Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Follow Your Fascinations...

   Photographic projects are how I organize my camera work.  Not that I don't take an isolated, spontaneous image from time to time.  Pure serendipity is a wonderful thing!  But this post is about creating photographic projects that honor your inspirations and allow you to follow what fascinates you...wherever it leads and however long it takes.

   I've had many projects over the years, my latest is "Remnants".   Some were inspired by other artists, painters as well as photographers, some simply speak to things I've found fascinating in a visual sense or in a contemplative sense.

   Winter is upon us here in Maine and time for me to pick up the thread of a project I began back in 2005 - "Winter Etchings".  I posted my winter etching for 2013 recently but there is more for me to talk about on this subject.  It is not a large project, despite the length of time I've worked on it but I offer it as an example because it has a few inspiration sources you might find interesting. 

   My initial inspiration was actually Chinese ink paintings and calligraphy which I fell in love with on a trip to China in 2002, before I began seriously photographing again.  I loved their elegant simplicity and graphic quality; the purity of black lines on white paper.  The second inspiration came from the watercolor paintings of Andrew Wyeth specifically his asymmetrical compositions and large areas of "empty" space.  Finally, the gorgeous monochrome images of photographer Paul Caponigro, especially the images in his book "New England Days", which made me appreciate snow in a whole new way.   All these inspirations fermented and blended together in my imagination over time to produce "Winter Etchings".

   Photographing snow takes special consideration.  Too much sun and the highlights just burn out...too little and you don't get an "etching"!  Perhaps that's why I just have a few images in the collection so far.  But each time I find one, like the one above which was made at a farm in New Hampshire,  I'm delighted.  I will probably never come to the end of this series.  I doubt the fascination for these delicate line studies will leave me.

    I encourage you to explore your fascinations and create a photographic project of your own.  Don't worry about how long you should work on it or how many images you have in the folio.  Embrace your fascination with your whole won't let you down.

"What you love is a sign from
your higher self of what
your are to do."

-Sanaya Roman


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Contemplative and the Photographer...

    In two earlier posts, I looked at the photographers, Minor White and Thomas Merton.  I looked at them from two viewpoints.  Minor White, as one of the 20th century's greatest exponent of the art of photography and Thomas Merton, as a 20th century mystic and contemplative.  The former emphasized the outer vision and the later the interior view.  I have had this conversation with myself ever since I began my photography again in 2005...which do I emphasize? Am I a photographer that uses my images in a contemplative way or am I a contemplative that loves to make photographs?

   I don't think there is a hard and fast answer to that question.  I seem to drift between the two.  In the beginning I felt I had to commit myself totally to one or the other but as I've made this journey over the last 8 years I've come to realize that both approaches are part of who I am and to favor one exclusively over the other would be to deny an essential part of myself.

   I was, I suppose you would say, "classically" trained in the medium back in the mid-1970's.  Then, it was all about creating the perfect print.  The excellent education I had during that time did develop my photographer's eye, as it related to composition and subject matter, and a love for the beautifully crafted print.  It also introduced me to the camera work of Paul Stand and that, eventually, brought me to the Western Isles of Scotland 25 years later.

   When I traveled to the Outer Hebrides in 2005 I believe I arrived as that classically trained photographer but I left as the contemplative photographer I now am.  I went, recently, in search of the image, the moment I made the transformation.    I had to consult my field journal but I found that photograph...the one that would change how I approached the medium from that point on.  The photograph above was taken just a few days after I arrived on North Uist.  I was thrilled to catch the two horses, the old white horse (notice his sway back?) and the young grey horse pointing in two directions but I didn't think much of it at the time. Later that day, back at the hotel, I was looking through a copy of the Carmina Gadelica, (a collection of Hebridean prayers and poems I had brought with me) when I came across a poem that changed everything for me.  The first two lines read, "As it Was, As it Is, As it shall be ever more...."  The image of those two horses immediately sprang to mind...the old horse looking back, into the past, and the young horse facing forward, into the future!  That was the Hebrides to me...the ancient past and the contemporary world standing side by side in perfect harmony.  It was at that precise moment, July 22, 2005, that I began to see photography as "a function not a thing" as Minor White said and the neophyte contemplative photographer was born!  For the rest of my trip I could no longer see the landscape as only a technical exercise of composition and exposure, it became a vast metaphoric canvas just waiting for me to explore.

