Friday, May 31, 2013

Consider Taking a Contemplative Stroll this Summer...

Click here to see the folio of images from the stroll...this photo by Paul Buckley.

   In April, I led a contemplative stroll at the Thoreau Farm.  It was a glorious day and the participants each recorded their unique impressions of the landscape.  For all of them, it was their first such endeavor.  I think they will agree with me that to think "contemplatively" as you photograph opens  up a whole new world for you.  A world where perception is separated from judgement...where seeing becomes beholding and you enter into a true relationship with the landscape.

   I posted the guided meditations we used that day and you can use them for any walk you might take this summer.  Here are some further suggestions.
  •  At the beginning of your stroll, sit and think about your intentions.  Try to clear your mind of expectations.  Pledge to do the stroll without prejudice or judgement. Accept whatever you find.  Be open to what attracts your attention and stay with it for awhile.  Try not to put a time limit on the stroll...let it go slowly and meditatively, as a walking meditation.
  • As you move along your path, take time to sit and experience the landscape through all your senses...what does your ears hear?  What do you smell? What draws your hand to touch?
  • Consider each thing that compels you to photograph it a "breadcrumb".  Let it lead you on.
  • If possible, turn around and retrace your steps back.  Do this to discover all the things you missed on the way out since you will be seeing them from a new perspective.
  • At the end of your stroll, take a few moments to jot down your impressions in your journal.  Did any of your images you received surprise you?  Did you find a "theme" to your series of photographs? Did your time in the environment change your thoughts in any way?
   You could take the same stroll again and not see the same things.  Each time you are, in a very real way, walking in a whole new landscape.  The light won't be the same, or the weather, and you are not the same either.  Brother Paul Quinon at the Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky has been walking and photographing the "same" landscape for over 50 years!  He told me that each walk is an entirely new experience for him.  Henry David Thoreau walked the fields and woods around Walden pond his entire life and never tired of it.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new
 landscapes but in having new eyes.
- Marcel Proust

   So, find your place to take a contemplative stroll this summer.  Perhaps promise yourself to revisit it in each season.  Hmmm....this sounds like the beginning of a new photographic series to me!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

PhotoTao Card #28-Benevolence

Card #28

True giving arises because you are
overflowing, because you can't contain all 
that you have in your heart.
- Exercise -
   Great compassion can infuse your work
with special significance.  As Minor White 
 admonishes, there is more to photography
than pretty pictures of water flowing over
rocks.  Seek out your most heartfelt
subjects.  Don't concern yourself with
making "pretty pictures"...just meaningful ones.

Illuminating the Void
   No one would ever call this photograph "pretty", that's for sure!  But it is a meaningful image for me.  While I was poking around a derelict house in the Western Isles of Scotland, stepping over debris and dead birds, I thought to myself, "What a God forsaken place this is."  Then, as if on cue, I turned a corner and walked through a door into this space.  The light streaming in from a hole in the roof illuminated the place where the fireplace use to be, seemingly pointing to the gaping void left behind with light filled fingers.  I then thought, "Even in the worst of places there is always hope."  There is so much more to contemplative photography than just looking for the picturesque...


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Receiving the Image and Making the Photograph...

   I've spoken at great length about the semantic implications of words associated with the photographic process.  This is important because words indicate one's thoughts and thoughts shape our world view.

   In traditional terminology,  photographs are "taken", a scene "captured" but for the contemplative photographer images are received.  It is indicative of two totally different mindsets.  In the former, the need to control and dominate the subject is paramount; in the later, it is a symbiotic relationship, an enterprise of equals.

   After the contemplative photographer has received the images, when that image comes to rest on the film or memory card, what then?  Now it becomes the artist's role to stare into the image and coax out of it a true reflection of the experience.  Some people may try to argue that we should not alter the image in any way but I disagree with that tact.  The "alteration" is the artist speaking through the image.  It is an essential part of the creative expression.  One would never tell a painter that they should paint in only one, realistic, way.  The painting is an interpretation of the landscape.  It is an expression of the heart of the artist.   By engaging in this gentle alteration, we make the photograph into a reflection of ourselves. It really is two separate processes - the receiving and the making.

Dun Carloway - Isle of Lewis, Scotland
All artists have a style that is unique to their work - their personal "signature" as it were.  While it may be more obvious in say, painting, photographers have a personal style as well.

One blurred image is a mistake.
Three blurred images are a series
and 100 blurred images is a style.

   I don't recall where I read that but it is so true.  My own style, at least in my monochrome work, is the dark rich tones I espouse.  Not for me the pale, high key image.  I want the dark velvet values of an old Master's painting.

