Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Camera as Your Anam Cara....

     I'm re-reading John O'Donohue's best selling book, Anam Cara. It has always been a favorite of mine and it was my first introduction to this wonderful man's writing.  In Gaelic, "anam cara" means "soul friend" and it is a basic and pervading principle of Celtic Spirituality. Without much of an effort, I find that I can relate this principle to photography as well.

   As I've progressed along my path as a contemplative photographer I have come to regard my camera as not merely a mechanical device but as a dear friend that has brought me much joy over the years as all good friends do.  My camera doesn't merely record photons on it's memory translates light into an icon of experience for me.  Through my thoughts and reflections on the artifact it provides - the photographic image - it nourishes my soul as only a true friend can.  A medieval mystic once postulated this question, "Where does the light go when the candle is blown out?"  The camera holds the memory of that light and what an amazing gift that is...the gift of memory! I have no difficulty thinking of my camera as my soul's anam cara.

   If I can think of the landscape as teacher and co-creator then it is not much of a stretch to view my camera as a participating facilitator and partner in my translator.  I may direct its gaze but it holds the light for me...not only holding it but transforming and abstracting it.  What was once three dimensional is not a two dimensional page that I have come to be able to read as easily as any page in a book.

   I firmly believe that what distinguishes a contemplative photographer from any other sort of photographer is this ability  to look beyond the mere mechanics of the process...beyond the technical considerations of the medium.  When we can enter into a more personal and intimate dialogue with the world through our soul's friend, the camera, then we will understand the co-creative process and our images will become, for us, two way mirrors.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Inspired by Andrew Wyeth...

   I've loved the paintings of Andrew Wyeth from the first moment I saw them back in the late 1960's.  For a short time, I worked as a painter and his meticulous tempera and watercolor landscapes influenced my brush work.  When I started photography again in 2005 I looked again at this man's work.  This time it was more his compositions that struck my eye rather than his painting technique.

  "Christina's World" is perhaps the most recognized of Wyeth's paintings.  I have been to Cushing, Maine where the house is located.  I even sat in the field looking up at the house as Christina did.  She and her brother are buried in the small family cemetery to the left of this view.  The house is a museum now and it and the surrounding countryside are wonderful places to photograph.

   I've been inspired by Wyeth's work in several ways but most notably in his use of ordinary, rural subjects and his high horizon lines.  My image "Up Close and Far Away" definitely has a "Wyeth-like feel to it.  The high horizon line throws the foreground into greater importance and creates an immense sense of space.

   I also love the "bare bones" feel to Wyeth's work and I guess that is what draws me to photograph in November and early December here in Maine when the skeleton of the landscape is beautifully revealed.  I think it is also what inspires me in the Burren in Ireland and in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  Things are uncrowded there...there is room to breath and the images have an expansive quality to them.  Some people's response to such images is that they feel "lonely"...but that says more of the person themselves than the photograph.

   I urge you to not limit your inspiration to just photographers.  Visit an art museum and check out the painting galleries.  Bring your sketch book and make some visual notations of different compositional ideas or unique subject matter.  A contemplative photographers inspiration can come from anywhere!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


   "A photographer's files are in
a sense his autobiography."

-Dorothea Lange

Spinning Hands - 2010
   Photographers write their life story without words.  They speak volumes in a single image.  They encapsulate their personal experience within the confines of the photograph's frame.  When I found this quotation from Dorothea Lange, it was if a light suddenly illuminated my mind.  "Of course," I thought, "I am my images! Now, what do these images tell of my life as a photographer?"

   On this blog I have a small slide show I call, "My Journey So Far".  When I imported the images I gave no thought for putting them in any order, to plot out my "autobiography" in pictures.  But if I were to do that, what would I consider significant images in my development as a contemplative photographer?  And, more importantly, what would these images say about me?

   When you become famous as an artist and have worked for many, many years on your craft, a museum may mount a retrospective exhibition of your work...a visual autobiography.  I've been working on my craft for only eight years now since my "re-emergence" as a serious photographer  (I don't count my college years as a photography major...I did that only to become an art teacher.) and I'm certainly not famous by any definition of the term so it is highly unlikely MOMA will be mounting a retrospective of my work any time soon.  I think that the idea of creating a personal retrospective may be a worthwhile enterprise however. Over the months to come I will play around with this idea and see where it leads.  I certainly know which image I will begin with! (See my post, "The Contemplative and the Photographer.")  In the meantime, look through your photographic files and begin your "autobiography in images".  Here's a quote that may show you a reason to pursue this idea...

"We think of photographs as the captured past.
But some  photographs are like DNA.  In them
you can read your whole future."

-Anne Michaels

Monday, February 25, 2013

Cultivating the Quiet Mind...

   My own words are not the medicine, but a prescription;
 not the destination, but a map to help you reach it. 
When you get there, quiet your mind and close your mouth.
 Don't analyze the Tao. Strive instead to live it: 
silently, undividedly, with your whole harmonious being.

