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




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