   Go out and explore the world with your camera, receive your images and make of them what you will, what you need to do so that they will become your unique vision of the landscape.  Over time and with reflection your style will emerge.  It will float gently to the surface.  It is already there just waiting to be released.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Visualization: a photographer's interplay with the landscape....

   There is a process in photography that is very often not covered in the "How To..." books.  It is the
The Epiphany
process of visualization...seeing in the mind's eye the completed photograph.  Now, this is something that takes experience in the medium, knowing what is possible and how best to achieve the final result.  It shouldn't discourage you if you are just starting out though.  It really involves training your mind to think in terms of final image.  When you look at a landscape, you mentally dissect it.  You ask yourself questions like, "What is it here that I want to record?" "What do I want to emphasize...what should I down play?"  

    This is why my practice of "visual listening" is so important in my process as a photographer.  It is the time I spend receiving the message of the landscape before I begin visualizing the final photograph.  Without this interplay with the landscape I am only applying my will to my subject rather that trying to make the final image a co-creation...a tribute to its subtleties and nuances.  

   This is also why journaling is so important in the process of contemplative photography.  It may be days or even weeks before you get back to the image.  What were you thinking when you were there in the landscape?  What was your internal reaction to the external event?  I knew, when I saw this landscape at the Abbey of Gethsemani, that it had to be in black and white.  I visualized it that way and I noted the different elements in my journal that I would later emphasize in the final image.  So, take your time and take notes!  Your immediate response in the field is worth far more than your remembrances of the event weeks later.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Thoughts on Memorial Day...

The holiest of all holidays
are those kept by ourselves
in silence and apart,
The secret anniversaries of the heart...

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

   This Memorial Day has a special meaning for me since I visited the D-Day beaches in Normandy last summer.  I have a profoundly deeper appreciation for my Father, and all the soldiers who sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom.

   When I made this photograph of the writing at the visitors center at Omaha Beach I thought I was just recording the words so I could remember them.  A man is reflected in the glass at the bottom and I don't recall seeing him as I made the image but it made me think of my Father.  He seems to be looking back at me making the photograph.  A casual photograph became something quite different.  That is how it is with contemplative photography.  We think we are making a photograph of one thing and it turns out to be something we hadn't even imagined.  My Father loved photography and always had a camera near to hand and I know he would be proud that I have returned to the medium we both loved. 

   The American Cemetery at Omaha Beach is breathtaking in its beauty and at the same time heart wrenching in its row after row of white crosses and stars of David.  So many lives lost.  My Father was one of the lucky ones although he carried the emotional scars of the war with him his whole life until his death in 1998.

   On this, America's most solemn day, I am grateful for all the soldiers, past and present, that served and continue to serve this country with dedication and pride.  I pray that we can always be a country that is worthy of their sacrifices.   



Sunday, May 26, 2013

Shadow Studies...

Shadow Study - New Mexico
Both light and shadow are the
dance of love.


 If light is the supreme metaphor for the contemplative photographer then shadow, it's antithesis, must be of equal importance.  One defines the other.  Studying the pattern and richness of the shadow world is an immensely rewarding pastime for the contemplative photographer.

   My folio New Mexico: Land of Light and Shadow (all my folios are  now in the side bar right here on the blog for easy access) is a study of these metaphors as in this image of the delicate shadow of a weed silhouetted on the silvery, rough wooden plank. 

   In Christine Valters Paintner's wonderful new book on contemplative photography, Eyes of the Heart, she devotes an entire chapter to this interplay...The Dance of Light and Shadow, so important a subject it is. 

In photography, both light and shadow
are required to make an image, and so
the medium invites us to consider ways
to integrate both of these gifts in our own
lives and contemplations.
                                                                                        -page 42 

   We tend to dwell more on the light than the shadow, both in our camera work and in our personal lives.  It is worth it to spend a day just exploring the shadow land for what is hidden there has much to tell us.  The link below is to the work of Wing Wong, a photographer we looked at in the post,  Get Closer.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Contemplating Crow - A Personal Reflection

    I spent a couple of days in Down East Maine this past week at the house where I will be doing the photographer's retreat this September.  It was a very foggy two days but that doesn't stop a dedicated contemplative photographer!  In fact, it seemed to greatly enhance my visit.

   This is a view of the fog shrouded coast along the coastal trail of Quoddy Head State Park.  A spectacular place to walk.  I had the entire place to myself and I sat on a bench and soaked in the hushed atmosphere.  Even the perennial screeching gulls seemed silent and the ocean was remarkably calm.