Lao Tzu (c.604 - 531 B.C.)

   When I first began my journey as a contemplative photographer, I had a difficult time.  Not with the contemplative part after I made an image, that seemed to be part of my nature, to think deeply about things...even seemingly little things. No, the difficulty I had was in quieting my mind before I made any photographs at all so that I could be sure I was truly absorbing the wisdom of the landscape before me.

   Eventually, I developed my "visual listening" exercise, I began sketching the landscape before I photographed it and I wrote copiously in my field journal.  These three things were a great help.  What I found the most difficult was putting aside my training as a photographer (the "pre-contemplative" sort) and as an art teacher.  My head was so full of rules and prior knowledge.  Even when I made a conscious effort to dismiss it from my thoughts it would pop in and screech in my ear.  "Composition, framing, aperture, f-stop...." It seemed quite ironic that the very thing that brought me to my love of  contemplative photography was now interfering with my practicing it.

   As the title of this post implies, a quiet mind needs to be cultivated, patiently over time.  I try to plant the seeds here in this blog but there are no short cuts, no easy way to reach this state.  In our "silver bullet" society, we want instant success, immediate gratification.  If you truly wish to practice contemplative photography you must try to cultivate a quiet mind.  Here are some suggestions:
  • Go on a retreat that will physically distance you from your day to day life. Don't take a class or workshop in silence, practice it for a weekend someplace where there is nothing else for you to do. Have you ever tried to not talk for a whole day? Not easy!  Experience how emptying your mind allows space for new awareness to seep in.
  • Practice simple meditation on a daily basis.  There are many ways to do this but just closing your eyes and slowing your breathing is a start or sync your breathing to a simple movement like raising and lowering your arms.
  • Listen to music that quiets your soul. I play my Gregorian chants each morning.  They are sung in Latin and I have no idea what they are saying so I don't think about the words. I just love the sound of the music.  It lulls me into a wonderful, relaxed state.
  • Read a passage you love, over and over again.  It's like a literary chant.  If I choose a lovely verse that has meaning for me, it's repetition has a calming effect.
  • Another way I calm my mind is to pat my cat Emerson. (OK, I hear you snickering but it's true!)  His soft purring is so relaxing.  I don't think people realize what a tranquilizing effect animals can have.
  • Take a walk.  Find a quiet place in nature.  Practice "walking meditation".  I do that each time I visit Walden Woods in Concord, Massachusetts. (photograph above) Nature, for me, is the ultimate tranquilizer.
  • When you are "on location" don't take your camera right out.  Leave it in its bag for awhile and just sit still.  You might like to read my post on "visual listening" but there are no hard and fast rules.  Find a way that suits you.  Be Still, Be Present, Be Patient and Be Persistent.
       These are just a few ideas to practice.  I've found that over the years, with constant practice, I am able to quiet my mind in just a few minutes. It really becomes easier the more you practice it. The photographs I make afterwards are always so much better...take the time to cultivate your quiet mind.

"Only when you drink from the
river of silence shall you indeed sing."

Kahlil Gibran


Sunday, February 24, 2013

On a Grey Day...

      Photographing in the Western Isles or just about anywhere in Scotland you will encounter the grey day. This image was made on North Uist in the Western Isles.  Misty, fog-filled landscapes are a very special opportunity for the contemplative photographer.  I liken the effect to a snowfall here in New England (which we are again experiencing today); there is a hushed stillness that envelops the landscape that is almost transcendent.

   This blog is not a "how to" guide for technical questions.  There are so many great books available it would be pretentious of me to assume that I have any different technical wisdom to offer but two things you might try on a grey day is a long exposure (with a tripod of course) and applying an infra-red filter to a black and white image in the digital darkroom, as I did with this image.  It can do some nice things with tonal ranges.

    What is more important than these technical considerations this kind of day presents is the idea that merely sitting in a landscape like the one above, quietly listening to the cry of a lone gull and feeling completely detached from your "other life".  It is something everyone, photographer or not, should experience.  The incredible sense of peace and "other worldliness" is breathtaking.  I am very fortunate to live in a state (Maine) that offers many of these fog-filled days along the coast.  The air smells different on a grey day and you almost feel as if time is suspended.  With no sun marking time across the heavens, it could be anytime.  Timelessness is an entrancing quality and one I hope all of you get to experience.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

PhotoTao Card #19 - Like a Child...

Card #19

Like a Child
Become like a child.  Watch the world through a 
child's eyes.  Experience the wonder of each new moment.
- Exercise -
The next time you go for a walk, make images from
 a child's perspective.  Hang your camera around your
neck (extend the strap if you must) and "shoot from
the hip".  Set the camera on auto and just click away.
Even turn the camera upside down! Sit on a bench with
the camera only a couple feet off the ground and make
images from a child's height.