   I still have my photographer's eye, my love of composition and design, but I have a contemplative's eye as well.  I will continue to work on both sides of my craft, sometimes emphasizing one, sometimes the other but, if truth be known, it is the contemplative eye that now gives me the greatest joy.  Perhaps I am moving slowly but surely toward Thomas Merton's approach...time will tell.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Lesson in the Snow...

A Lesson in the Snow
   As you know from previous posts, I've chosen "pathways" as my guide word for the year.  I promised myself that I would try to be more aware of the various pathways in my life and to be on the look out for any visual references that may come my way.  This photograph was made in my front yard the day after a recent snowfall.  I am sure the tiny footprints were made by my neighbors grey cat that seems to circumnavigate by house on a daily basis. I was getting out of my car and thought, yes, a pathway but really...isn't it a bit obvious?  Hardly worth the effort to go in and get the camera but then I noticed something, something that changed my mind.

   I've often observed this cat on his daily ambles and I have noticed that when he walks in snow he always walks in his own footsteps when he returns.  It never fails.  He always steps carefully in the paw prints he made on his way out.  But here, in one small section of his track, he stepped out, for just four steps and I wondered, why?  Who knows.  Maybe he saw a bird or squirrel that distracted him and he veered off track.  I was able to make an observation for my own "pathways" from this simple image. (Which also made me realize that I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the "obvious" could still have a lesson to teach.)

   While it is always so much easier to follow a path we've walked before or to follow carefully one someone else has made before us, we often miss so much of life in our concentration to "stay on track".  The real joy in our lives often comes when we allow ourselves to be "side tracked".  When we take our eyes off the path and look elsewhere.  The path we're on will always be there...we can always join up with it further down the trail or, we may find, the new path is the right path.  I hope I give myself the freedom to do just that this year.  My Grandmother use to admonish me as a child when my distraction caused me to bump into something..."Either look where you're going or go where you're looking, you can't do both!"  Wise words....

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Breadcrumbs Along the Pathway...

   When I chose my word for this year, "Pathways", I had no idea how rich it would be or the surprising links I would come across.  I've discovered a site, "The Search for Breadcrumbs", that spoke very clearly to my exploration of pathways in my life this year and it gave me a new metaphor to explore.

   I have actually used the term "breadcrumbs" in the past for the search a contemplative photographer makes on location...the search for tiny visual clues that will lead you through a given landscape but I hadn't thought about it for a long time.  Bryan Wright's beautiful blog re-introduced me to it and it expands on the idea.  It is a wonderful read for the seeking soul in all of us.  Personally, I have always been very aware of these breadcrumbs in life. Sometimes we don't take the time to stoop down and pick them up...they are so easy to overlook.  As a contemplative photographer, these breadcrumbs are the simple metaphoric clues we come across as we wander in the landscape. They are everywhere if we take the time to observe them...if our hearts are open to receive them.  We find them, we mull them over, and they lead us to someplace new in our thinking.  We can follow the breadcrumbs through our photographic series.

   This image was made at Mont St. Michel in Normanday.  I'd been wandering in the Abbey trying to absorb the beauty and meaning of the place and my personal pilgrimage to France last summer when I came across this staircase.  I love the soft focus quality of this image...its almost abstract quality but it also has special meaning for me.  It was one of the visual breadcrumbs I picked up that day.  Just a staircase to most, it sang with metaphoric possibility in  my eyes. Sometimes those crumbs lead us on a painful, uphill path.  Do we refuse to follow because it is not easy?  Do we content ourselves with only going where the pathway is smooth and clearly illuminated when we need to embrace the shadows as well as the light if our life is to have meaning?  While I was writing this post I remembered a long ago image, made near Kildare in Ireland.

   If one looks at their life as a ongoing pilgrimage...a journey in search of the essential truths, then the decision is very clear.  We chose the Path of Life and along the way we keep a look out for the "breadcrumbs". Each crumb contains a kernel of truth...we can accept it or not, it is our choice.  Read this post on Bryan Wright's blog and then go about your life and photography being open to the moment these breadcrumbs will present themselves.  You don't have to go looking for them...they'll find you.  You just have to keep an open heart....



Saturday, January 26, 2013

PhotoTao Card #16 - Going Home...