   I watched this crow, that tiny spot of black at the edge of the cliff, for nearly one half hour...he never moved a feather!  He seemed wrapped in his own revery as well. I wondered what impressions he had of the place. The foggy light gives a very atmospheric quality to the landscape and added to the mystical sensation I experienced there.  To have this all to myself was truly a gift.

   Later, I turned inland to walk back to the parking lot.  The forest floor was carpeted in spectacular mosses.  It reminded me of the cultivated moss gardens I had seen in Japan but here it was nature herself that was the gardener and it was every bit as beautiful...perhaps more so because it was so uncontrived.

   Strange lichens hung from the tree branches giving the whole landscape a rather unworldly quality.  Tolkien would have felt right at home here I'm sure!  Again, to walk quietly in a captivating landscape with no one to intrude upon my contemplative thoughts was something very special indeed.  Visiting popular tourist places off season is something to consider and is something I often do simply for the peace and quiet.  It will only enhance your experience to walk alone and unhurried with a solitary crow for company.....  

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Thought for Today - Christine Valters Paintner

Being able to put your ego aside, put everything you know about framing and composing your image away for the moment and just let the spirit of the landscape filter into your heart and mind is the basic premise of contemplative photography.  Once you have yourself tuned into this sense of place, when you can truly behold what is there in front of you, then begin to make your images.  Your knowledge of the medium will be at work in your subconscious, don't worry, but your primary concern is to allow your intuitive nature to guide you.   Trust me, it will not let you down!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Juxtaposition - the Revelatory Nature of Diptychs...

   I purchased Michael Lewisohn's book Clare - a detailed look at the natural surfaces of Co. Clare, that last time I visited the Burren.  It is an exquisite collection of photographic pairings, each wonderful by itself but when combined with the second image create a whole new interpretation.  These diptychs were all made from images Lewisohn gathered on his walks in this unique part of Ireland...walks made with the Naturalist's eye for texture and pattern.  He may be a graphic designer by profession but he is a contemplative at heart.   
Visit Andy's blog through this link to read more about his technique.
   In an entirely different vein are Andy Ilachinski's stunning abstract diptychs.  Entitled, Synesthetic Noetics - Cognition vs. Intuition, they offer us a much more cerebral approach.  I mentioned Andy yesterday in my post about the Spiritual dimension of photography.  In Andy's work you can see this blending - spiritual/cerebral - quite well. I love his abstract images; you can read a world into them and they will be quite different for each person who looks at them.

   I must admit, I've never tried creating diptychs before.  I've certainly thought about it...I even made a PhotoTao Card prompt for it to encourage myself.  Perhaps this year I will explore this wonderful idea of juxtaposition of images.

   Of course, this idea has been used for a long time in the art world.  Triptychs, a pairing of three images, are another common form.  We tend to think of the photograph as a solitary image but this coupling dynamic is worth examining.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Spiritual Dimension of Photography...

No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands
 still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.

-Minor White

The Way Through - Ireland 2009
   When I first read the above quote by Minor White back in the mid-1970's while I was studying photography and film making at university, I thought it quite odd really.  That the "Spirit" chooses the photographer.  I had no frame of reference for his thoughts so I simply discarded them.  Now, all these years later, I finally know what he was referring to.  My work as a contemplative photographer has opened up for me a whole new way of looking at landscape.

   With my study of Taoism, I've come to understand the spirit of the landscape; that essential energy that flows through everything.  I now equate Spirit with this energy.  With a great deal of patience, I'm finally able to enter into the landscape in a spiritual way...seeking its message and not burdening it with mine.  I could say, I now allow the landscape to become my co-creator and not merely my subject.  We are equal partners in the process.

    But does the Spirit actually choose me?  Perhaps, in a way, it does.  If I am still, if I quiet my mind long enough to hear it, I think it does have a power to draw me to it and inspire me to release the shutter when I might have had the idea of moving on.  That spirit/energy flows through my camera's lens and into my heart in a way that I've only been able to experience when I stopped trying to control the outcome of my picture making; when I let myself become a blank slate.  It requires me to step away from my ego and we humans, in general, have a hard time with that.

The first half of life is devoted to forming
a healthy ego, the second half is going
inward and letting go of it.

-Carl Jung

   I invite you to visit Andy Ilachinski's wonderful blog below to read his essay on the spiritual dimension of photography. He is an amazingly gifted photographer.   I also invite you to take the time to experience the Spirit of the landscape for yourself.  Return to a location that has special meaning for you and this time, keep your ego in your camera bag, sit still and just listen...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Contemplative Eye...