A Little Boy in Galway - 2007
   Picasso wrote that it had taken him his whole life to learn how to draw like a child.  All children are artists he said.  The challenge was to stay an artist as you grow up.  Having been an art teacher for over 30 years I know the wisdom of those words.

   One way you can test out this theory is to give a camera to a small child and let them spend a day photographing anything they wish.  It might even be fun to take them on a walk...a photography stroll...and tell them to make photographs of things that catch their eye.  Then look at the results.

   Children are completely unconcerned by rules and parameters.  All that stuff about composition and framing means nothing to them.  They have a completely innocent view of the world.  "Out of the mouths of Babes..." can also apply to photography for out of the cameras of Babes comes inspiration for seeing the world with fresh eyes.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Hidden Truths, Obvious Lies....

   I've written before about using Photoshop to manipulate your images.  In one of my PhotoTao cards I encourage people to explore the possibilities but I want to write today about what I see as the Photoshop dichotomy...the hidden truths and the obvious lies we can create with this wonderful technology.

   In my post "The Annaberg Encounter", I spoke about needing to find a way to process the images I made that day in a way that would more clearly reveal the emotions I had at the location.  I used an infra red filter and a solarization effect to get the result I was after.  Both those process have been around for a long time. One could use infra red film and create solarized effects in the traditional dark room. It is just so much easier today in the digital darkroom.

   The photograph above was made in Rouen cathedral this past summer.  It was nothing wonderful in its original state so I tried a digital filter - neon glow - to bring out the edges and the wonderful stained give it the "other worldly" ambiance that I felt that day as I wandered through the cathedral.  Anyone looking at this image will clearly see the manipulation, like the Annaberg photographs, it was done for artistic purposes and to make visibly concrete the ethereal emotion of the place. I saw the use of these techniques as a way to reveal a "hidden truth" I'd discovered in the landscape at the Annaberg sugar mill and the interior of Rouen cathedral.

    What I object to, well perhaps "object" is too strong a word, is when Photoshop is used to create "obvious lies" taking a sky from one image and putting it in another...or importing objects, people, buildings, etc. into a landscape that weren't there originally.  Why do I avoid such manipulations?  It gets to the idea of truthfulness.  Today, when we go to movies or see photographs on the internet or in magazines, we question whether what we are seeing is an accurate rendition of the world or is it "photoshopped".  You really can't tell anymore and somehow I feel that that it is a bit dishonest. It's fine when the artist makes clear his/her intention to create a fantasy world but most of the time it is presented as the "real" world.  Isn't the real world wonderful enough?  Sometimes I think it is just laziness.  Much easier to make-up a dynamic, breathtaking image in photoshop than to spend time in the landscape seeking out the authentic one. We have become quite the "cut and paste" society today.  If we don't like something it is so easy to manipulate the reality to make it fit some inner criteria of perfection. 

   By all means, use photoshop to enhance your images.  Use it for an artistic effect to create a photograph that will inspire greater insight and further your contemplative practice but think about the truthfulness of those images.  Are you responding to a landscape or rejecting it?  Is your process one of co-creation or detached manipulation?   Are you looking for the sacred in the commonplace or are you just playing God?   You decide.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Poetic Imagination...

"Poetic Imagination is your ability
to discover a central image inside
you that makes sense of all the
thousands of other images you
receive."  -  David Whyte

   When I read this quote by poet David Whyte I felt that it made perfect sense for the contemplative photographer as well.  In the digital age, the ability to gather thousands of images is fairly easy.  We can gather and discard them with abandon and in the end it seems to diminishes the individual photograph.  But recently, I've been focusing on identifying one individual image that I can point to as an icon of the photograph that I can point to and say, "This one says it all!"  It is a fascinating exercise.  If I cannot find that one icon amongst the hundreds of photographs I made in that location then that says to me that I didn't get the true nature of the place or the experience.

   I've been thinking a lot about my Hebridean photographs lately.  It is, by far, my biggest body of work. I thought I'd try finding that one icon of experience amongst all the hundreds of images I made on my two month long trips to the Western Isles.  I think this photograph would be my choice.  I call it "Up Close and Faraway" and for me it contains the very essence of my Hebridean experience.  The wildflowers of the machair, the vast, open, treeless landscape, the amazing ever changing skies, and the ruined house that speaks to the tragic history of the place. No, it doesn't show the sea or the sheep but it is the emotive quality of the image that I find so appealing.  Even though the house is a ruin, it seems to sit proudly on the land.  Because of the low point of view, one needs to "look up to it" which gives it a special presence.  It is not a sad image but a hopeful one to me.

   I think this is an exercise everyone would benefit from.  Spread out a significant number of images made in the same place on your dinning room table and see if you can point to the one you can call your icon of experience then ask yourself,  why? Why this image and not another?  I think you will get at the true relevance of your time in that place.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Training Your Third Eye...

