Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Metaphors - Convergence...

   I believe there is a tendency for we humans to seek convergence. We want to be able to bring together all the diverse paths in our lives to a central unity of existence where all the discrepancies are integrated into a vibrant, living center.

   I found this photographic metaphor at the end of my walk to Burnt Head on Monhegan.  The trail to the cliffs was rough, twisting and at some points obscure.  You just kept putting one foot in front of another and trusted that you would end up some place. (That's the advantage of islands, not much chance of getting lost!)  There were several trails you could take to the cliffs and they converged at the breath taking edge.  We met some other people who had come another way but we both share the joy of making it to this amazing place.

   This metaphor also made me think about how each of us finds our own spiritual path but that all paths converge in the end. Well, at least that's my personal feeling.  The differences between us and our beliefs seem so trivial when you except this concept of convergence.  The longer we live the less different we actually become as we all move to this point of convergence and unity. There is a wonderful Chinese proverb that illustrates this so simply...

There are many paths to the top of the
 mountain but the view is still the same.

   Just as we came by different paths to the Burnt Head cliffs on Monhegan, we all had the same view....

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Inspired by James Turrell - "Other Seeing"...

   In an earlier post I talked about the amazing artist, James Turrell that works entirely with light.  (You can read that post here if you missed it.)  Turrells assertion that light is a "thing" was mind blowing for me.  He has a new light exhibit at the Guggenheim that explores his concepts, Aten Reign: other seeing.  I find the concept, well, (pardon the pun!) illuminating!

   Through his light installation, Turrell allows us to see the iconic center void of the Guggenheim rotunda in a whole new way.  In fact, it is no longer a "void", it is a pulsing, light filled space that takes on an identity of its own.  As with most of Turrells installations, it can be a bit disorienting but that's the whole point.  "Other Seeing" is suppose to to alter your present relationship with the world.  Turrell does it through the experience of changing colored light, the contemplative photographer does it through intense and personal engagement with the landscape.

   Turrell's installations are meant for silent contemplation.  Raised a Quaker, Turrell understands the concept of personal and silent prayer.  My Grandfather was a Quaker and I attended Quaker meetings with him.  I think it was this early experience that made contemplative photography such an easy match for me many years later.

     For those who are use to a scripted "service" when they attend church, the silent act of just being which characterizes Quaker meetings can, like Turrell's installations, be a bit difficult to adjust to.  I think this metaphor is entirely appropriate for a photographer who is trying the idea of contemplative photography for the first time.  Sitting in the landscape in silence for long periods of time can be awkward in the beginning but once you get comfortable with this state of being in relationship with the landscape it is amazingly meditative, as are Turrell's installations.

   Turrell acknowledges that many people will not, perhaps cannot, sit still for 10-20 minutes in the rotunda to experience this "other seeing".  We, as a modern culture, have developed very short attention spans, perhaps the result of t.v. and other instantaneous technological pursuits.   I heard that Milton Bradley has had to re-invent their famous Monopoly game to make it play faster for this new generation that can't sit still and focus on one thing for long periods of time.  What a sad state of affairs!

   So much of this blog has been about impediments to perception, personal filters and perspectives that block our ability to go beyond looking, beyond seeing, to be able to enter into a more intimate relationship with the world around behold it with all our senses.  This is, for me, "other seeing"... the deeply intuitive sight which is the result of an active but silent engagement with the landscape. 

   Whether light, in its "thingness", has consciousness (as Turrell asserts) or not doesn't really matter.  The world, I truly believe, is aching for us to pay attention to it.  It holds a rich wisdom and a profound insight that the vast majority of us overlook in our busy lives as we are flitting from here to there.  It is only when we slow down, no,when we actually sit still and listen does this wisdom begin to filter into our consciousness.  When we can put our photographers egos away for a moment, when we can stop looking for the "perfect photograph", when we are able to calm our chattering minds, we will find that the world around us has much to teach us...STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN!

   Visit the Guggenheim's website through the link below to read about the exhibit and watch a video of this remarkable installation...

Aten Reign: other seeing

Monday, July 29, 2013

Labels - The Beginning of Non-Seeing

    I taught art to elementary children for many years.  It would always disturb me to see the the alphabet posters hung around the classroom.  A is for Apple...and there would be a picture of a nice red apple.  Forget the fact that not all apples are red or perfectly shaped for that was, for me, the start of "non-seeing" in my students.  They were beginning to label things and in so doing, they started to see the label and not the object. 

   As contemplative photographers, we must be ever cautious of falling into the trap of labels.  It is the single most important impediment to perception.  When you label something you cease to look at it.  It is a thing, familiar and unobserved.  A friend was relating to me recently how her 18 month old grandson would walk around the house and point at things, anything, and gasp with delight.  Everything was new and surprising and unlabeled.  If we could only keep some of that delight as we mature!  Trying to see as a very young child sees is a gift and a skill I try to practice but it's not easy. My head is full of labels!

   I was reminded of this while I was on Monhegan.  On many mornings the island was wrapped in fog.  It obliterated detail.  That is what labels do to perception.  It obscures the reality around us to an astonishing degree.  The painter Monet once said that to really begin to paint you must first forget the names of everything and see it only as shape and tone and color.  That's how my friends grandchild sees.  Everything is just startling shapes and colors.  His perception is as heightened as it will ever be. Now, if I could just get him to hold a camera....