   What does it mean to nurture a "contemplative eye"?  As a photography major in the mid-1970's, the term "photographic eye" was extolled in great detail.  By that, they were referring to the ability to instinctively frame a masterful image - composition was crucial and we spent a great deal of time discussing concepts such as the "Golden Mean" and the "Rule of Thirds".  It was, and still is, a very formalistic approach.

Taking the Plunge
   So then, how does a "contemplative" eye differ from a "photographic" one?  The difference lies, I believe,with intent.  The contemplative eye looks for the metaphoric capability in anything they are photographing before they consider the more formal considerations of composition and exposure...the "Why I should make this photograph..." comes before the "How should I compose this photograph...".  The intent is to create a meaningful image more than it is to create a "masterful" one, at least initially.

   But I believe the contemplative photographer goes one step further.  When an image is made it is done - finished - technically speaking.  The photograph becomes an object to the traditional photographer but contemplative photographers view their images as adjectives rather than nouns and the meaning of the image can evolve and change overtime as the photographer herself evolves and changes.

   A contemplative eye is more fluid, more searching, more inner-directed than the photographic eye which is bound more by conventional artistic rules and considerations.  The best contemplative photographer, however, values both.  If we think of the right brain/left brain dichotomy, we could ascribe the contemplative eye to the more intuitive right side of the brain and the photographic eye to the analytical left side of the brain. As we know, it is always best to keep both eyes open!  Use your contemplative eye and your photographic eye in partnership to create masterful, and more importantly, meaningful, images.

Monday, May 20, 2013

PhotoTao Card #27 - Humility

Just a reminder, if you haven't seen all the PhotoTao cards in this series, you can find a link to them in the right side bar.  There will be 50 cards in all and you can copy and print them to create your own deck of inspiration for your photography.

Card #27

Tao infuses what is great and what is
small with the same nurturing energy.
Relax; let yourself be taken care of.

- Exercise -
   There are no insignificant subjects.
All are fueled with contemplative
potential.  When you are in a place of
immense beauty, look for the smaller
views as well as the grand ones.  
Instead of photographing the crashing 
waves at the seashore, look to the tiny
rock pools for inspiration.

Branching Out
    On the West coast of Ireland, the sea coast is a spectacular sight.  Rocky bays, dramatic cliffs and crashing waves; is it any wonder that the people you see have their cameras pointed straight head?  This card asks you to turn your cameras gaze down, to the small and seemingly insignificant details at your feet.  

   Away from the water's edge, I found this "still life" of kelp and seaweed.  The colors were lovely and I spent some time making studies of what I saw.  A woman and her little girl came up to me to see what I had found so fascinating.  The woman merely smiled at my enthusiastic description of this scene but the little girl "got it".  "Look Mommy," she said. "These look like little trees!"  I helped her pick a nice bright yellow one and told her mother to press it between the pages of a book so it would dry out and her small daughter would have a memory of their beach walk.  I've always wondered if she did.

   Go in search of your own small details of the places you visit this year.  Remember, there are no insignificant subjects only closed minded photographers!


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Walking the Created Landscape....

   There is something wonderful about walking and photographing in the "created" landscape.  In New England, we are blessed with many marvelous examples. I planned to visit two this month.  The first, which I visited yesterday, is the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, a horticultural masterpiece owned and maintained by Harvard University. Founded in 1872, it is the oldest public arboretum in North America.  It was designed by the world famous Frederick Law Olmsted, and it is the second link in the famed "Emerald Necklace" of Boston.  It is home to many rare and exotic trees from around the world but in May it is the more domestic and commonplace lilac that takes center stage.

    Lilacs are one of those simple rural flowering shrub that every farm wife planted next to their front door in New England in the 19th century.  I have some old examples at my 1851 farmhouse in Maine.  I went with a friend to enjoy a stroll through the 265 acres of the arboretum on a glorious Spring morning.  Every step brought another wonderful vista or a charming detail to explore.  The pure joy of walking through a landscape designed to elicit joy was very therapeutic.

  What insights can the contemplative photographer gain from walking in a created landscape...a place specifically designed to wrap visitors in a blanket of peace and tranquility?  Here, in the heart of a vibrant city which had suffered such a tragic event as the marathon bombings, was a place to gain solace in nature's ability to heal itself and emerge with fresh hope.  The lilacs, with their intoxicating fragrance seemed to be telling us, rest here for a while, all will be well in time.  Here, amongst the birdsong and sun dappled landscape, was a place  the founders created especially for city-sore souls to find peace.  It was the brilliance of Olmsted's design that has given generations of people a safe haven to escape to and this contemplative photographer never ending inspiration.  In the late 19th century people had awakened to the need to create these havens of created landscapes before urban sprawl removed every visage of nature from the map.  Olmsted was, in fact, America's first landscape architect.  He also gave New Yorkers their wonderful Central Park.