   In Taoism, Third Eye Training allows the student to tune into the correct vibration of the universe by closing the eyes and focusing on a spot between the eyebrows.  In some traditions, the third eye is thought to be the soul's eye while our two normal seeing eyes connect only to our physical body.

   Fr. Richad Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, considers the third eye as a metaphor for non-dualistic thinking. For him, the first eye provides sensory input, the second eye relates to reason, meditation, and reflection and the third eye is the mystical gaze...building on the first two eyes but going much further.

   For a contemplative photographer, at least THIS contemplative photographer, the third eye is an absolute necessity for one to practice visual listening skills.  The soul's  eye perceives, and the heart's ear listen's...the two components of visual listening.  It is through this interchange of looking and listening that the contemplative photographer can enter into a  meaningful relationship with the landscape.

   I would even go as far as to say that it is the ONLY way to tap into the wisdom of the landscape.  Our normal ears hear only "noise"- a gulls screech, the wind in the trees or the sound of our footsteps on the path.  Our normal eyes see only color and shape and texture. If we rely exclusively on our normal senses, we may create decent photographs but they will stop far short of sensitive renderings of the spiritual sense of a given place. If you like, think of the creation of great contemplative photographs like having your Grandmother's famous recipe for spaghetti's great because it is based on a complete understanding of the ingredients and their proper relationship to each other. Random vegetables, herbs and spices, regardless of how good they may look, will not make a great sauce without this practiced understanding of their qualities and inter-relationship but it's the love she puts into the effort that matters most.  Without that intangible element it's only sauce.

   So when you go out into the landscape, take some time training your third eye whether it be through meditation or visual listening techniques.  The time will be well spent.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Layered Landscape...

   In Western culture, we see the natural world as property.  Land is to be developed and made "productive" and more "valuable" as if it were neither of those things without the hand of Man interceding on its behalf!  As a contemplative photographer I must reject that mindset.  For me, the landscape is a living, breathing and layered experience.  It is overwhelmingly complex but capable of sparking stunning revelations in a person who embraces its many nuances.

   On the surface layer we have trees and rocks and plants and sea - the physicality of place.  For some people, perhaps most people, this is all it is.  Some places  may be more pleasing than others, some more appealing but they are all merely variations on the theme of "landscape".

   Just below this layer is the dynamic dance of all the creatures, including the human kind, that interact in an intimate give and take with landscape.  We have to look a bit deeper if we wish to see this splendid choreography at work but it is an important layer to appreciate and understand.

   At the deepest level is the pulsating essence of the landscape - its breathing in and out, its vital flow of energy and its essential and spiritual presence.  This is the level we can not "see" but only sense and it takes all our senses if we are to dig down to this layer.  We must taste it, smell it and touch it as well as see it and hear it but those five senses are still not enough.  We must try to awaken our third eye if we want to reach this level of understanding and intimate connection. (I'll talk more about the "third eye" in tomorrow's post.)

   Truthfully, I've reached that bottom layer only twice although I've sensed it countless times.  I reached that essential level once when I was on the Burren in County Clare Ireland in 2007 and once as I stood on the edge of the sea in a remote part of South Uist, Scotland in 2011.  They were both powerful experiences and the hope of another such encounter with the soul of the landscape is what keeps me motivated as a contemplative photographer.  I'm thankful, however, that it is a rare makes it, when it does happen, an even greater blessing.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Mapping Interior Worlds...

   Thanks to a comment on this blog, I was introduced to a new book and I've found it fascinating.  It is called A Mapmaker's Dream by James Cowan.  It is an historical fiction based on the writings of a real Venetian monk, Fra Mauro who created a map solely from other peoples descriptions of places to which they had traveled.  Without ever leaving his cell, Fra Mauro created a map of the imagination.

"With the help of others I have completed the world.  
It now has a form that is both physical and - dare I say it? -
immaterial at once.  Perhaps, yes, even mystical." - page 147

   This book made me think about the hidden, largely unknown, inner landscape of the human soul.  In contemplative photography we seek metaphor in the world around us to better understand this interior world.  I believe Fra Mauro did the same thing but instead of making photographs he made a map.

    The story also called to mind the ancient maps I had seen that included the phrase, "Here be dragons" for the place that existed at the edge of the known world.  Venture there at your own peril!  Don't we all have such places on the map we carry in our hearts...places we seek to avoid at all costs?

   For it is true, we all have a kind of interior map which is not so much a picture of the known world but an imaginative rendering of our desired world...our created realities.  We come to know this world - and create our maps - through our response to places, people, and things in our lives.  It is through the wonderful vehicle of the photographic image we can gain insight into the shape and contours of this inner landscape.

   Cowan describes  Fra Mauro's striving to create this map of imagination and I can think of no more fitting description of the contemplative photographer...