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Shifting Perceptions...

   I'm teaching for the month of July and I made this study of the clouds while I waited for the custodian to open the door of the school.  It reminded me of the time, years ago, that I took my class of first graders out behind the school to lay in the grass and look at the shifting clouds.  We were studying the painter Constable I think.

   Now, it made me think of the subtly shifting perceptions we have as contemplative photographers.  Our mood, and therefore, our visual perceptions, changes from day to day even moment to moment.  When you are in a particular "dark place" you will see, perhaps unconsciously, images that speak to that dark place.  This is actually a good thing.  Contemplative photography should speak to all of you; not just the sunny, happy you.

   It was a particularly good day for photographing clouds since the sun was greatly filtered so I poked my head out from time to time to see what was happening in the sky.  This really has the makings of a photographic series I think.  The sky can mirror our emotions with alarming accuracy and it would fill out journals with interesting observations.

   So much of contemplative photography comes from a sub-conscious level.  We are often completely unaware of it until we sit with our images and really look at them.

   To get back to  my little students looking at clouds...I remember asking them, "what made the clouds move?"  Of course they said the wind but then I asked them what made the wind move?  Then their unfetter imaginations kicked in and I got answers like "angels beating their wings" to "it's just magic!"  Ah, to be a six year old on a summer day!

The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.  -W.B. Yeats

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The A, B, C's of Contemplative Photography: B

B is for Beholding (and also for beauty and breadcrumbs* and....)  (Remember, you can add your suggestions for "B", or any of the letters, by posting a comment and I will update the posts with your ideas. I've already updated "A" with the word Awe...most appropriate.)

   I love this word. Most people "look", artist's "see" but contemplative photographers "behold". You can read my post on the three here.

   The word is very old fashioned, almost biblical sounding.  There are many such words that have fallen out of favor in today's world of abbreviated verbiage, the kind that "texters" love to use. This one, at least for contemplative photographers, needs resurrecting.  The word "behold" is used in the imperative to especially call one's attention to something.  For me, it is an intense form of seeing.

   If our last letter, A is for Aware, is the first step for the contemplative photographer then beholding must surely be the second.  We are attracted to something, we become aware of it by paying attention to it and then we settle in and behold.  If awareness does not imply understanding, beholding acknowledges the beginning of understanding through thoughtful and intense regard.  Beholding takes time, it cannot be rushed and it has almost spiritual connotations.  I might go so far as to call it sacred seeing. (In Latin, this is called Visio Divina. You can visit a site which explains the concept and practice as it is employed by the Episcopal Church in promoting the concept of contemplative arts.)

    The art of beholding the world around you is not something you can do all the time but when you can, when you allow yourself the pleasure of just sitting with a landscape in an intimate and non-verbal conversation, you will be greatly rewarded whether you make photographs or not.

  [ I just discovered that Diane Walker, who's blog link is in the right side bar, has published a book on her ideas for The Contemplative Photographer's Alphabet Her images are always so beautiful and her writing illuminating...I ordered my copy and it came yesterday! I will be including some of her words in future posts.]

* Breadcrumbs: what a contemplative photographer gathers, in images, as they walk along.  Each image leads them on into and through the landscape.


Friday, July 26, 2013

PhotoTao Card #33 - Standing Still...

Standing Still
Stillness is the most enduring quality of
all.  It makes no attempt to move or be
different.  Stillness allows existence to be
exactly as it is.
- Exercise -
    Can stillness be seen as well as felt?
What would it look like?  Where would
you find it?  How would you photograph 
it?  Spend a day searching for this elusive
quality in the landscape.  Think in terms
of symbolic as well as literal stillness.
Much can be communicated about
stillness through composition and light.

    I don't think there is anything that says stillness for me better than a foggy day by the sea.  There is an enveloping cloak of quiet that is hushed and silent.  This image is of a harbor in Chatham from my recent visit there.  It was a dreary grey day but no problem for this contemplative photographer.  I adore fog!  

    In this photograph, I particularly like the one spot of color in the orange marker and the gently curving line that leads your eye into the picture plane.  The small dot of color seems to enhance the greyness of the fog by its contrast.

    On a practical note...I bring along a thin plastic bag, like the kind they use for covering your dry cleaning, to protect my camera on misty or wet days.  I have the fancy professional camera "rain jacket" but the plastic bag is easier to carry and works just as well.  Cut out a small hole at the bottom of the bag for your lens and use a coated elastic (the kind girls use for their pony tails!) to hold it around the lens.  With this set up, your hands and head are covered as well.  It may look a little strange but works like a charm!


Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Sound of Silence...

   I'm staying in Massachusetts for the month of July teaching.  Sitting in the backyard the other night was a revelation.  First, there were the cicadas which fill the air with their unique sound.  Then there was the constant noise of the passing cars (my friends house is in a Boston suburb), the kids were shouting at each other from the adjacent yard and finally, there was the noise of airplanes taking off or landing at Logan Airport!  There was not a moment that the air wasn't filled with sounds of some sort!