Card #16

Going Home
Going home is returning to your nature.  
Return home.  Return to your source.
- Exercise -
We will take this translation quite literally. 
Return to a place with which you are very 
familiar...a place where you feel "at home".
Try to experience that place again with new eyes. 
 Stay still  and let the place speak to you.  You
may have to return to it over and over before 
you make a single picture.  Good photographers
listen to what the place has to say before they look 
into its soul.

    I grew up in central Massachusetts but I was born in upstate New York, a place I haven't returned to in over 50 years.  Part of my goal as a contemplative photographer this year is to explore the "near to hand" as well as the personally evocative landscape.  I will try to journey to the northern part of New York state to see the landscape of my early youth, this time through the eyes of a contemplative photographer. 

    This photograph was made on Inis Oirr in the Aran Islands.  The two little girls were hurrying home as a storm approached.  In the storms which plague our inner landscape, we often "head home" to a remembered security.  There we can often find a sanctuary for our soul.  Seek out your own evocative landscapes that speak of "home"...

Friday, January 25, 2013


  "Solitude, says the moon shell.  
Every person, especially every woman, 
should be alone sometime during
the year, some part of each week,
 and each day. "

-Anne Morrow Lindbergh

    I've been re-organizing my library.  It is a painfully slow process since I have to mull over each book I'm considering purging from my collection.  It does have its benefits though.  I came across a book I hadn't looked at for many years, "Solitude: a return to the self" by Anthony Storr. My notation on the title page indicated that I'd acquire the book in 1990...a full 15 years before I began my journey as a contemplative photographer.  It seems that even then I had a bit of the monk in my soul!  I spent several hours re-reading it and I want to share some of my thoughts about the concept of solitude.

   I've always believed that we are the sum total of all that has gone before.  We are who we are because of the life we have lived and the people we have met.  Those people and experiences are the fire that tempers our being.  I also believe you can tell a lot about a person by looking at how they handle solitude.  There are some, like myself, who covet our "alone time", who couldn't survive without it.  Then there are those who flee from it at all costs, needing to fill their time with activity and other people.  Either one can be taken to an extreme...there must be a balance.

   For the contemplative photographer, these times of solitude are as vital to our artistic process as the time we spend making the images in the first place.  It is our "ruminating" phase and with winter upon us I find myself more and more drawn to the practice of sitting quietly with my work.  In a world that seems increasingly chaotic and demanding, I think one needs to make a conscious effort at solitude.  If family life makes this difficult at home, then schedule a "retreat", either at another location or by hanging a sign on your door asking people to check back in an hour or two.  Getting use to and comfortable with solitude might be a challenge for some. If you are in the Northeast, consider attending a retreat at the Stony Point Center in New York.  They occasionally offer a two day retreat called "Cultivating Quiet" ...that is a great place to start.

   Being alone is not the same as being lonely.  I know people who can be lonely in a crowd. I never feel lonely when I am alone. When properly practiced, solitude is an enriching experience and one I highly recommend.

"We must reserve a little back-shop, all our own,
entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty
and principal retreat and solitude."


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Framing Your World...

   We often speak about a persons "frame of reference", what defines their thoughts on a subject.  As photographers, we "frame" our images by deliberate choice but, I wonder, how conscious are we of the implications of these choices?  What we choose to exclude is as important as what we choose to contain within the frame of our photograph.  This is a post about "edges".

   As a part of my visual listening exercise, I use a cardboard viewfinder to explore possibilities within the landscape.  It isolates the subject and I become more aware of the edges of the image and what lies just outside the frame.  I experiment with vertical as well as horizontal formats.  I'm always amazed at how many people never think to turn their cameras 90 degrees!  It can make a world of difference as you will see.

   You can practice this very easily with a large image - either one you've made yourself or a magazine photograph - and a small paper viewfinder.  Lay the viewfinder on the image and see how many "images within the image" you can find.  How do the different crops change your thoughts about the original landscape?  This helps train your eye to look for multiple "frames of reference".

   Here are three crops of the image above which I made on South Uist in 2011.  Each gives a completely different reading of the landscape.

   This view puts all the emphasis on the distant mountain.  Your eye goes directly to it following the blue water of the lochs.  This is a mountain that is visible from just about any location on the northern part of South Uist and it holds special significance for the local people. I often seek these places out when I travel.  A location has two faces, one you see from your perspective and one which those who live everyday in it see...try to see both.