   In about ten days I will visit an entirely different created landscape, the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden in Boothbay, Maine.  It will be an interesting counterpoint, I think, to the Arnold Arboretum.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mindset - Heartset....

   I think the one major "take away" from the two photographic retreats I attended last month, one in New Jersey and one in Kentucky, is that there are basically two ways to approach the photographic medium.  You can approach it with a mindset, which is to say, a cerebral bent or you can approach it with a heartset, which uses a more heart-centered tack.  It is another way of describing a left brain/right brain duality.  Neither approach is "wrong" but each approach appeals, or not, to different people.  The simple fact of it is, we can learn from each other and our images will improve accordingly.

   My first retreat was populated by people for whom technical considerations were, lenses, processing techniques, you get the picture.  I listen politely, you can always learn something, but pretty much kept my contemplative thoughts to myself.  That is, until someone began talking about a photographer whose approach to teaching had a sort of boot camp/survival of the fittest mentality.  On the first day he gave each person a box of camera parts and told them to "put it together"!  The thought was, if you could do it you really deserved to be in this large format workshop.  Frankly, I was appalled.  I've never been a proponent of teaching by torture. 

   The workshop in Kentucky was entirely different.  No one compared equipment or even talked about the "hardware".  It was all about perception and the "whys" of the photographic process, not the "hows".  I felt right at home with this group of people, needless to say.  Personally, I like a blend of both approaches; I want my images to look as good as they can be but, in the finally analysis, it is the content that matters most to me. Mindset photographers can, in the extreme, be a bit elitist.  Heartset photographers tend to be more egalitarian.  I can imagine what the first group in New Jersey would have said if I'd whipped out my I-Phone when we went to photograph at the Zimmerman farm as they assembled their (very expensive) large format box cameras!

    Every photographer, at some point, must come to terms with this duality of approaches (and this also applies to the processing of the image as well.)  Do the technical considerations override the contextual?  As one who tries to follow a Taoist approach in life I'd say, take the middle ground but follow the path that suits you best.  Just because you are following a different path doesn't mean you are lost!


Friday, May 17, 2013

Blessing the Space Between...

   One of the themes for our photography at the Bethany Springs retreat was the space between.  This is one of the images I made for that theme.  As it happens, I found a wonderful pin on Pinterest that fit right into this theme and I would like to share it with you.

   In Japanese, ma, the word for space, suggests interval. It is best described as a consciousness of place, not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision. Not something that is created by compositional elements, it is that which takes place in the imagination. -Larry Schenck

   I love this image because, while it seems that the two chains could be one chain that connects the two bolts you are not really sure because they disappear out of the frame of the photograph.  They go up but do they connect?  There is a real tension here. This is one of those incredibly simply images that I would not have even noticed on our contemplative stroll had I not been asked to look for the spaces between.

   I think this is a great practice for contemplative photographers to do from time to time and I thank Kim Manley Ort for suggesting this at our retreat.  Don't look at the objects, look at the spaces between them.  I remember my first year in art school when our Drawing 101 professor set up a pile of easels in the middle of the studio and told us to draw the easels...not by drawing the easels themselves but drawing the spaces around and in between the easels...the so-called "negative" space.
   This is the Japanese character for "space".  As you can see, it is anything but "empty".  Next time you are out with your camera, focus your attention on the space between and see what it reveals to you.  I doubt you will ever consider that space "empty" anymore.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Quieting the Mind Through Contemplative Photography - Guest Post by Christine Valters Paintner

 On May 9th I reviewed Christine's wonderful new book, Eyes of the Heart (read it here).  As a follow-up, Christine has kindly agreed to do a guest post on The Photographic Sage...

Abba Poemen said: "A (person) may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent; that is, he says nothing that is not profitable." (Poemen 27)

Quieting the mind may be the biggest challenge we face as people desiring a more contemplative way of being.  Finding external silence is the first step, but once we immerse ourselves in a quiet place, we may discover something unsettling – that our minds are full of chatter, our thoughts seem to be on a never-ending loop of criticism and commentary. We discover this in keen ways when we sit down to meditate, or try to create art from a place of stillness.

The early Christian monks of the desert, described the silence they would seek as hesychia, which means stillness, silence, a profound inner quiet. As Abba Poemen describes person can live alone and still experience much noise within and a person can live in the midst of a crowd and have a true sense of stillness in their heart.  True inner silence offers us the gift of freedom from the endless stories we make up about the world.

When we experience moments when we find ourselves releasing words and simply entering into an experience of wonder and beholding, this is the silence of God, moments when we are arrested by life's beauty.