   Now I can say that I fully appreciate the sound of silence!  The cicadas, who come every 17 years, made me muse about my life, 17 years life way before I picked up the camera again and discovered contemplative photography.  I doubt I would have been so conscious of the noise filled air back then.  I really wonder how people, who have to live in this constant noise filled atmosphere, cope?  I guess you learn to tune it out.

   Living in Maine the last 18 years has made me cherish the silence even more.  (Not to mention the dark night skies where I can see the Milky Way from my patio.  Here, outside of Boston, there is so much light pollution from the city that you can't even see stars!)  I often find that I now gravitate to quiet, "empty" compositions as well in my photographs.  Large areas of unfilled space like my favorite Chinese watercolor paintings.  It is the space between that holds the wisdom...between the sounds and between people.

Music is the space between the notes.
- Claude Debussy

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Constructed Landscape - the photography of Toshio Shibata

   I recently viewed a wonderful exhibit of the noted Japanese photographer, Toshio Shibata.  I have never seen is work in person and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts has a wonderful show entitled, Constructed Landscapes, on view until February, 2014.  If you are in the area you should really try to see it.  It will challenge you to see photography in a new way and it might even get you thinking about the way you approach the relationship of the man-made world to the natural world.

Shibata's photographs reveal
that even the humblest places
can inspire, delight and
merit contemplation.
-from the introduction
to the exhibit

   Shibata combines Japanese aesthetics with contemporary subject matter, what he calls infrastructure, and the immense scale of the work is breath taking.  The smallest piece is 25" X 30" and the largest is 49" X 60".  The huge size of his prints really made me think about the role of scale in photography.  The trend of creating large scale images is pretty much the norm amongst the elite photographers of today.  There is certainly much you can say about the impact such large images make on the viewer.  You find yourself stepping back to take it all in.  When you are across the room from a photograph of this size it ceases to be "photographic", it seemed to take on the illusion of an abstract painting.

   There is an elegance and simplicity to Shibata's view of the constructed landscape and by making his photographs so large it adds to their monumentality.  By failing to name them, you are often unable to comprehend what they are so the work borders on the abstract.  Here, there is almost a reverence for the work of Man which dominates the pictures space.  The fact that they must have been printed on a monumental printer at a monumental cost simply adds to the overall impression I got of being somewhat small and overwhelmed! 

    I also wondered, as I left the gallery, if the age of the small, hand held print is gone or is there still a place for the intimate, close-up encounter with the photograph?  I hope so; I would hate to see it go the way of the book which is being slowly replaced by the e-book.  Bigger isn't always better but in Toshio Shibata's case it is certainly awe inspiring!


Tuesday, July 23, 2013


   Each of us brings our unique perspective to everything we see and do.  I was reminded of that recently when I joined two dear friends for a visit to the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.  We went to see an exhibit of Faberge, the jeweler to the Romanov dynasty in Russia.

(Yes, I actually do go to museums to see things other than photography but, it just so happened that there was a photography show at the museum as well and I'll tell you about that tomorrow.) 

 The way my friends and I approached the exhibit experience differed completely because of the unique perspectives we brought along with us.

   One friend focused on the craftsmanship of the pieces in the exhibit, calling our attention to the minute detail of each piece, as well as the historical context in which they were made.  My other friend concentrated on the jewels and ornateness of each piece and speculated on the lifestyle of the czar and his family.  And what did I focus on? I was enthralled with watching people's reactions to the work!  I was very glad to have my friends with me.  They pointed out things I may have overlooked had I been there alone.

   This idea of perspectives has special meaning for the contemplative photographer, especially one who likes to  walk the landscape in solitude.  I have to constantly remind myself to shift perspectives from time to time.  If there are animals anywhere about, I am drawn to them first.  I am such an animal lover that a sheep is a magnet to me!  It is the same with people; I gravitate to them.  I must shake myself and remember to see other things as well.  That's why the visual listening exercises I employ are so important. (You can re-read my series on visual listening here.)  It forces me to adopt other perspectives and it heightens my awareness of the whole and not just a small, personally attractive part.  Keep that in mind when you go out into the landscape...from what perspective are you approaching the place?  What new, fresh perspective could you take?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Photographic Subject Matter...

   The very unique quality of photography is that, in most instances, it produces an artifact that has a very real link to the world around us.  It is a picture of something....what people describe as subject matter.

   There is however, two dimensions to this idea.  The first is the subject's matter, the concrete, recognizable elements in the photograph.  The second is the subject's theme, the way the photographer has interpreted the matter.  It is, in fact, this latter dimension that creates the stylistic differences between artists and which can also be called their personal expression of the subject.  Without this expressive element you are just making photographic records.

   Unlike painting, where the artist can manipulate color and brush stroke to create an expressive interpretation of their subject, a photographer has to find this expression in something within and inherent in the subject's matter itself.

   Studying the Visual Elements (line, shape, color, value, texture and space) and the Principles of Design (balance, unity, contrast, pattern, emphasis, movement) is imperative for photographers who want to create more expressive images.

