Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Long and Short of It...

   What I love, what I've always loved about landscape photography is the wide range of options available to the photographer...the long shot, the short shot and everything in between.  Once I've sat with my landscape for a time, absorbing the sense of place, after I've written in my journal and sketched and I feel comfortable, it's time to begin recording impressions with my camera.  As you have probably noticed, or could most likely guess, I'm not much of an equipment "junkie".  I have only one lens, a Nikon 18-200 zoom - it's enough for me.  If the landscape invites me in, I'll walk in, not change my lens.  I want to feel part of the landscape and not a remote viewer...a landscape "voyeur".

   I am a great admirer of the wild life photography of Nick Brandt who spends hours, days, even weeks getting to know his subject, letting his subject feel comfortable with him so that he can make his striking "portraits".  No telephoto lens for him; Brandt surely practices the 4 Be's - "Be Still, Be Present, Be Patient and Be Persistent".

   This portrait of a lioness has all the dignity and compassion of the great masters of photographic portraiture who were able to reveal the soul of their subjects with carefully rendered compositions and sensitively considered lighting.  His new book, "On this Earth, A Shadow Falls" is an absolute masterpiece. When you visit the link to the book, be sure to click on the "book tease" to preview some pages.  At $120. it may be a bit pricey for some but I'm saving up for it.  I think it is well worth the cost for me to be able to sit for hours with this man's camera work.  I would never have imagined that African wildlife photography could be "contemplative" in nature but Brandt's work certainly qualifies for that distinction.

On the Edge of Our World - North Uist, Scotland
   My only comparable experience, and it pales in comparison to Brandt's work, would be my "encounter" with highland cattle on North Uist, Scotland in 2005.  I came upon a herd of them but as I approached they ran away.  No matter, I plopped myself down on a rock and ate my lunch.  I wrote in my journal, did a sketch of the landscape and was well into my "visual listening" mode, maybe an hour and a half, when I heard a soft "snuffling" sound.  The little herd was returning, no longer feeling threatened by my presence it seems.  Instead of grabbing my camera, I just sat with them for awhile. I finally made the image on the right and awhile later, one cow felt comfortable enough to take a nap right in front of me!

   I probably spent more than two hours on that hillside in North Uist communing with the "Coos" ( a Hebridean term for "cows").  I felt it was time well spent even though I only made two photographs during that time.  I came to know these gentle animals in a way I never would have if I'd relied on a telephoto lens. In fact, the most rewarding part of the experience wasn't the photographs but earning the trust of these creatures...we both felt at ease in each others presence and that was a wonderful gift.

   Those huge lenses favored by most landscape photographers and especially wildlife photographers always make me think of hunters stalking their "prey" from a safe distance, determined to get the shot no matter what.   I think I'll stick with my simple lens and my 4 "Be's"...and that's the long and short of it!

"Adopt the pace of Nature; her secret is Patience."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

PhotoTao Card #2 - Opposites

Card #2

Nothing exists without its complement. 
 The experience of opposites is a basic rhythm of life.

- Exercise -
   Look for contrasts in your photographs.  Be conscious
 of juxtapositions that emphasize these visual 
contradictions like the smooth skin of a child posed
 next to the weathered, rough wood of an old barn.  Also
 consider compositional opposites - an active "full" space
 versus the quiet, "empty" space.

The Light of Faith - Mont St. Michel
   This is one of my favorite concepts to look for when I photograph.  After awhile it becomes as natural as breathing...I don't even have to think about it anymore.  I especially like the empty/full combination in my compositions.  It is often present in Taoist paintings; an art form that has been an inspiration for a lot of my camera work.  It is so nice to have a place for your eye to "rest" in a photograph.  