 The view on the left disregards the water completely and emphasizes the foreground and the multiple layers of green and brown that make up this landscape.

   The right view plays up the road and cottage.  It leads your eye into the distance inviting you to journey into the landscape and by making the sky half of the image it enhances the isolation of the cottage.

   If there were 5 photographers on the hill that afternoon with me, we would, most likely, have come away with 6 different compositions.  Some of us would be content with the "long view", some of us would have moved in for a closer look.  I love this quote; I don't remember who said it but he (or she) must have been a contemplative photographer...

" The best telephoto lens a photographer can
have is a pair of good legs!"

   Next time you are on-location, spend some time with a viewfinder.  I encourage you to become more aware of the edges of your images...what you choose to contain and what you choose to exclude.  Both choices are quite revealing!


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Winter Etching - 2013...

The Spiral Dance - 2013
   Each year I try to add to my Winter Etchings series. Living here in Maine I have plenty of opportunity to observe shadows on snow and it is one of my favorite winter activities.   In fact, when I first began my journey as a contemplative photographer eight years ago this February, a "winter etching" was in the very first group of images I made. They are so beautifully suited to the monochrome image I love.

   This is my winter etching for 2013.  When I posted on New Years Day I included a spiral I found in the library at Glastonbury Abbey.  I thought it suited the text of that post beautifully and loved the idea that I'd discovered it quite by accident.  When I returned to Maine a few days later, I discovered this spiral in a place I had driven by hundreds of times and never noticed.  I guess I wasn't ready to see it.  That's how it is with contemplative photography.  When you open your mind to an idea or an image you begin to see them everywhere and in that repetition there is revelation.

 The spiral has always  been a favorite image for me.  I even wear one in a ring I had made for me in Ireland.  But now, with my focus on "pathways", I see an even deeper meaning for of this elegant curving line.  I have spent the last months journeying inward, to the very core of my being but at some point we reach the center and then it is time to journey out, to re-connect with the material world and especially Nature.  With the slowly lengthening days I begin my journey out from the secure center of solitude welcoming whatever or whomever crosses my path.  It is all part of the spiral dance...

A sprig which spirals
from a grain,
rising up,
to taste the flame.
And the circle grows
each time around,
for all within
are spiral bound.
Casting prayers
on fate or chance,
all within,
the spiral dance.

(Read the whole poem by
 Emileo Miller-Lopez

   My experience in the Glastonbury Abbey labyrinth and this spiral revelation, inspired me to create a Pinterest board on labyrinths. Visit it through the link below.  Perhaps the "spiral dance" is in your future...



Sunday, January 20, 2013

Seeing the Ordinary...

" It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer.  You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things.  But in photography everything is so ordinary, it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary."
-David Bailey

   So much of my thinking and my camera work is directed to the sacredness of the commonplace; seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary objects of daily life.  This is the very essence of the contemplative photographic experience for me. David Bailey really says it so well.  It truly takes a lot of "looking" before you can see the ordinary for more that its superficial quality.

   In Japanese aesthetics, there is a wonderful term for this way of perceiving the world around you.  It is called Wabi Sabi. It involves seeing the rustic beauty and serenity in objects that are weather beaten and aged.  You look beyond the surface quality to access the wisdom in the object's imperfections.  I was thinking about that when I came across this old door at Glastonbury Abbey recently.  For me, this image is a mixed metaphor.  The "X" denotes exclusion, do not enter, stay back.  It is a universally applied symbol.  The door, however, is slightly ajar and one can just see the tiniest hint of light from a window deep within the shed.  

   I stood and looked at that door for quite awhile. The rough weathered wood, the peeling paint, the "keep out" X.  We all face these kinds of road blocks in our lives, when it is easier to turn away that to pry open the door and enter.  So much easier, as photographers, to stick with the "pretty pictures" than to focus our lenses on the derelict and abandoned.  But as this image implies, there may be much that can be learned with struggling to open those doors.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Doors and Windows...

Ajar - Pere la Chaise Cemetery, Paris
   On December 29, 2012, in my final post of the year, I spoke about doorways and thresholds.  It is a rather universal metaphor and one I find continually illuminating.  There is such a duality contained within the idea of the "doorway".  They can welcome us in or bar our entrance.  Some require a key to open while some stand ajar in subtle invitation.  And as the Roman god Janus underscores, you can move both ways across the thresholds we encounter.  We can go in or out, the choice is ours.