   There are many, many books available to the aspiring photographer to study these ideas but two excellent ones are by Michael Freeman, The Photographer's Eye and The Photographer's Mind.  What makes these books good, in my thinking, is that they don't deal with the mechanics of digital photography like white balance, various settings and exposures but with compositional accomplished photographers compose their images and, more importantly, why they do it that way.

   As for the photographer's heart, that book, as such, has not been written to my knowledge.  I would recommend Christine Valters Paintner's book Eye of the Heart for the time being.  Ultimately, this third approach is the most critical for the contemplative photographer.  What does your heart tell you as you walk around a landscape?  Why do you point your camera's lens this way or that?  For now, you must answer these questions for is an intimate and personal consideration.

   In later posts I'll discuss some specific subject matters that have been long associated with photography and the contemplative's approach to these subject matters.  For now,  I've added a link to a short video of one photographer's walk around a carnival.  Study the video, pause it from time to time to see the "stills" and ask yourself what this video says about the photographer through their interesting exercise.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Breaking the Rules...

Never put your subject in the middle of the frame.
Most people reason deductively much of the time and most photographers see that way...It's a closed process.  Seldom do we look sideways, that is, search for other premises or new beginnings.
- Freeman Patterson

   I really am enjoying my re-read of Patterson's book, Photography and the Art of Seeing.  I love his phrase "thinking sideways".  As contemplative photographers we are in a constant search for new ways to behold the world around us and Patterson's book gives us many useful suggestions.  Some may seem silly at first but the results can be stunning and very evocative.  More than the need to make a wonderful image, breaking the rules loosens up you thought process and allows new possibilities to enter.

Rule #1: Always hold the camera steady.
Breaking Rule #1: Jump up and down in the forest and press the shutter release as you jump.

   He encourages the photographer to be flexible...Taoists read that, "Go with the flow"!  He contrasts traditional thinking (I mind the cold weather so much, I don't think I'll make any pictures today.") with Sideways Thinking, (I mind the cold weather so much, I think I'll make pictures indoors today!)  When I was a teacher I took a sabbatical to study creative thinking.  I could have referenced Patterson's book in my report!  Seeing the world in traditional ways has its advantages but shaking it up a bit from time to time refreshes the mind.

   What are some of the ways you can shake up your photographic world?  What are some of the hard and fast "rules" you've learned that you can break?  Thinking creatively means letting go of past prejudices about what is the "right way" to photograph a subject...even what makes a good subject in the first place.  Patterson's book is full of wonderful and mind expanding ideas.  Go ahead, be a bit daring...forget the "rule of thirds" or not aiming your camera into the sun.  Think sideways!

   On of my favorite rules to break is: "Always carefully frame your subject."  Many of the images I have made of horses were done with the camera on auto and with no attempt to even look through the viewfinder.  I would just wave my arm at random and release the shutter at will. (A carrot waving in the other hand helps too!)  Many of the resulting images may be throwaways but every once in awhile something magical happens...


  We need both the stability of the traditional and the challenge of the new in order to cultivate order and tension in our photography.  That is the art of seeing.
- Freeman Patterson

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The A, B, C's of Contemplative Photography: A

A is for Awareness (and also for Attention and Attraction and Awe and acumen)    

    After I completed my Monhegan alphabet, I got to wondering if I could create a contemplative photography A, B, C!  I think it would be an interesting challenge and I invite you all to chime in with suggestions as we go along.  If you can think of any A words that would be appropriate, please post a comment and I will add them to the list above! This may offer some interesting and insightful ideas and it is also a way to review and expand upon some ideas I have already posted. I will do another letter from time to time but they will all be in the subject list on the right under A Contemplative Alphabet so if you miss one you can catch up.

   I've done a post on the idea of "paying attention". (You should read the post if you missed it, the quantum physics thing is really fascinating.) This is a crucial skill for the contemplative photographer but so is awareness. One is the off shoot of the other...we are aware of only the things we pay attention to. Awareness is a cognitive reaction to something but does not imply understanding. It is the first step for a contemplative photographer, as well as our first letter in the contemplative alphabet. No need to fully understand what you are looking at, just LOOK!  Become aware and pay attention.

    When you heighten your awareness it can be a blessing as well as a curse, trust me, I'm speaking from experience. I notice EVERYTHING!  Nothing escapes my attention.   Sometimes I have to turn if off so I can just get on with things!  But I would rather be that way than completely unaware of my surroundings. What I have found in time is that while I may be hyper-aware, I now pay attention to and am attracted by only the things that fill my heart.   Those are the things that I end up making photographs of.


Friday, July 19, 2013

The Composite View...

   When you look at a landscape you cannot take it all in at once.  You look right, you look left, you look up and down but you only see what you focus on, one view at a time.  The rest is only an impression, a sensation of the whole.  Somehow, you have to pull all these impressions together in your mind to create the composite view of the landscape.  It is an interesting idea...this idea of the composite view.

Photo collage by David Hockney
   The artist David Hockney is a photographer who has embraced the composite view.  His photo collages of multiple views of a single site are a very interesting approach to this dilemma.

   I think I might try this, not as a collage but as a photographic series. As each view draws my attention I would make an image.  It might be valuable to record the sequence of the views as well.  What drew my attention first?  Then what...then what?  This would create a highly illuminating map of my thought process I think. 