    If you photograph in color, try complimentary contrasts or desaturate the majority of the image leaving only one object in color. That is what I did in the image on the right.  It puts the emphasis on the cross and it's glowing reflection which was quite striking in the dark cathedral interior.    There are dozens of way to approach the concept of "opposites" in your camera work and spending an entire day with the idea is a stimulating challenge.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Heavenly Staircase - a personal reflection

The Heavenly Staircase - Rouen Cathdral
   I would like to share one of my reflections on a photograph I made this summer in France...The Heavenly Staircase.  Sometimes I get so caught up in the making of the images in this blog that I forget that one half of the title "Contemplative Photographer" is the contemplating part!  Many people have asked me how I think about  my work, my contemplative practice, that I thought a personal reflection would be helpful.

   I made this image in Rouen Cathedral and I remember coming upon this interior view and thinking, "What an amazing structure!"  It is carved stone but it seemed so light and airy looking that I had to touch it to be sure it wasn't made of wood.  Unlike much of the cathedral, it was well lit from the clerestory windows so I took my time and made the image.  Later, when I was trying to chose my 12 photographs, my "Good Crop", the ones that impacted me most on this trip, this one was on the top of my list...but why?  Staircases were a constant element in my trip to France.  It seemed everywhere I wanted to go, from Mont St. Michel to Sacre Coeur Basilica, was up a flight of hundreds of steps!  With my tricky, and hardly dependable, knees it was a concern. It seemed quite natural for me to fixate on them in my photographs. 

    I began my reflection with the Photo Lectio exercise...where I "read" the text of my photograph and list the elements within the image that were significant to me.  I immediately noticed the 3 doors, one on each level. The ground floor doorway was very ornate, it extended to the bottom of the next level.  The second floor doorway was less ornate and tucked away under the balcony.  The top floor doorway was a simple rectangle...completely unadorned but ringed with light. You could see the lighted space inside the door.  The other doors were just solid dark rectangles. Even the railings seemed to become simpler, less heavy as they went upward.

    Instantly, this staircase became a metaphor for life's journey through life.  As a young woman I was more interested in the "ornaments" of living and glamor counted. But as I progress through my life I've come to realize that it is simplicity that I crave...purging the unnecessary; the physical as well as the mental "clutter".  My goal, I came to realize as I looked at this image, is that top doorway...simple, functional and bathed in light.

   I've printed the photograph and it stands on my desk to remind me that life is a journey, an upward one as well as an inward one and it can be difficult and at times painful.  I'm not sure where I would put myself on that staircase, maybe part way up the second run, but I'll keep my eyes on the prize - inward and outward simplicity and pure light - as I climb my way to the top.  It will be well worth the effort I think.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

PhotoTao Cards #1 - The Path

   Quite some time ago I got a box of cards based on the Tao te Ching.  They were to be used for reflection and to stimulate contemplation through the wisdom of the Tao. I thought, why not use that idea to inspire my photography?  So I set about to make my own PhotoTao cards as a way to generate new approaches to my photographic work.

    Unfortunately, the original "Tao Box", compiled by Priya Hemenway, is no longer in print. You can get a used one on and I recommend you get one if you can.  The illustrations on the front of the cards are beautiful and the translations on the back are illuminating.  My cards are really just little prompts for me to try if I'm in a bit of slump with my photography. I mentioned a few of these ideas in my series "Characteristics of the Photographic Sage" but this will give you an easy format to duplicate. You can create your own cards from the ideas I provide, using your own photographs to illustrate the front of the card, or invent your own! Copy and print the text below on card stock and cut out.  After you have a few (I'll be posting one every  week) keep them in your camera bag.  Pull one out from time to time and try the exercise.  I use to use this idea of "prompts" when I taught art. The kids loved the randomness of just drawing a card and following it's instruction...I do too!  It's a great way to jump start the process of creating interesting and inspiring photographs or to just think a bit differently about your process. I am always amazed at how beautifully the wisdom of the Tao applies to the art of photography.

Card #1

The Path 
The Tao is pure experience and complete acceptance.
You can not make things different from what they are.
Tao is the way of letting go effort and following the 
meandering path wherever it goes.