"His (Fra Mauro) dream is to derive meanings from the perfect use of mystery.  Each place that he evokes becomes a symbol.  Little by little he tries to evoke a country, and entire world, in order to reveal a frame of mind.  In doing
so he often chooses a piece of information, a mere fact sometimes, with the object of causing a new state of mind to emerge.  He is trying to encourage a process of unlimited deciphering, as if these facts are but the tip of an iceberg.  He is asking us to dispense with the ice floe of appearances and plunge ever deeper below its surface." - Introduction

   The map spoken of in the book has, sadly, been lost to us but the one on the right is a surviving example of Fra Mauro's work.  He places South at the top which is more in keeping with Muslim maps of the time and I love the idea of turning the world upside down!  It is incredibly rich in detail and annotation but his lost map of his imaginings resonates more with my contemplative soul...

"The world you are looking for," the astronomer expounded, "includes many things
whose existence most people doubt.  That is because they are expecting those
things to conform to what they already know.  The world I am talking about has been 
created to reflect each person's deepest image of himself.  It follows that wise
men contemplate the world, knowing full well that they are
contemplating themselves."  - page 134-135

   The same could be said of the contemplative photographer....

Sunday, February 17, 2013

In Their Own Words - Minor White

"Surfaces reveal inner states - cameras
record surfaces.  I must somehow be a 
kind of microscope by which the 
underlying forces of spirit are observed
and extended to others."
-Minor White

   To imagine that objects, whether man-made or natural, can possess an "underlying force of spirit" is an idea that underscores much of the contemplative photographer's approach to their work.  But what is lurking behind those words, beyond mere metaphor, is the Taoist concept of Qi...the energy inherent in all things. Landscape can have it, most certainly, but I am inclined to agree with Minor White, so do objects.  This sculpture of St. Benedict, on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey may be seen as merely a work of bronze sitting placidly in the landscape or, as the artist perhaps intended, seen as powerful gesture of both reverence and  emphasis.  We all  respond to this energy whether we know it or not.  It is the goal of the contemplative photographer to translate that energy into a visual document of the experience.  We can then, as Minor White suggests, extend that experience to others through our photographs.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Pattern as Metaphor...

"At the Foundation of everything
is Nature."

-Lao Tzu

The Spiral Begins - Ireland, 2009

  While I love to photograph people, objects and the man-made environment, at my core I am drawn most profoundly to the natural world.  As a contemplative photographer I would have to agree with Lao Tzu, in Nature you can find everything you are looking for.  I am never more at peace than when I'm sitting quietly in some remote landscape, far the "madding crowd".  In a world that seems to be getting more and more chaotic and unpredictable, I find great solace in the rhythms of Nature; the slow but inevitable turning of the year's wheel.  Although Nature can be unpredictable at times, you know that the sun will rise each morning and the worst winter storms will eventually melt away in Springtime.

Sand Leaf - South Uist, 2005
   I believe our minds are hard-wired to seek patterns even in the most chaotic situations. I make the search for pattern, Nature's innate design, a regular photographic objective.  My favorite natural design element is the spiral; from the vast galaxies above, to the tiny spiral in a snail's shell below, I love this idea of moving in and out along a circular path.  The branching pattern of trees and leaves again offers our minds interesting metaphoric possibilities.  The list of Nature's patterns is endless.

   A true Taoist would walk a more middle path between chaos and uniformity.  They would avoid pattern as much as they would confusion but a contemplative photographer can see the benefit of both and will try to record them in their images.

"Yin and Yang produce a circular evolution
 in which every end is a beginning."

                                       - Tai Gong Diao

Friday, February 15, 2013

Revealing and Concealing...

   When I was in art school, specifically, in Art History 101, we learned about a sculptural technique much favored in ancient Greece.  It was called "wet drapery" and I remember the professor talking at great length about this amazing it revealed at the same time as it concealed the human form beneath the folds.  Truly stunning when you consider it is accomplished with mallet and chisel and a piece of very hard marble!  I also remember my sculpture teacher bringing in a piece of marble for us to try our hand at later that same first year of art school. It made my appreciation for the Greek sculptures even more profound when I experienced, for myself, just how difficult it is to carve marble.  That few minutes I spent with a mallet and a chisel did more for my "art appreciation" than the long lecture my art history professor had given.

   Contemplative photography is a bit like that.  We can read about it and we can look at beautiful examples of masterful images but nothing can quite replace the experience of simply going out into the landscape with one's camera, sitting quietly absorbing the sense of place and then creating our own images.  Many, if not most, of our attempts will be anything but "contemplative" but when we do manage to create that icon of experience that speaks to something soulfully essential for us then we'll "get it".  It will ring true and create a connection between image and thought I can only hint at in my posts.  What was before concealed within the folds and contours of the landscape will suddenly be revealed to our searching heart. I know that even if I never made another photograph in my life the appreciation I now have for the landscape will be more profound because of attempts at photographing its mystery.  What was once concealed from me is now revealed in stunning detail.