    What we choose to focus our attention on, and what we don't, is crucial to the contemplative photographer.  Our attention defines our contemplation.  Are you a "big picture" sort of person...making sweeping appraisals of the landscape or are you more of a "small picture" person...reveling in the details?  Each person's attention will create their "reality" of the place and all are merely composite views at best.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Journaling and Contemplative Photography...

Photo by Joel Montes
   Can you be a contemplative photographer without journeling? Well, yes, of course, but frankly I just can't imagine why you would want to.  After all, the primary purpose of contemplative photography is to reflect on the images you make and it just makes sense to write it all down!

   Journaling has been a daily ritual for me for 40+ years.  The simply act of writing each morning is how I like to begin my day and when I can't do it, which happens from time to time, I feel...well, incomplete.  As if I'd put on only one sock.  You can get through the day that way but it feels unbalanced.  The fact that you may find interesting, or amusing if you wish, is that I do not keep my journals.  When they are filled up I re-read them and then throw them away! Yes, you heard correctly...I chuck 'em!  It's part of my Taoist practice to wade through the day to day dramas of life, reflect on them and then let them go.  I move on.

   My journaling on location, even the little sketches I make, are kept only for as long as I need them and then they too disappear.  I'm not quite sure why this is true for me.  I know others who save volumes of their journals forever.  For me it is the mere act of physically writing that is important; sometimes in a kind of "stream of consciousness" way.  It is process rather than product for me.

   So, write or them or chuck ''s up to you.  Here is an excellent blog post on journaling you may find illuminating...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Inspired by Thomas Merton...

I had learned from my own father that it was almost
blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to
reproduce some kind of a sensible pleasure or, at best,
to stir up the emotions to a transitory thrill.  I had
always understood that art was contemplation, and 
that it involved the action of the highest faculties of man.

   This passage is from Thomas Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain which I re-read recently after an almost 40 year hiatus.  It was very interesting to note how influential his father, Owen Merton, was to his thought process.  As a landscape painter, the older Merton took the young Thomas with him as he traveled to paint...mostly in Southern France...after his wife died.  There were sown the seeds that would later bloom into Father Louie's (Thomas Merton's name after he became a priest) contemplative photography.
Landscape painting by Owen Merton
   Every experience, every person you meet, becomes part of your journey and influences, sometimes in small and subtle ways, the person you become.  We are all ever expanding chains of influences. Those of us who embrace contemplative photography do so for many reasons.  Our back stories are all different but I believe they all carry a thread of soul searching that will not leave us and which expresses itself in our photographs.

    I believe Merton's way of looking at the world, in part, was formed at the feet of his father as he watched him paint the landscape. To draw the scene in front of you, you must pay attention to the subtle nuances of line and shape, tone and color.  This intense form of seeing can only add to your personal understanding and appreciation of the landscape.  This is why I still draw and sometimes paint places I will later photograph.

   Studying the work of accomplished painters is also a way to inspire your own photographic work.  Next time you visit a museum to see a photography exhibition, wander into the painting galleries, notebook in hand.  Look at how the painter frames his work...where he places the horizon line...what details he focuses on.  You will be rewarded for the effort and you will add a few more links to your chain of influence.  


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Metaphors - Determination

  I came across this tree on my recent visit to Pembroke, Maine.  The large paper birch tree had, at one time, grown on the edge of the woods.  Perhaps a severe winter storm had eroded the shoreline and the tree had toppled over.  But that didn't seem to discourage this brave fellow!  It's roots still anchored, albeit tenuously, to the ground it continued to grow..right over a large rock.  It refused to accept its new and unfortunate condition and it eventually turned itself upright again.

   I must admit that this tiny shoreline drama was very inspiring to me.  It provided a metaphor for simple determination.  No matter what circumstance we find ourselves in we must never give up.  We must continually reach for the light...where there is life there is the potential for growth and change.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Nature of Light...

   While I was flipping through channels the other night, I caught the end of a Charlie Rose interview with James Turrell on PBS.  Turrell is a contemporary artist that works solely with light.  He made an absolutely astonishing statement.  (This quote is from a EGG interview he did but he said essentially the same thing in the interview I saw.)

I mean, light is a substance that is, in fact a thing, but we don't attribute thing-ness to it.  We use light to illuminate other things, something we read, sculpture, painting.  And it gladly does this.  But the most interesting thing to find is that light is aware that we are looking at it, so that it behaves differently when we are watching it and when we're not, which imbues it with consciousness. - James Turrell    

   I must admit that this idea absolutely floored me.  That light has consciousness!  I'm not sure if I can wrap my mind around such a thing.  I'm also pretty sure that most physicists would have a really hard time with such a statement as well but let's play "pretend" for a moment.  What if light did actually respond to us.  What implications would that have for the photographer?  Forget photography, what impact would it have on everything we think we know about the world?  All of a sudden the idea of achieving "enlightenment" takes on a whole different meaning. 