- Exercise -
Try to let go of preconceived ideas.  Do not try to
manipulate your shots.  Go to a place you normally
wouldn't find interesting and open yourself to experience
the moment in that place.  Do not plan your shots or try
to pre-visualize the composition.  
Just have fun and make lots of photographs! 

   This is a good exercise for me when I find myself getting too "thoughtful" with my work.  It happens! I like to do this exercise to "loosen" up. I call images I make during this exercise my photographic sketches.  I let the intuitive part of my brain take over.  You can find out a lot about who you are as a photographer by this exercise. After 15-20 minutes of this activity, I sit and play back my "sketches". I usually find that even though I may start out with the "big view", I keep getting closer and closer until I isolate a single element within the landscape. I guess it's the "details" that fascinate me! At least with a digital camera there is no worry about wasting film. This exercise makes the contemplative phase of my process more rich and revealing. Then, when I make my final photograph I know it is what most reflects my experience of the landscape.

     I will be posting a different PhotoTao card every week...there are 50 in total.  I hope you will enjoy the spontaneity of them when you are photographing and I encourage you to create your own. If you come up with one you like especially, share it with us all! They are a fun and light hearted way to try a new approach and we all could benefit from that.   Enjoy!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Le Flaneur - Wandering in Paris, Part Two

  After my coffee break, I crossed one of the many bridges and continued to wander along the Seine.  I enjoyed watching the little boats with their load of tourists slowly making their way from sight to sight.  I was glad I was on the shore.  One of the things I love about Paris is the leisurely one hurries...I could get use to this!  Paris really needs to be experienced on foot. I wondered if my friend was enjoying her boat trip, viewing the sites of Paris from below.

   Back on the Left Bank, I browsed the booksellers.  I loved the old prints and vintage magazines and I wished, not for the first time, that my French was better!  I was having quite the literary afternoon but that was fine with me.  Books are a vital part of my life and I have resisted the need to buy a Kindle.  I love the feel of a book in my hand and looking at these lovely old volumes I am sure this form of reading will not go the way of public pay phones.  Technology could never replace the feel of a leather binding in your hand.

    I wandered over to the Place de St. Michel because I knew that I eventually had to take the Metro back to the Gare du Nord to meet my friends.  I smiled up at the statue of the saint and recalled the wonderful trip to Mont St. Michel two days before.  I often have these sorts of experiences of "coincidence"...St. Michel was following me around it seemed or, more likely, I was following him!

   It was at this moment that I decided to sit and just "listen to the landscape" (or, in this case, the cityscape).  I hadn't had the time to do much of that on this trip and my heart's GPS said I was where I was suppose to be so I sat down.  The sound of the water in the fountain was a lovely counterpoint to the noise of the city and made me think of the ocean at Mont St. Michel and Omaha Beach.  My Father's first name was Michael and although no saint to be sure, after seeing the D-Day site he was a hero in my heart.  It was then I heard it.  Softly at first, but distinctly, liturgical music was coming from somewhere and it didn't seem a sound I would normally hear on the streets of Paris.  Then I looked up and saw its source...a procession was crossing the bridge bearing a statue of the Virgin and Child and followed by hundreds of people!

    Police cars had blocked off the boulevard traffic and their red lights bounced off the silver statue in a rather eery way.  I remembered that this day, August 15th, was a national holiday in France, the feast of the assumption.  This was a procession from Notre Dame!  They came right up to the plaza where I was sitting and, after a brief ceremony, turned and walked back towards Notre Dame.  I found myself swept up in the procession and we walk slowly back to the cathedral. The music was rhythmic and solemn.  I didn't understand the chants but I felt myself a part of a much greater whole and I thanked my internal GPS for keeping me there to witness it.  Had I listened to my head and not my heart I would have been on a train to the Gare du Nord!  After I returned to the States and listened to the podcast by John O'Donohue, which I posted previously, I realized that the experience of the procession demonstrated that at times there is a collective heartbeat that unites people, however so briefly.  Walking in the procession gave me a glimpse into a wonderful sense of unity that I've rarely experienced.  It was a highlight of the trip for me.