Silence is challenging. We create all kinds of distractions and noise in our lives so we can avoid it. Thomas Merton writes about people who go to church and lead good lives but struggle with quiet:

"Interior solitude is impossible for them. They fear it. They do everything they can to escape it. What is worse, they try to draw everyone else into activities as senseless and as devouring as their own. They are great promoters of useless work. They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures. They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God."

Merton is fierce in his critique of all the ways we cling to words to feel productive, while never making space to surrender into the unknowing of silence and experience silence as beyond all of our good words and intentions. Silence is what makes our actions meaningful, not the other way around.

The desert monks invite us to consider what it means to be selective about our words. Cultivating silence is about making space for another voice to speak. Silence is a presence rather than an absence. I can fill my day with endless words or I can choose when to speak and when to keep silent.

Regular practice of silent prayer and meditation helps us to grow aware of the chatter of our minds and the judgments we carry about ourselves and others. By becoming fully present to these thoughts and being compassionate with ourselves, we can start to notice when they rise up in everyday life. The desert elders remind us to pay attention to our inner judgments as a form of noise which poisons the silence we so desperately seek.

This is where the practice of contemplative photography can offer us a gift.  When we engage in art as meditation, it offers us an opportunity to witness the thoughts that arise when we move into this place of stillness.

Try going for a long walk with no agenda other than to pay attention.  Go alone so you are not tempted into conversation with another.  Bring your camera and stay open to receiving the gift of images which shimmer or call to you. Resist the urge to “take” or “capture” images, and let your camera become a tool for receiving.

Then begin to notice what happens with your thoughts.  When they start to rear up in ugly judgment or incessant words, breathe deeply, and gently let them go. When your thoughts want to grasp a moment, to capture it through the lens, see if you can soften that urge and let it go. This may be your practice again and again, just releasing the hold of your thoughts.  This is the first and essential foundation of our contemplative practice – whether through photography or centering prayer or another form.  You might spend a lifetime simply letting go of thoughts.

But also notice those moments when you lose yourself in the experience you are having.  When you have a genuine encounter with something holy that takes you out of yourself and so for a few minutes feel the freedom from the tyranny of your own thoughts.  Savor the moments when time loosens its grip on your awareness and you find yourself in time outside of time, when you touch what feels like the eternal.

Both of these aspects of our practice are essential – noticing the thoughts that come up and gently releasing them and also savoring the moments when you feel genuinely free from worry or the need to control your experience.  Photography is about paying attention and learning to see in a different way.

Silence isn't just the absence of sound, but a form of human consciousness. This silence of the heart is a profound place of moving beyond ego, judgments, and dualistic thinking to witness the presence of the divine. In silence, we can experience a sense of inner expansiveness which makes more room for God's presence.  Our cameras can become a portal into this experience. 

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression.  She is the author of 7 books on art and monasticism, including her latest, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Read excerpts here...
   I've called them signposts or breadcrumbs.  When I recently finalized my trip to Iona for next year, I discovered a new term...waymarkers, and a new book.  After I booked my stay at the St. Columba hotel on Iona, I stumbled on a new blog by Mary A. De Jong, the author of this book.  Surprisingly, she was on her way to Iona at that very moment! I ordered her book and am now following her, day by day, as she visits this incredible thin place...probably one of the most famous thin places on earth.  What I like about the book is that it is also a journal in which you can write your responses to her reflection questions.

   This sort of thing happens to me all the time so I don't know why I am surprised every time it does. The synchronicity of occurrences is a constant wonder to me and I love it when the planets seem to line up.  This trip next year is a perfect example of it.  I will be spending a week in my beloved Burren on the first leg of the trip.  For the first time I will be there at the height of the bloom and I will be able to walk this amazing thin place in the company of orchids and alpine wildflowers.  I thought I wouldn't be able to rent my favorite house in Ballyvaughan this time because I would need 4 other people to share the house cost but I met a man at an art opening recently, quite by "chance" who said he and his wife had always dreamed of visiting Ireland!  The next thing I knew, I had another couple signing on and...Viola!  I'll again be staying in "John's house" in Ballyvaughan. (I call it that because it is where my friend John O'Donohue use to hold his Celtic spirituality retreats and it is through John that I discovered this amazing location).

   I had planned to travel to Glendalough, Ireland in September next year but as things began to shape up for the Spring I decided to add it to this trip...if I was able to change my reservation that is.  I just heard back that the little stone hermitage (that is what it is called, and after my visit to Thomas Merton's hermitage it has a whole new meaning for on this link to see a video of the place) in the Wicklow mountains is mine for two weeks!  The trip is complete.  Three thin places in one trip!  Amazing...the planets really were all in alignment this time!