    We mustn't worry if our photographs are "masterful" or worthy of gallery wall space. We can't give a moments thought to the "saleability" of the photograph or comments by the critics.  We simply must love them for what they are...heartfelt expressions of who we have become, through our self reflection, as a person.  Those reflections have revealed what now has meaning for us and that should be enough for anyone to hope for.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Love Note...

   It was 8 years ago this week that I began my journey as a contemplative photographer although at that precise moment I didn't know that I was on that path.  That would come later.

A Love Note in the Snow
     It began with a snowstorm, not unlike the one that blanketed my home in white this past weekend.  After that storm in 2005, I ventured tentatively out with my new camera to make my first "Winter Etching".  I thought I'd commemorate that image, that beginning, by sharing this latest manifestation of the theme.

   It is Valentines Day, a day we celebrate love in all its forms.  I wanted to send a love note to all of you who love this wonderful medium as much as I do and are, perhaps, beginning to love the idea of contemplative photography as well.

   I've learned so much during the last 8 years but what I've come to love most about my life as a contemplative photographer is the patience I've discovered and nurtured in myself...the ability to sit quietly and wait for the image to come to me.  The Taoist concept of Wu Wei is not an abstraction for me anymore.  That's how I was finally able to make this photograph.  I sat by the window admiring the delicate shadows etched on the fresh snow and the lovely S-curve of sunlight.  I made a few photographs but there was something lacking and I couldn't put my finger on it.  I would have walked away 8 years ago, convinced that there was nothing here to photograph but that was 8 years ago...

     The birds were very busy at the nearby bird feeder.  I love my little birds and it is joy to see them stuff themselves with the much appreciated seeds.  I was completely content to watch them come and go.  I had given up on the idea of making an image.  The sun was going in and out...sometimes the shadows were there, sometimes not.   Then it happened.  The sun came out just as a little chickadee landed on the shadow branch in front of me giving me the gift of a sweet focal point for what would have otherwise been a boring image.  The tiny bird seemed to know what I needed at that moment.  Yes, I've learned quite a lot these past 8 years.  I can now say that I truly understand the quote by Sufi mystic Rumi...

 "That which you are seeking is also seeking you."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

PhotoTao Card #18 - Learning

Card #18

In our minds we associate learning with
understanding.  However, unless our
understanding comes to us through 
experience, we have not learned much at all.
- Exercise -
Make a promise to yourself that you will make 
one photograph everyday for a month.  Regardless
of how busy you are or where you are, make one
photograph but no more.  Carry your camera
everywhere and be open to the moment when it
will whisper to you...NOW!

   I've never been one to carry my camera around with me but I can't count the number of times I've said, "I wish I had my camera!"  This is an exercise I need to practice!  The truly wonderful images we simply stumble across are very often the best.
    The day I took this image was a day I had thought to leave the camera in my room at the inn I was staying at on Inis Oirr in the Aran Islands.  It was bucketing down rain. In fact, I wasn't even planning to venture out but I did.  I went for a cup of tea.  I was content to just listen to the lovely ring of Gaelic voices in the cafe and to daydream a bit.  By the time I was ready to walk back the rain had stopped completely and as I left the cafe, in a sheltered corner of the dooryard, I saw this single rose picked out by a sunbeam.  The other roses in more exposed areas were bent down with moisture but this one rose seemed unscathed, not even a drop of rain on it's petals.  Now, this may not be one of those grand images photographers are always hoping to make but it touched me nonetheless and I was thankful to have my camera with me.  While the other roses had succumbed to the weather, looking bedraggled and dejected, this rose turned its lovely face to the sun and almost seemed to did I.  I walked back to the inn with a lighter step than I'd come with.  It just takes one tiny moment in the day to make all the difference.  I hope I have always have my camera with me when it does!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Aligning Your Inner Compass...

   In elementary school I loved it when my teacher would say, "Get out your geography books."  I was fascinated by all those faraway places and I chuckle now to think that so many of those places I once studied no longer Ceylon and Rhodesia.

   My Grandfather taught me, when I was quite small, how to use a compass and I thought it quite magical.  It's magnetic hand would always point to true North.  He also told me about the pointer stars on the outside edge of the constellation known as the "Big Dipper".  These stars pointed to the North star and runaway slaves would use this "drinking gourd" as their compass to freedom.  His Mother, my great-Grandmother, was a Quaker and living as she did in the Hudson River Valley of New York, was part of the underground railroad system in the 1860's.