   I didn't go into the church but turned to cross back over the bridge to find a Metro stop to take me to the Gare du Nord and then I saw him.  I had to stop and watch the captivating sight.   There are lots of street performers in Paris.  They do it to earn money but this young man had no bucket for coins at his feet.  Well dressed and well-to-do (his ring and watch were clearly expensive) he was just standing there feeding the tiny birds.  He would sing softly to them and they fluttered around him, landing on his hat and his shoulders...dozens of them.  He reminded me of a modern day St. Francis!  He held the tiniest piece of bread in his fingers and most of the birds didn't even bother to peck at it.  They just seemed content to be near him.  I was too.  It seemed a fitting way to end my wanderings.  Sometimes we need to do things just for the sheer joy of it and not to reap any tangible benefit.

   I finally made my way to the train station and I was aglow with my afternoon's experience for days!  I realize that this is a much longer than usual post but I wanted to share this incredible day with you all.  I also want to remind you to always follow your heart's GPS wherever you travel whether it be nearby or far away.  I promise you, it will never lead you astray!

   I will be starting a  weekly post of my PhotoTao Cards next week.  These are little prompts to facilitate your photographic explorations based on quotations from the Tao te Ching. You can copy them and print them out to keep in your camera bag, as I do, to use whenever you feel the need to try something new. I hope you will find them useful in your journey as a contemplative photographer!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Le Flaneur - Wandering in Paris, Part One

   Two days before I left France I had, for the second time, the opportunity to become a Flaneur, a wanderer on the streets of Paris. The first time I wandered in Montmartre, the artist's district in Paris and the home of the Sacre Coeur Bascillica.  I do believe it is not only the best way to see Paris, it's the ONLY way to see this amazing place.  On my second day of "flaneuring", I wandered the streets of the Left Bank in the area of the Latin Quarter.  I made several photographs that I was pleased with during my meanderings and I want to share them with you in two parts.

   The first is a view of the Seine.  Though the sky was mostly grey during my wanderings it did, on occasion, lighten a bit. I love the light in the sky and on the water and the way it illuminates the bridge. As I mentioned previously, I focused my attention on the play of light and shadow while I was in France and this was a nice example of its luminous qualities.

 Being on the Left Bank gave me a stunning side view of Notre Dame.  Much nicer than the first view I had of it a few days earlier when I fought my way through the souvenir hawkers and throngs of tourists on the plaza in front of the cathedral.  I could appreciate the rose window and flying buttresses from this side.  (For those fascinated by the construction of these medieval masterpieces, as I am, visit this Nova site and  you can watch a video on their construction.)

     The Museum of Medieval Art (also known as the Cluney) is one of those rare gems on the Left Bank that many tourists never get to.  I was enchanted by the art and especially the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. I could have spent a whole day there!  After I parted from my friend, I went back to spend a bit more time with the art.

    I photographed a lot of sculptures in France...I couldn't help myself.  The light was radiant and I was captivated by the gentle faces. In contrast to the frantic pace of the trip, they seemed so serene and peaceful. Sometimes you are drawn to photograph what you most need at the time.

    Shakespeare and Company is a very famous English language book store on the Left Bank.  It first opened in 1919 and it played host to the likes
of Hemingway and Joyce. It closed in 1942 with the Nazi occupation.  It re-opened in 1951 in it's present location under a new owner who, thankfully, has stayed true to its Bohemian antecedents. It still houses aspiring writers in the rooms upstairs and it is a mecca for anyone who loves literature and the charm of old bookstores.

  While I was there I picked up a copy of Susan Sontag's book "On Photography" and it is a fascinating read.  I'll most likely be writing a few posts on it in the future.