  When I visited the ancient Houtong section of Beijing, China I learned that people's status within the community could be ascertained by the height of their threshold.  The higher it was, the greater one's prestige.  When I visited Japan I saw how people would place a piece of fabric (called a Notan) in their doorway so that visitors had to bow their heads as they entered the home, as a sign of respect.

   On my Pinterest site I've been collecting images of doors and windows.  It is such a rich metaphor for the contemplative photographer. You could also include arches and passageways in this category. They all speak of transition.  My image "Heavenly Staircase" shows how doorways can be an interesting focus for reflection.

Old Window - Connemara, Ireland
   Windows, as well, have have a rich tradition of metaphorical possibilities and are therefor fertile ground for the contemplative photographer to explore.  When I was in France this summer the stain glass windows were a constant delight.  What I found particularly interesting is the fact that when viewed from outside the church, the windows looked dark and lifeless but when seen from the inside the windows glowed with incredible beauty.  There certainly is a message in that.

 This year I will explore a number of meaningful metaphors that you might use in your own exploration of the world around you.  Seeing the metaphoric capabilities in the landscape is an essential skill for the contemplative photographer and I encourage you to begin to collect your own metaphors.  In the meantime, visit my Pinterest board "Doors and Windows" to see how other photographers have approached this intriguing and thought provoking subject.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

PhotoTao Card #15 - Exhibiting Skills...

Card #15

Exhibiting Skill
Be attentive to every thing.  Look at life as
if you haven't seen it before.  Each moment is 
new, each moment is different.  
- Exercise -
Find someone who will allow you to
photograph them doing something they so
well.  Photograph them as if you have no
idea what they are doing but that you are
obsessed with recording every motion,
every detail.  The more "mundane" the
activity the better...the more and varied the  
images the better!  

   Part of what I was trying to do in my First Person Rural series was to sanctify the everyday work of human hands.  Tending their animals, crocheting an afghan or peeling apples for a pie, perhaps mundane in their "everydayness" but  I saw them as concrete extensions of the personality and soul of the doer.  When we sanctify daily work we give value to the soul.  I believe it was St. Francis who said, when asked while hoeing his field what he would do if  he knew he would die tomorrow, "I would finish hoeing my field."  Human hands are a wonderful subject for the contemplative photographer.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Inspired by Winslow Homer...

Weather Beaten - 1894
   I visited the Portland Museum recently to see their exhibition, "Weather Beaten" which highlights the late work of Winslow Homer who had made his home on Prout's Neck outside of Portland in his final years.  The restoration of his studio was completed this year and one can tour it from April - October.  That is certainly on my list of things to do this Spring.  I went to the exhibit, however, to gather inspiration for my own photographic work and I wasn't disappointed.

   Of course, after 35 years of teaching art I was well aware of Homers work but it was gratifying to see his Maine canvases together in one exhibit.  I sat in the galleries and made sketches of compositions...I especially liked his use of strong diagonals.  I also liked his use of long horizontal formats; this is something I've experimented with in my camera work before and I think I will continue with this idea.  But the most interesting part of the exhibit for me was his last canvases.  Many of them explored the idea of mortality.  He was nearing the end of his life and it is not surprising his thoughts turned toward the subject of death.

The Seagulls Message - 2005
    Now, death has never been a subject I've dwelt on in my photography but it certainly is one that is ripe for contemplation of any sort.  I searched back through my image inventory and found the only image I have in this theme, one I took of a dead gull in the Western Isles back in 2005.  I remembered that there was something evocative about this image to me at the time I made it.  I later saw a human face nestled under the wing and I spent may hours reflecting on the metaphor.

   I think there are many ways to approach the idea of mortality in your image making and it is a theme that some of you may wish to pursue.  I know that after seeing the exhibition I will keep my eyes open for juxtapositions that would lend themselves to some meaningful reflections.  I don't think it is a morbid subject at we all know, life is a fleeting thing and we never know, as John O'Donouhue said, how close our feet are to the edge.  Why shouldn't we, as contemplative photographers, delve into this sensitive subject?  What is this seagulls message do you think?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Deep Listening...

"To enter deep listening, I've had to
learn how to keep emptying and opening, 
how to keep beginning.  I've had to lean into 
all I don't understand, accepting that I
am changed by what I hear."