   How does this synchronicity happen?  I don't know.  I only know it happens and when it does it is good to go along with it.  Contemplative photography is like that as well.  Images draw us in and move us from one place to another and it is best to throw out the plan and follow along.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In the Eyes of the Beholder...

A Snake by Any Other Name....
   On my walk to the statues on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani, I was thinking of nothing else but the beauty of the woodlands, the warm Spring day and the great joy I felt just being there.  As I approached the statue of Jesus which depicts the scene in the garden of Gethsemani on the night before his arrest, I notice two women in animated conversation.  They motioned to me to approach them.  They couldn't wait to tell me of the miraculous occurrence that they had just witnessed.  At the base of the sculpture a snake had emerged! At the feet of Jesus there was a symbol of the devil!  They were in positive awe and advised me to sit quietly there and wait to see if it would manifest itself to me as well.

   After they left, I did sit and contemplate the statue but I wasn't thinking of their vision.  I was puzzling about how simple, perfectly natural things can become such symbols of hatred and fear?  As if responding to my question, the little snake peered out of his hole, most likely seeking the warm stones, and smelled the air with his flicking tongue.

   I didn't see the devil incarnate...I saw a simple little green and white snake living his peaceful life at the feet of the Christian symbol of peace on earth.  It all seemed perfectly right, perfectly natural, to me. Truly, everything is in the eye of the beholder.  It reminded me also of a William Blake (Thomas Merton's favorite poet) quote, Everything that Is, Is Holy.

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Their Own Words: Aaron Siskind...

"As the language and vocabulary of photography
has been extended, the emphasis on meaning has 
shifted - shifted from what the world looks like
 to what we feel about the world and what
we want the world to mean."
- Aaron Siskind

   What a perfect quote for the contemplative photographer!  We can now concern ourselves with documenting the interior world through our images.  We reveal the components of self by what we choose to pay attention to, how we frame the exterior world and, paradoxically, what we choose to ignore.  

   Aaron Siskind (1903 - 1991) is most often associated with the abstract expressionist movement in art.  His close up studies of shape and texture are intentionally non-objective.  That's why I found this quote so compelling.  Perhaps, in his heart, he was a contemplative photographer. No matter. I don't think it is inconsistent to imagine a confirmed abstractionist thinking deep thoughts about himself and his world.  After all, we are complex 

"We look at the world and see what we have learned 
to believe is there.  We have been conditioned to "expect"
...but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs."

   It is sometimes said that to appreciate certain types of literature or movies we must "suspend disbelief" otherwise our overly rational minds won't be able to buy into the fantasy.  Suskind is telling us to do essentially the same thing...that it is our belief system that impedes our vision.  I think that is an important idea for ALL photographers to mull over. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Learn from the Mountains...

Seize the mountain spirits,
Make them divulge their secrets.
Only with strength is discovery.

Discover - Daily Meditation
Deng Ming-Dao

   When I finally picked up the camera again in 2005, one of the first places I went to photograph was Chocorua in New Hampshire.  The name is a Native American word for "God lives here".  Mountains, in virtually all cultures, are holy places and infused with a special spirituality.

   When I visited a Taoist monastery in China, I had to wind my way up a steep mountain road to reach it.  Pilgrims, with better knees than mine, took the 1,000+ stairs to the top!  I was reminded of that this past summer when I climbed the 300+ (piece of cake by comparison!) stairs to Mont St. Michel.

   There is a reason for all this; why holy places are often placed on mountain's not suppose to be easy!  The search for enlightenment and greater spiritual understanding must involve determination and effort.  Contemplative photography requires this as well.  One must plod along, allowing the landscape to draw you in and and gently guide our efforts.  We can't expect to flip some imaginary switch and have instant enlightenment...miraculously insightful revelations from our work.  They will come with time and effort.

   So, look to the lesson of the mountains...the higher you climb, metaphorically speaking, the clearer your view will be.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Seeking Out the Wisdom of Our Own Hearts...

   As we age, as we progress through the multitudinous chapters in our lives, we file away, often unawares, tidbits of wisdom.  Contemplative photography calls on us to bring this wisdom front and center.  It acknowledges this wisdom and asks us to acknowledge it as well.

   In Matthew Fox's compelling book, Hildegard of Bingen, he writes that:

Wisdom, Spirit and creativity go together
so thoroughly that Hildegard tells us
wisdom "resides in all creative works."-page 89

   This is really a stunning thought; that even our smallest creative act contains wisdom.  For the contemplative photographer this means that the very act of releasing the shutter reveals a kernel of wisdom inherent in the photographer. Something drew you to the thing you photographed; it plucked a heart string that reverberated a message to you.  You only need to tune in to your own heart's wisdom.

