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.


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