-Mark Nepo

A Mother's Devotion - Ballyvaughan, Ireland  2009
   I am completely immersed  in Mark Nepo's book, "Seven Thousand Ways to Listen" at the moment.  Since, for me, contemplative photography begins with and is crucially dependent upon visual listening, using the ear of the heart to open us to the wisdom of the landscape, this was bound to be a book that would touch me profoundly and it has.  Mark explains in the opening chapter of the book that if there are 7,000 living languages in the world today, then there must be 7,000 ways to listen.  If  I  added the mysterious and hidden languages of the natural world, the languages of earth and wind and sea and all the rest of it, well, it could easily be hundreds of thousands of way to listen! Oh, I can hear the linguists out there saying the natural world doesn't have "languages" as such but I would respectfully disagree.  Just because Nature does use words doesn't mean it isn't communicating with us all the time. (Makes me think of the monk and the philosopher in my last post.)

   I came across these horses one day while I was in the Burren region of Ireland.  The little foal seemed to stay very close to its mother and the mare was constantly nuzzling the little guy.  There was such a beautiful connection between the two and at times, like in the photograph above, she seemed to be listening intently to her baby.  There was no need for words for the communication was on a much deeper, non-linguistic, level.

   That is what visual listening in the landscape is for me.  Although it is a kind of subliminal communication it is, nonetheless, very real.  It uses all the senses and when I'm able to fully involve myself in the experience, no words are ever necessary.  I can simple breath in the landscapes subtle message.  When I'm hurried or when I find it hard to quiet my mind, the message is garbled and intermittent, like listening to a radio that is not tuned in.  But when I can attend completely the message comes across loud and clear.  Over the years I've come to understand that the quiet time I spend alone in the landscape is the most personally enriching and meaningful time for me and I can always trust that the part of me that knows beyond my minds knowing will seek out and attune to what is important for me to hear at that moment.  This is another wonderful quote from Mark's book...

" do we listen to and stay in conversation
with all that is beyond our awareness?...intuition
is the very personal way we listen to the
Universe in order to discover and rediscover
the learnings we are born with."

   That subliminal, unspoken communication in Nature can be awesome to witness. Click on the link below to see a demonstration of just such a kind of wordless prepared to be amazed!


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lectio Natura...

   In my post, Photo Lectio - the image as icon, I spoke at length about ways to "read" your photographs to give direction to your contemplative practice.  This method is derived from the ancient monastic practice of Lectio Divina or sacred reading.  I have always loved combining monastic principles with my photographic work.  Some may see it as a bit of a stretch but I've found countless connections over the years as I have with the Taoist principles that inform my camera work.  I'm reading a small book right now entitled "Sacred Rhythms" and the following passage gave me the inspiration for this post...and you know how I love a story!

Riding the Thermals - South Uist, 2011
"One day, a Greek philosopher journeyed to visit Abba Anthony.  Upon entering his cell, the philosopher was shocked to find it empty of books.  "How can you be so happy, when you do not have the comfort of books?" the philosopher exclaimed.  Anthony looked out over the vast desert and replied, "My book, O philosopher,  is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind  to read the words of God, it is in my hands."

   Now, I must confess that I love my books.  I sit surrounded by them and I find much inspiration and enjoyment in them.  As a contemplative photographer, however, I also find the same inspiration and enjoyment in Lectio Natura...reading Nature.  All the ways one can read a book or a photograph one can read the natural world.  The wise monk in the passage above is telling the philosopher, a man of words, to turn his eyes to the source of all thoughts and ideas, the natural world.  In ancient Celtic spirituality there was no disconnect between the spiritual and the natural worlds.  For the Celts, nature was Divine presence.  I have used this quote before but it is especially poignant in this context,

"Wisdom lies in places."

   When one can sit quietly in Nature and listen to the wisdom that is contained within the landscape, one can gain all that one needs to know.  Once you sense that wisdom you will be able to make truly meaningful images.  Make this the year that you go in search of the wisdom in the landscape.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Solvitur Ambulando...

   Glastonbury Abbey has a stone edged labyrinth and despite the snowstorm, its outline was still visible.  Many of us on the New Years retreat took the time to walk its spiral path.  I particularly loved the little stone sign at the entrance, "Solvitur is solved by walking".  I find that walking the labyrinth smooths the ground of my mind so when it is time for me to plant the seeds of contemplation, I will be ready.  A quiet mind is essential for the contemplative photographer.