   Whether we accept our innate creativity or not (and, sadly I fear, most people do not) the human soul is desperate to put our most profound experiences into some form of artistic expression.  Photography offers the masses this record, to translate and to share those experiences, to pass on our wisdom.  The camera is the perfect instrument to focus our attention, to direct our vision.  The artifact it creates is a documented example of the wisdom of that vision.

   She (Hildegard) is saying that all of us have visions to
give birth to, and we shouldn't hold back from doing so. - page 91

Friday, May 10, 2013

Metaphors - The Staircase...

The Spiral Descent
    On this blog I've explored some universal metaphors on occasion and my stay at the Shaker village in Kentucky got me thinking of another...staircases.  Metaphor is essentially a way to shape our thoughts and for the kind of contemplative photography that I practice, this is an important component in the process.

    It is easy to see how staircases have become such a powerful metaphor.  The small, narrow space we climb, step by step, to reach higher and higher levels or to descend into the dark nether worlds.  I mentioned my thoughts on the staircase at Rouen Cathedral in France in a previous post and if you go to Pinterest and type in "Staircases", you will see board after board of people's fascination with this architectural form.

A Narrow Light Above
   Seeing metaphors in the world is a skill that gets better with practice.  I've always had a sort of metaphorical bent of mind but it is something everyone who wishes to pursue contemplative photography beyond the initial stage of perception must acknowledge.  Training your eye to see the purity of line and shape and color is all well and good but I always say..."Then what?"  Are our images merely exercises of composition and design or can they have a deeper, more profound meaning for us?  Metaphor is one way to enter into this deeper meaning.

   This image is one of several abstractions I made in the Shaker Village in Kentucky.  It is a view of another staircase, at the Center Family Dwelling, and it was a real challenge to photograph but I love the severe abstraction this view offers...this thin slice of light.  In a few weeks I will be visiting the Canterbury Shaker village in New Hampshire.  I will continue my Simplicity and Light project and, as always, keep my eyes open for the metaphors.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Eyes of the Heart - Book Review

Click here to purchase...
   I am a great fan of Christine Valters Paintner whose website  Abbey of the Arts is listed among my on-line resources for you to explore.  I have spoken about her work often on this blog.  Today I want to do a review of her latest book, Eyes of the Heart.  It is a wonderful exploration of contemplative photography...a text book for the seeking soul.

   This book combines an inward 
vision with an outward expression
and through a creative act helps us 
both discover and celebrate
our spiritual path.
-page 6

   Christine takes a balanced approach to her subject.  She offers many helpful suggestions for someone new to the idea of contemplative photography. Ideas about framing and composition and the basic elements of line, shape and color.  But this is not a "how to book" in the technical sense.  Rather, it is an exploration of the process of seeing and receiving images.

   What I find especially refreshing about Christine's book is how it draws each individual into the experience of contemplative never lectures, it makes you a part of the on-going process. One of the most important things I think I can teach is learning to make space to listen to your own deepest longings and begin to trust those more. -page 31  Hers is a gentle touch and a reassuring one.

   Another element of the book that I feel will be especially helpful for those new to the concept of contemplative photography is the inclusion at the end of each chapter of Reflection Questions.

  • Which colors seem to energize you, and which ones drain you? Do you notice any patterns?
  • If you life were a mosaic of different colored tiles, what elements would the different colors represent?
  • If you could describe the presence of God only in terms of color, which colors would be most significant? -page 88
    Through these questions, people can slowly digest and reflect on the materials covered in each chapter.  It slows the process down and allows each reader to personalize the information.  If each chapter ends with questions, it begins with statements.  As a passionate collector of wise and inspired words, I loved the diversity of the people quoted.  From Marcel Proust to St. Augustine, Christine dips into the well of wisdom that can inspire us all.  If there could be a textbook for Contemplative Photography 101, this would be it!

Contemplative practice requires that we shift our 
normal affinity for thinking, analyzing, and producing, 
and surrender ourselves to a different way of being
in the world, one that is more intuitive, more about
mystery and unfolding rather than planning.  We
follow the flow of life instead of trying to control
its direction.  We release our expectations of what
we think we should see, and then see what is 
actually there....Thomas Merton called it "the 
direct intuition of reality."  -page 133

   Eyes of the Heart is a wonderful book for the beginning contemplative photographer or one who has journeyed a bit further along the path. Neither will be disappointed.  On May 14th there will be a guest post here by Christine...don't miss it!