
   "I needed to save myself...I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do..."
                                       - Annie Leibovitz

Emily Dickinson - Annie Leibovitz
   The importance of this exhibit for me is that it demonstrates the role contemplative photography can play for people striving to understand themselves and what motivates their lives and their work.  In many ways, "Pilgrimage" is a provocative self-portrait and a tantalizing peek into the heart of a talented yet unapproachable legend of the contemporary art world.  She seemed much more real, more humanly accessible to me after I left the exhibition. It also got me wondering what photographs I would include in a like exhibition...what are my personal icons? I visited Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott, after I left the exhibit and saw two of the "icons" she had photographed. One, a little sofa with three dolls on it, I was told was reupholstered by Leibovitz because she didn't like the way it looked.  Again, the "celebrity thing".   It also made me wonder about her process during this project...how much her need to "control" the outcome, as she does in the portraits she makes in her studio, played into it.  In the end, however, the work speaks for itself and it was a pleasure to wander the galleries looking at this woman's journey to re-discover her artistic roots.
    The exhibition at the Concord Museum is open through September 23, 2012.  It is the only New England venue for "Pilgrimage".   After it closes, the exhibit  itself will begin a "pilgrimage" across America.  Try to see it if you can.  It is strikingly thought-provoking, especially if you know Leibovitz's past work, and it is a call to the contemplative photographer in all of us.