Glastonbury Abbey Labyrinth
   What is it about labyrinths?  My experience at Chartres Cathedral this past summer got me hooked on the practice and when I looked for others in New England, I found a whole website devoted to the practice. If you visit this link, Labyrinth Guild of New England, you can read a short history of the labyrinth and access their listing of places where you can walk.  Wherever you live in the world, there is sure to be a labyrinth you can visit nearby.

   The one here at Glastonbury provides a sheet describing possible ways you can approach the experience but I especially like The Path of Mindfulness - "Walk in a way that brings calm, stability and joy with each step, deeply aware of what is going on within and without." (Thich Nhat Hanh)   Everyone brings to the labyrinth their own story, their own deep concerns but as the stone explains, "it is solved by walking." 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

In Praise of Celtic Pathways...

   "In conversation they speak in
riddles, for the most part hinting
of things and leaving a great deal
to be understood."

-Diodorus Siculus
(ancient classical writer speaking
of the Celts)

The Walls We Build - Ballyvaughan, Ireland, 2009
   I have been drawn to the ancient Celtic world for as long as I can remember.  I blame by father, in part, for this fascination.  Although of a solid Polish/Russian ancestry, my father chose, for unclear reasons, to change is rather cumbersome Slavic surname to "Sullivan".  With no Irish ancestry at all I was, nonetheless, obliged to carry this ill fitting pseudonym.   But what once felt false now feels more fitting given my love of Western Ireland and Celtic Spirituality.

   In my post, "The Path We are On" (January 3, 2013), I spoke about the trepidations in following a given path.  "Pathways" is another of those universal metaphors and it is the word I've chosen for I'll reflect on during this coming year.  Choosing a word-guide for the year is something I learned at Abbey of the Arts. (And if you haven't visited Abbey of the Arts, you really should.  There is a link in the side bar.)  Well, strictly speaking, you don't so much choose the word as you allow the word to choose you and "Pathways" chose me!

   Now, some people may see pathways as having a beginning and an end and a clear destination but I take a more Celtic approach.  For me they are constantly twisting and curving, like the Celtic knot design, having no starting or ending point. We each approach our pathways differently and for me it has been through the study of Taoism and Celtic Spirituality.  I've written a great deal about Taoism's connection to my contemplative photography but now I wish to speak about the Celtic influence. 

" The Celtic world is a world that favors
poetry before philosophy, mysticism before
theology and magic before logic.  Storytelling
matters more than the ability to explain something
in dry, step-by-step detail.  The Celts are, and
always have been, a people with one foot
in the otherworld..."

-Carl McColman

   All of this, at least for me, relates very nicely to my style of contemplative photography.  I want my photographs to hint at essential truths but never attempt to explain them, leaving the understanding up to the individual viewer, an understanding that may evolve over time.  I want my images to be more a poetic metaphor that a concrete statement of reality....things are always far more complex and infinitely richer than they may seem superficially.  But I think what most influences my thoughts on contemplative photography is the Celtic belief in the dynamic, living landscape; a landscape which invites you into dialogue; a landscape that is an active teacher and co-creator.

   At my retreat at Glastonbury Abbey over the New Year, I attended prayers with the monks many times.  It was a lovely, quieting experience but I think, for me, the Divine is more easily accessible in Nature than within doors...and that is a very Celtic sentiment.  The landscape is Divine presence and with the pull and push of the seasons, the ebb and flow of the tides, with the inhale and exhale of the wind, that presence is very palpable.  I hope to spend a great deal of time this year in the living, breathing landscape and I am sure it will have much to reveal to me. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

PhotoTao Card #14...

Card #14

Praising the Unfathomable
Tao is the great mystery that perplexes us all
because it cannot be described in words.  We sense 
it but it is existentially elusive. 
- Exercise -
On a day when you are not pressed for time, take
a drive with no destination in mind.  Turn only
when you feel the urge...follow your heart's GPS 
and not your map.  Stop often.  Get out and look
around.  Let your senses and intuition guide you.  
Explore and keep an open mind.  Take your time
and just experience the place you find yourself in.
You are where you need to be wherever you are!
Only then make your photographs.