   I do know that Albert Einstein did not believe in the theory of an expanding universe in his life time, a theory which is pretty much main stream today.  So, who knows.  I'll let the physicists and Mr. Turrell battle it out but I know one thing for sure, stumbling upon that interview with James Turrell has got me thinking and imagining in a whole new way.  I don't think I'll ever look at a beam of sunlight in quite the same way again and isn't that the whole reason we are open our minds to possibilities even if they seem, well, impossible?  After all, all revolutionary theories seemed impossible when they were first floated...walking on the moon? fiction!  This idea of a conscious light also puts a whole new spin on the contemplative photographers idea of "received" images doesn't it?  Just something to think about....


Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Thought for Today - Henry David Thoreau

   Back in January I chose "pathways" as my word for this year...a word I would come back to over and over again.  I photographed this pathway on my walk around the wildlife refuge on Monomoy island in Chatham on Cape Cod.  This thought from Thoreau seemed especially appropriate to the image.  Sometimes, when we are on location...especially in a stunning location, we are continually anticipating the next "photographable" moment (looking ahead) or checking the images we have already made (looking back).  Neither is the proper mindset.  Sit still with the landscape and let it inform your picture making then move on when you are ready...don't look ahead and don't look back...let the contemplative within walk along side you and listen to the landscapes subtle whisperings.  Embrace the journey as much as the destination.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

PhotoTao Card #32 - Emptiness

To be empty is the gift of the few.
To experience this emptiness is the
benediction of being human.
- Exercise -
 You cannot add anything to a full cup.
Practicing "emptiness" is allowing a place
for new ideas to rest.  Practice this as you
wander in museums - let new ideas in.  
Practice this when you wander in the
landscape - let all possibilities find a
welcoming home in your heart.  
Dorothea Lange advises that the best
way to approach a new landscape is to
"go in ignorant."

There's Always One in Every Crowd....
     "A little learning is a dangerous thing." - Alexander Pope

    I think this applies to photographers as well.  If you think you know the best way to make an image then all other ways become unsuitable.  If only certain subjects are "worthy" then others are unacceptable.  This kind of dualistic thinking is stifling to the contemplative photographer.  We must remain empty bowls so that we can be open to receive the images we need to receive. (Read my post on Empty Bowls here.)

   This type of thinking is especially harmful when it comes to exploring a familiar landscape close to home.  We think we know it...there is nothing else to find.  How wrong that is!  This photograph is of a farm near my home in Maine.  I've been by it hundreds of times, usually on my way to Portland; on my way to somewhere else.  I never, until a month or so ago, took the time to stop and observe it. 

     They raise Highland cattle on this farm and this adventurous soul was cooling off in the pond while his companions remained safely ashore.  I thought that this is the kind of photographer I want to be.  I don't want to remain safely on shore making "acceptable" images in traditional ways...I want to wade right into the landscape and see what lies under the surface.  After all, that's where the interesting stuff is!

Friday, July 12, 2013

An Interview with Steve Dunn...

   I was very fortunate to spend my week on Monhegan with photographer Steve Dunn.  Steve has been coming to Monhegan for 20 years and has just published a book of his images of the island entitled Monhegan: Timeless Impressions of a Special Island. (You can follow this link to preview and order the book.)  Steve has graciously agreed to an interview for this blog that will give us some insight into his process.  He calls his style, photographic impressionism.  I call it evocative and captivating.  I get lost in his images.  The following are Steve's responses to my questions on the "why" and "how" of his work.

PT:   In your book you call your images "artistic meditations".  Could you expand on that idea?

View from Fish Beach
SDThe images I have created and included in this book are not traditional tack sharp images of my subjects but my artistic interpretation of those subjects.  They are impressionistic images in which the subjects are recognizable but are not literal renditions of how the subject looks in real life.  The images are intended to evoke feelings.  My hope is that the viewer will take time to study each image and discover what feelings the images evoke in them.  For me, one of the feelings these images evoke is a feeling of timelessness which is one of the feelings I have when I am on Monhegan.  This is what I mean by artistic meditation.  Artistic meditation is when you spend time viewing and thinking about an image so that you go beyond the initial visual impact of the image and find its deeper meaning.

PTYou acknowledge Freeman Patterson and Andre' Gallant for inspiring you and teaching you the "art of seeing".  What for you is the most critical element of this act?

SDFor me, the most critical element in the "art of seeing" is to be in the present moment.  If you are not in the present moment it is impossible to see what is around you.  If your thoughts are in the past or the future you cannot recognize the beauty that surrounds you, you are just going through the motions.  You must be in touch with all of your senses in that very moment in order to make a successful photograph, one that has true meaning.

PTYou have been returning to Monhegan for 20 years to photograph this unique landscape.  What is it about this place that keeps you coming back year after year?

SD:   I believe each of us has that special place where we feel truly at home and at peace.  For me, Monhegan is that place.  I feel like Monhegan is part of me and I am part of it.  It is where my soul is most content.  I love everything about Monhegan, from its slow pace of life, its incredible natural beauty, to its caring, strong, self sufficient people.  Monhegan is a place where there are no pretenses, it is what it is.  It is a place where people know and look out for each other, where they work hard to make a living, but know true freedom and great joy.  It is a place where thy take time to appreciate each sunrise and sunset.  It is also a place where change comes slower and not at the mind numbing pace it occurs on the mainland.  For me, Monhegan is a place that makes it easy to be in the present moment because I do not want to be anywhere else.  For these and many more I will return to Monhegan each year and I will continue to create images of this special place for the rest of my life.