   Next door to the bookstore was a wonderful cafe where I took a break from my wanderings to sip an iced cafe au lait and start my book.  I will continue this narrative of my day in my next post which I hope will be in a few days. (I plan to post twice a week now.)  Frankly,  I would have been content with what I'd seen to this point but it seemed that even more amazing experiences were yet in store for me.....


Friday, September 7, 2012

Scottish Life Fall Edition...

   I thought I'd just pass along the news that Scottish Life is featuring seven of my color photographs of South Uist in the Fall edition of the magazine which has just come fact, that's one of my images on the cover!

   I was thrilled by the honor since they had already done a feature article on my black and white work in their Summer edition.  It's a wonderful publication for those, like myself, who love's landscapes and it's people. It is available at most Barnes and Noble bookstores or, of course, on-line.  There's a link to their site in the side bar.

    If you are looking for a great destination to practice your contemplative photography I can't think of a better place than the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  The peace and tranquility of these islands is magical.  It is one of those "thin places" I've spoken of before. This photograph was made at the very tip of Sout Uist - you can just see the mainland in the distance.  I hope to return to South Uist next Spring to photograph the machair - the wildflower meadows - in full bloom.  It is something I've never seen in the two previous trips I've made to the Hebrides but my heart's GPS insists! The thought of it will certainly sustain me through the cold, snowy Maine winter!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Heart's GPS...

     While I was scrolling through some posts on Diane Walker's blog recently, I came across this little cartoon. It made me smile and it reminded  me of my recent trip to France. I'm sure she won't mind if I borrow it for this post (with a reminder for you to visit her blog, it is always inspiring! There is a link to it in the right side bar.).

    I'm always amazed at the little signs you sometimes find at famous places telling you to "Stand here for the best view".  It also amazes me how little time the average person spends at any given spot preferring a more "hit and run" approach.  It's as if they were on some kind of wild scavenger hunt and the person who collects the most photographs wins!  Anyone who has been following this blog for any amount of time knows that "hurry up" is not a concept a contemplative photographer understands or appreciates!

     While I was in Paris this summer I found myself continually referring to my heart's was often at odds with the day's agenda of tourist stops. After all, I was traveling with a group of friends none of whom were contemplative photographers - or photographers of any sort in fact.  They were there, as most tourists are, to see the most they could and they all carried their guide books like sacred texts...Rick Steves would be proud; I, on the other hand, was just amused.   I suppose you can't help but be influenced by the tourist guides...after all, can you possibly visit Paris and NOT go to the top of  the Eiffel Tower?  The answer to that is,"Yes you can!" and I'm here to testify that it is perfectly alright!

The Pilgrim's Scallop Shells - Musee de Cluney
    After visiting the Musee de Cluney together, my friend and I parted company.  While she hurried off to take a boat trip on the Seine so she could see the highlights of Paris, I wandered the streets in the Latin quarter.  I wasn't ignoring the "highlights" (like the Eiffel Tower) altogether but I wanted to see a more personal aspect of Paris.  The tower is the supreme icon of Paris but for me it was insignificant in contrast with all the rest of the exclamation point which comes at the end of a long and richly evocative parable of history and tradition, style and sophistication, faith and fashion.  I needed to find my own approach to Paris that would reflect my contemplative nature and still respect my friends rather fast paced agenda.  For an afternoon, I became a "Flaneau", a wanderer on the streets of Paris.  In my next two posts I will share the results of that afternoon of wandering and the wonderful experience I had because I followed my heart's GPS and not the guidebook.

   Finally, I am adding a link to a Sounds True podcast from my favorite contemporary philosopher, the late John O'Donohue...The Sound of the Heart Beat.  At first hearing, the relevance to my brief time as a" Flaneau" in Paris didn't resonate with me but like most of my experience as a contemplative photographer, sitting and reflecting over time brings a clarity that is sometimes startling.  For now, just listen to the podcast and enjoy!