   My 2007 trip to Japan was with a group of educators from
across the US.  We were there, by invitation of the Japanese government, to visit schools and colleges and confer with Japanese educators.  Our days were planned from morning to night with hardly a moment to spare.  One day, however, was set aside for us to do whatever we wanted and I headed off to Chiba.  I met an American who had been living in Japan for some time and he asked me what I wanted to do.  I said, "Let's just wander about and see what we find."  What we stumbled onto was this Buddhist shrine.  I spend an hour wandering around and making a series of photographs.  When my friend asked if I wanted to move on I said no.  This was where I needed to be and I was content to explore the abstract qualities of this amazing place.  I've always remembered that day and try to do some "purposeless wandering" wherever I travel.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Path We are On...

The Path We are On - Outer Hebrides
  I recently heard of an idea, which turned out to be one of those urban myths by the way, that our body replaces all the trillions of cells we have every seven years.  Of course, that isn't exactly true.  Some cells never die off, like the neurons in our brain, and some die off very rabidly and are replaced.  The point of this post is not to discuss biology but to mull over the idea that we are constantly in the process "reformation".  In a very real sense, we are not exactly the same person we were yesterday and in 7 years - if you want to use that time frame - we will be significantly altered, biologically speaking at least.

   Now that little tidbit of information/misinformation got me thinking about the old phrase, "the seven year itch". (This is how my mind thing leads to another and another!)  I then realized that I had begun my re-discovery of photography a little over seven years ago in the Outer Hebrides.  I can safely say, cells or not, I'm not the same photographer today that I was back then.  I've been on a path of self discovery that has led me to where I am right now and, thankfully, the journey isn't over yet.
Janus, god of Gates and Doorways

   The beginning of the new year is a great time to reflect, and like the Roman god Janus (from whose name we get the month "January") we should look both forward and backward. I choose the photograph above for this post because, like the paths we are all on, we cannot see what lies over the hill.  Clearly, people have walked this way before (footprints are always reassuring) but there is always that apprehension of the unknown.  Do we keep walking or do we turn back?  Where we have been always seems safer that the unknown that awaits just over the hill and out of sight but without the mystery our lives would be a meaningless tedium of "sameness".

   Now, I must admit to a recently acquired "seven year itch".  I've been so directed to travel the last seven  years that it seemed as if  I am always planning for or just returning from some major overseas adventure...always traveling eastward.  Now, I've acquired the desire to explore closer to leave the "big" trips for later.  I need a hiatus.  So, in 2013 I will plan a series of driving trips around New England and Eastern Canada.  The path I'm now on will take some sharp turns...North and South and West.  What will I find? What is waiting to be discovered?   Who knows but I'm itching to get going!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Road to World's End...

   Yesterday's post was a bit of serendipity.  I had, in fact, planned the text of the post before I came to the abbey on my New Year's retreat.  I had thought to just use the text, without any photograph.  Sitting in the library of our guest house I noticed the lovely andirons in front of the fireplace with their double spiral and voila!, I had the perfect image for the quote I'd planned to post on New Year's day!  As I was posting it, the text called to mind a conversation I'd had with another person staying at the abbey...of her walk to "World's End" not far from from our guest house!  I marveled at how often this happens in my travels...a text leads to an image, or an image will elicit a literary reference, a casual comment relates to a bit of writing I'd done.  It never fails to surprise and delight me, this synchronicity of experience, but as my new friend reminded me, "There are no coincidences!"  This happens more and more often the longer you practice contemplative photography I find.  Your mind becomes a fertile ground for metaphor and connections.

    So to celebrate the New Year, another new friend and I went off in search of this place called "World's End".   Despite the frigid temperatures and biting wind, it was a wonderful walk. The road leads you out but then loops around and, like Monday's quote, you find yourself back where you started from.  You can see the Boston skyline to the left yet you feel so detached from it all, in a world of your own. In ancient Celtic tradition, places at the water's edge can mark the intersection of the two worlds...the real world and the "other" world.  It certainly felt that way here. I could see the "real" world of commerce and industry on the horizon but my feet were firmly planted in a world of Nature and divine presence.   It was a lovely way to begin the New Year.   Where will your road take you this year? 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Day - 2013

Glastonbury Abbey Spirals

"Life goes not in a straight line, but in a circle.
The first half we spend venturing as far as the
 world's end from home and kin and 
stillness, and the latter half brings us back
by  roundabout ways and surely, to that
state from which we set out."

 The Cadfael Chronicles
"The Summer of the Danes"
by Ellis Peters