PT I've often used the phrase - "I am my photographs."  You mention the Ernst Hass quote, "If beauty were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?"  How is the person you are reflected in your photographs?

SD I believe that when we take photographs the images we create and how we create them are greatly influenced by our subconscious.  My images reflect my life long love of Maine and in particular the coast of Maine.  They also reflect my inner quest to express love, peace, beauty and happiness.  I  spent 34 years working in various law enforcement positions where I encountered many of the negative aspects of the human experience.  Although I enjoyed this work, it was emotionally draining.  Photography offered me an opportunity to recharge myself emotionally and express my true self.  The images I create express the contemplative and ever hopeful person that I believe I am.

Three Dories
   In the world of photography today there seems to be a trend to concentrate on showing the negative aspects of life, the cruelty, hatred and suffering that are all too prevalent.  While there is certainly a place for this type of photography, there is also a need to show the positive aspects of life.  There is nothing wrong with creating beautiful images.  As humans, we need to see the beauty in life for it is what inspires us.  If we concentrate on the negative we will soon become disillusioned about life.  For me, beauty symbolizes peace, hope and love which are all things the world certainly needs more of.  So, I will continue to create images that show the beauty that I see in the world around me with the hope that in some small way they will inspire others to see more of the beauty of life that surrounds them.

PTFinally, I wonder if you would share some of the technical aspects of your unique photographic style with my blog readers?

SDFor many years as I was learning photography, I took photographs in the more traditional manner; they were tack sharp and showed every detail of the subject.  I was happy with these photographs for awhile but as I became a better photographer I realized that the images I was taking were not fully expressing the feelings that I wanted to express about my subjects so I started reading about some alternative photographic techniques.  I then learned about the photographic workshops offered by Freeman Patterson and Andre' Gallant.  I decided to take their workshop which is focused on visual design and in which they teach many of the alternative photographic techniques I now use.

   When you first learn these techniques you tend to want to use them on everything but you quickly realize that the technique does not work with every subject.  These techniques should be used when they help to better express the feeling you want the viewer to get from the image.  Never use a photographic technique that overpowers the image itself.  I believe the photographic techniques I used to create the images in my book helped to express the sense of timelessness and other feelings that Monhegan evokes in me.

What follows is a brief description of each of the photographic techniques used in the book:

1. Photomontages (Slide Sandwiches) - With this technique you combine two or three frames together to create an artistic effect.  There are many variations on this technique.  You can combine two totally different images (one as the subject and the other as a complimenting detail) in order to create a surreal scene.  You could also combine two images of the same scene with one frame in focus and one frame out of focus in order to make an impressionistic effect.

2. Multiple Exposures - This is a technique where you combine two or more images (I usually use 9 or 10) of the same or different subjects whether in the camera or in the computer.  It can be done with film or digitally.

3. Rear Projection - Project images, either slides or digital images, on a rear projection screen and photograph them through textured glass.

4.  Selective Focus - This technique is created by keeping the subject in sharp focus and other parts of the image out of focus and blurred.

5. Polaroid Manipulation Process - Using Polaroid SX70 film, I manipulated the emulsion with a stylist after exposing the film which gave the finished print a painterly quality.  Unfortunately, Polaroid SX70 film is no longer available so I cannot use this process now.

   Steve has certainly given all of us a lot to think about and digest.  The "takeaways" from all this are quite simple though...photograph what you love and be willing to keep at it....use photographic techniques with care so that they are used to express your heartfelt intention and not to merely impress others...and don't be afraid to look for the beauty in the world around you.  I think a reminder of my Four Be's of Contemplative Photography would be a good way to conclude this post since I feel they sum up Steve's process as a photographer:

Be Still, Be Present, Be Patient and Be Persistent

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Power of Green...

   Sometimes, it is hard for me to imagine that at one point a few years ago, I only did black and white images!  While I still love the softly modulated tonality of the monochrome image, my stroll around the Arnold Arboretum recently made me rejoice in the glorious color of a Spring landscape.  The lime greens, pinks and purples beneath the striking blue skies made me want to pick up my paintbrush again!

   This Texas Red Bud tree was a startling sight.  The small clusters of pink flowers grew directly out of the trunk as well as on the branches.  It seem a bit strange but suited the beautifully magical day.

   The red buds skirted a field of tiny yellow buttercups and between the two, the color palette was breathtaking.  There is much to contemplate when you look at natures handling of color.  There are no "bad" combinations...chartreuse and magenta are the closest of friends.  A painter friend of mine said that in nature it is the ever present greens that make all these colorful juxtapositions palatable. The cool green mediates the opposing, and possibly conflicting, color contrasts.  What is the "cooling green" element of personal and political conflict? I suppose if we could find that out we might be able to mitigate some of  the worlds constant turmoil.  Just throwing that out there for you to consider....

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Contemplative Strolling...