    I'm a fervent traveler.  I've taken to heart what St. Augustine of Hippo proclaimed when he said, "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only the first page."  North, South, East and West are ALL magnetic for my seeking soul and my compass pulls me equally in all directions.  But when I became a contemplative photographer I discovered  a 5th direction; the "Right Here, Right Now" direction.  It has become my aligning inner compass.  It no longer matters in which direction I travel or how far because the only direction that truly matters is the "Right Here, Right Now" one.  Be sure your inner compass is properly aligned and you will always be where you need to be regardless of how much or how little you wander from home.
   I watched the wonderful PBS series, The Abolitionists, last month and I recommend it. On this, Lincoln's Birthday, it is so important that we remember and learn from that period of American history. In some respects it seems as if we are still fighting those battles even today in a country that seems profoundly divided.

   I'm proud of the small role my family played in this vital movement in American history.  Since February is Black History Month, I've added a link to a YouTube video of a rendition of the classic folk song that led so many enslaved people to freedom...

Monday, February 11, 2013

In Praise of Stone Walls, continued...

   I want to do one more post about the stone walls of the Aran Islands.  I just found them so fascinating and they are such wonderful metaphors.

   As I mentioned in my previous post, the stone walls on the Aran Islands are built without gates.  I asked a resident why that was.  It seemed such a lot of work to take down part of the wall just to access the field.  He told me that wood was pretty much non-existent on these treeless isles and iron was too expensive.  They had plenty of rocks though.  Ever practical, they used what they had.  But it also points to another dimension of the Irish character, their relationship with time.  There is a commonly used saying when you travel in Ireland..."Remember, you are on Irish Time".  They don't hurry and rush because, as they say, "When God made time He made a lot of it."  You have to adopt a more laid back attitude when you are in Ireland.  So, making the time to take down a stonewall to create a place to let their horse into the field is a fine way to spend some time...what's the hurry?

   What I get out of all this is obvious on one level.  Use what you have available to you; take the time to "smell the roses" (or build a stonewall).  But as I find with contemplative photography, there is also a deeper level to think about.  If you imagine those tiny fields as individual lives, there are wonderful metaphors you can explore.  Each field shares one or more of its walls with a neighbor...they are all connected.  By not using cement, by keeping the walls dry, they can be re-build and moved easily.  By not having a gate, entrance requires effort. Finally, the walls are really quite's important not to block the view into other fields.  Yes, there is a lot one can learn from a stonewall! 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

In Praise of Stone Walls...

   This photograph was made on Inis Oirr, one of the Aran Islands off the West coast of Ireland.  It is a favorite destination of mine when I'm visiting the Burren in County Clare.

    What is amazing for visitors to this tiny island is the hundreds of dry stonewalls that enclosed the small fields.  Without gates, one can enter only by disassembling a part of the wall.  But what really entrances me about these walls is how each and every stone fits together in almost a haphazard way.   It couldn't possibly be strong you think yet these stonewalls endure the winter gales year after year.  They endure because of the spaces between the rocks.  These spaces let the wind pass through. The wall accommodates the wind allowing it to be what it is without fear.  They don't fight the wind, they except it.

   Each stone fits into it's place perfectly and is a part of the whole fabric of the wall.  Big stones, small stones, oddly shaped and thin stones...they all have a place in this wall.  Each supports and lends integrity to the whole...none apologizes for what it is.  If only we human beings could be more like this stone wall...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Late Day Light...

A New Mexico Landscape
   I've always loved photographing late in the day.  In Scotland that could mean 10:00 pm in the summer but here in Maine in February it's more like 4:30 pm.  This image was made in New Mexico late on a February afternoon.  I love the long shadows and the angled light creates lovely textures that the mid-day light simply burns out.

   When I was in Giverny this past summer, at Monet's garden, I started to think more about the idea of photographing at different times of day.  I think I will experiment more with this this year.  I will continue my series, "Winter Etchings" because I will never tire of the delicate shadow patterns on snow.  I just avoid a brightly sunlit day which is too harsh in favor of the lightly overcast day.

     Late autumn and winter is a great time to explore the late day light here in New England with the trees devoid of leaves and the sun lower in the sky, it makes for wonderful shadows.  There is a "bare bones" quality to the landscape that is very appealing for me.

   Early morning offers it's own quality of light and is well worth the effort to set the alarm for a pre-dawn wake-up call.  They say the early bird catches the worm but in this case you might just catch some amazing light effects!  Light is probably the most revealing metaphor for the contemplative photographer.  One could dedicate their whole photographic life to just exploring the qualities of light it is so rich in metaphoric possibilities. Nature communicates most profoundly through the interplay of light and shadow...make it a point this year to read her subtle messages.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Name Game...

   I've always puzzled about what to call my photographs; whether, in fact, to call them anything at all!  At first I thought of titles as merely a way to reference specific photographs and used names like "Loch Bee #1".  But the more I embraced contemplative photography the more I felt the need to communicate, at least partially, my response to the image in the name I gave the photograph.