  I've written so much about walking in a contemplative way that I though perhaps enough is enough but then it is such an important dimension of our craft that I'm compelled to explore it yet again.  I think it also has to do with spending a week with a painter recently and seeing how different it was between us.  She sets up a still life and then it's a concentrated effort to render the real...depict the subtle qualities of light and shadow and color.  It is a process that takes several hours to create one image.

  When I go out into the landscape I have absolutely no idea what I will be photographing before hand.  I can spend an hour or more walking and absorbing the sense of place and I still may not have a clear idea.   I let the whole process unfold in front of in a kind of organic way .  Somehow I will know, something inside will whisper to me, when it is time to raise the camera to my eye and isolate a tiny fraction of everything around carve out a single element that has drawn my attention.  It is such an intuitive process; so unlike the painting process my friend follows.

Four Steps...
Here are four steps I try to follow when I'm out for a contemplative stroll:
  1.  Walk Slowly...I mean really slowly! I find that if I am rushed in any way it defeats the whole process.
  2. Make frequent stops.  Every step along the way has the potential of inspiring you...take the time to stop and look around.
  3. Use all your senses when you walk.  What do you smell?  How does the ground feel under your feet?  What sounds are trying to get your attention?  It is all part of the character of the place you are walking in and it is all important.
  4. Re-trace your steps from time to time.  You will see a whole different landscape!  I was rather amazed when I learned this simply technique.  We seem to favor one side to another when we walk.  We are either a left handed looker or a right handed looker!  Walking back the way you came is a totally different walk!

 Here is a link to explore other ways of enhancing your contemplative stroll...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Photographic Metaphor - The Ties that Bind Us

    The ties that bind us, one to another, are invisible.  We are linked to everything and everyone by a web of interconnectedness.  Harm one and you harm all.

   Today as the world continues to shrink at an alarming rate, this phenomenon is more and more obvious.  We cannot escape the consequence of our failure to recognize this very simply fact.
   In a Chatham cemetery I saw this concept beautifully depicted through the granite posts and rusted chains that criss-crossed a large section.   Seeing a metaphor so clearly depicted is not that common...most are much more subtle.  Don't go looking for them...let them find you.  It is always a delight when you stumble across one.  I was reminded of an old passage written in 1624.   It seems very appropriate for today...

No Man Is An Island

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Pilgrim's Compass...

   I've believed in an internal GPS for a long time but my recent series of posts on pilgrimage got me thinking about compasses...the ancient form of GPS.  Is there something akin to the compass for those who want to travel with a pilgrim's heart?  Is it any different that this internal GPS that I've referred to before?

   A GPS will take you to a location that you have determined...that you plug into the device.  It won't take you to Chicago if you typed in New York.  My internal GPS, as I define it, takes me to where I need to be.  I may think I'm going to Chicago but it may be saying New York!  A compass points only to the magnetic north and then, if you know your destination is south, you can set off in the right direction.  The pilgrim's compass also points to a magnetic direction but for the pilgrim it indicates the direction of your longing and that can be anywhere.

   We are well into our summer season of travel and it is helpful to reflect on the direction of our longings.   Do we go to familiar places close to home, like I am doing this year, simply to relive our cherished past or do we go, as I hope I am, to see it all anew?  What did we miss before?  You are not the same person you were when you visited in the past so, in reality, you will not see the same things you did then.  Your frame of reference has changed and the encounter will be entirely different.  That is what I am experiencing as I re-visit long familiar places near to home. My pilgrim's compass points me in the direction of my longing and my internal GPS concurs...this is where I need to be.  I've used this quote before but it bears repeating...

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

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Coming into Focus...

Past and Present - Ireland, 2007
   Many years ago, I was showing someone a collection of my photographic prints and after looking at them for awhile they commented, "You must have a really good camera!"  I was a little taken aback by that comment.  If I had shown the person a series of my watercolor paintings would they have remarked, "You must have really good paint brushes!"  I understand now, however, where that person was coming from.  The camera is often given credit rather than the photographer.  For many people, it is the camera that creates; it is why photography is often under valued.

   If Ansel Adams had only a cheap "point and shoot" camera his images would still have had power and was his contemplative eye that framed his was his discernment that brought us in to focus on the important elements of the landscape.  Adams was a concert pianist as well as master of the photographic medium.  He called his negatives his "scores" and his final prints his "performance".  I like that analogy.   A Chopin piano concerto, poorly performed, would still resonate with a quality of conception that would be unmistakable.  Photographs are the same. 

   So, the next time someone goes on and on about their expensive camera and lenses, be patient and smile sweetly.  The proof is not in their camera bags but in the content of their images.  When you look at their photographs, do you see the technique first or do they speak to your heart in some way?  Remember that when you are on location.  Remember that in the final analysis it is the quality of your images content that matters most, not the length or price tag of your lens.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Thought for Today - Creative Works

A Connemara Reflection - 2009

    I love the writings of Hildegard of Bingen.  I wrote a post about her not to long ago (re-read it here...) and offer one of her quotations as today's inspiration along with a photograph I made in Cong, Ireland.  This simple sentence sums up beautifully the whole basis of contemplative photography for me.  In the mere act of creating the image you are revealing a hidden wisdom...perhaps even a wisdom you had not even considered before.  What an amazing idea! So...go out, create and then revel in the wisdom of your created image.