   This photograph was made in 2005 and I labeled it "Walking the Dog - Grimsay".  Later, much later actually, as I looked at the image I saw more than mere "dog walking"...I saw people taking advantage of the low tide to venture into a place that is, for 1/2 the day, unavailable to them.  That led to a lot more reflection and I renamed it "The Ebb and Flow".  Which is better? You be the judge but I think the two names represent two different ways of looking at the world.  The first is the pragmatic approach - call it what it nonsense, "just the facts, mam."   The second embraces the metaphoric capabilities of the landscape.  Since I feel that that is the very essence of contemplative photography, I guess I've answered my own question.  I'll rephrase Minor White's famous quote in way of a conclusion...

   "Name your photographs not for what they are but for what else they are."

Thursday, February 7, 2013

In Their Own Words - Winslow Homer

"The life that I have chosen 
gives me my full hours of
enjoyment for the balance of
 my life.  The sun will not
rise, or set, without my notice."
- Winslow Homer
   I found this quotation in the exhibit of Homer's late work at the Portland Museum of Art.  I felt it was especial poignant after my post, "In Praise of a Sunset".  Whether you make photographs of them or not, the message here is to look and look deeply.  Look not only at the moments of "obvious beauty" like the sunsets and flowers but at the subtle incidences of the beautiful, in the web of a spider or the spiral of an early Spring fern.  What beauty there is for us to enjoy right outside our own windows!  We don't have to travel the world seeking out the beautiful; we are given it every day in myriad of ways if we take the time to observe it.

   I too can say the life I've chosen, my life as a contemplative photographer, will give me" full hours of enjoyment for the balance of my life."  What more can anyone ask for?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Paying Attention...

The Living Landscape - Ballyvaughan, Ireland 2011
   What does it mean to pay attention?  More importantly, how does paying attention reward us as contemplative photographers? When we pay attention we invest a major part of ourselves in something around us...if we don't, that something really ceases to exist for us. Now, I will not claim to have a complete understanding of quantum physics; in fact, what I do understand about the notion of quantum physics would fit into a teacup...a very small teacup at that.  But the idea of created realities resonates with me so when I heard the short interview with Dr. Wolf I thought, "Yes, that makes sense.  It's what I try to do with my visual listening exercises!"

   I seem to be encountering various concepts of visual listening quite a bit lately and as I've said before, "repetition is revelation".  I'm meant to dwell on this because it is the very thing that I struggle the most with...quieting my mind long enough for the landscape to speak to me.  Trying to delve below the surface of the natural world.  To wait patiently for the wisdom of the landscape to speak to you is one of the most difficult things a contemplative photographer must do but without this deeply intense visual listening there is no dialogue with the landscape.  In Taoism, that "wisdom" is referred to as Qi...the subtle energy that flows through all things and especially the living landscape.  It also fits very nicely with Celtic thinking.  For the ancient Celts, the landscape is infused with a living presence.  It is not a static entity that we merely walk through to get from here to there.  So the the next time you are out in the landscape, take the time to pay attention.  What are you drawn to?  What ignites the spark in you?  Where are the spiritual or essential connections for you?  Those things should be what you attempt to photograph...those things, as Dr. Wolf says, will bring you the most joy.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Inspired by Rumi...

   I have loved the poetry of Rumi for some time.  What Shakespeare is for the English language, Rumi is for the Islamic world but like Shakespeare, his writing transcends culture, becoming more universal truth than ideology.

   Jelauddin Rumi was born in what is now Afghanistan in the 13th century.  He lived most of his life, however, in Konya, Turkey which was a place of convergence for many cultures being, as it was, at the edge of the Silk Road.  Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and even Buddhist travelers met there and shared ideas.  It is this blending of thought, I feel, that gave Rumi's work its universal appeal and which still inspires us today.

   In this post I would like to point out the possibility of photographic inspiration from less than obvious sources.  In this case, the poetry of a 13th century Sufi mystic. He extolled his readers to listen with what he called "the ear in the center of the chest." Wise advise for the contemplative photographer.

Red with shyness, the red that became all the rose garden reds.
The red distance, Red of the stove, and the boiling water.
Red of the mountain turning blood red now.  Mountain holding rubies secretly inside, should I love more you or your modesty?

   I have never thought of red in any of those terms.  Color is color I thought but Rumi asks us to see it with different eyes.  To see red with a passionate engagement.  My photograph above was made last year on St. John.  I had begun to work in color more consistently the year before on South Uist but on St. John the color spoke to me in a whole new way.  Perhaps it was the Caribbean light, so different from my own subdued New England light, that made me see color differently.  When I read this poem by Rumi I felt that I would never see color, any color, the same way again.  The whole idea of the psychology of color, an individuals response to it, its inherent emotive qualities, opens a  new dimension for the contemplative photographer and got me looking at this man's wonderful poetry in a new way as well.   Hopefully you to will be encouraged to seek inspiration for your work in new and unexpected places.