Monday, March 31, 2014

A weed by any other name....

There is nothing that is not
spiritual for those who have
learned to see.
-Richard Rohr

   Spring is here, at least by the calendar's reckoning, and many of us are thinking about gardens.  Even as I ready myself to depart on my threshold pilgrimage, I can't help considering the garden as it struggles to awaken from its long winter nap. 

 Many, many years ago I made a tiny garden in the backyard of the house I was living in.  I planted it with "weeds" I had gathered along the roadside and in fields.  I thought that so many of the common flowering "weeds", like black eye Susan, milkweed and wild aster, were really lovely and since I had no money for cultivated plants, I planted the weeds much to the chagrin of my landlady who was convinced it would ruin her lawn.  It didn't but it did bring in lots of butterflies!

What is a weed?  A plant
whose virtues have never
been discovered.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

   I think I may try to re-create my old weed garden this year somewhere on my property here in Maine. At least I won't have to worry about amending the soil!  It is a reminder to look at all creation as something worthy of our attention...even those things others seek to pull out of their lives and discard.

   I think the lesson of my weed garden for the contemplative photographer is that beauty and meaning can be found anywhere....even in the weedy patches of our world.  Seek out these places and learn to fall in love with that which has "virtue yet undiscovered".  I'll bet you know a place near to you right now that can be your "weedy patch", don't you!  Take your camera and go there. Find the beauty others have overlooked.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Internalizing the Landscape...

When you really gaze at
something, you bring
it in inside you.
- John O'Donohue

   I thought our winter weary souls could use a bit of a fragrant reminder of warmer days!  I have been photographing flowers in the past year, something I never did much in my exclusively black and white days.  This one is an image I made nine years ago and which I'd converted to black and white.  I went back to the original file and looked at it in color.  It was like seeing it again for the first time!

  (This is a reminder to always photograph in color even if you intend to convert it to black and white later.)

   My visual listening exercises are really about my attempt to somehow internalize the bring it deep inside myself as John suggests.  This cannot be done with a cursory glance...the fleeting look...but only with the intensely focused gaze.  It really is the difference between looking and beholding.  Staring into the lovely face of a flower is a wonderful thing to do.  I remember how richly scented this one was, its large, velvety soft petals.  I am more intimately connected to the landscape if I embrace it with all my senses, not just my eyes.

   I really urge you to take your time and forge a connection with the landscape anyway you can. It may include merely sitting quietly or you may be guided by inspirational readings or you may, like I like to do from time to time, draw.  Drawing, for me, makes a direct connection between myself and the landscape. I physically touch and translate its contours and textures onto the paper.  It's not about creating works of art by any means, it's about creating relationship.   Learn to internalize the landscape and your images will benefit from this interconnectedness.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Layers of Meaning...

    When I photograph in the landscape I am acutely aware of the layered quality of the physical space I'm in.  I know that it requires that I carefully and patiently peel back layer after layer until I reach the core essence of the place.

    I can rarely achieve that level of awareness on one short visit.  It requires time.  Perhaps even returning several times to a location.  It also requires an understanding and acceptance of the possibility that what we are looking at may have more than one meaning, perhaps a deeper and more profound one.   In this way the landscape is a bit like an iceberg, a great portion of it is under the water, not obvious to the casual viewer who only glimpses the top 10%. Photographers who approach the landscape on a superficial level may make lovely images but they miss the soul of the place.

     Another way to peel back the layers of meaning is through the practice of Photo Lectio.  This process allows me to sit quietly with an image and see what shimmers to the surface.  "Reading" my image is like turning pages in a book.  Each page reveals something different.

     This is probably the most difficult part of the contemplative process for those new to the practice.  The quiet time of just sitting and waiting doesn't suit our contemporary fast paced culture.  It is, in fact, a quality that has to be nurtured and practiced everyday until it becomes a natural part of your life.

    Why not set up a time everyday to just sit and do nothing?  Don't meditate, don't listen to music, just be still.  Start slowly...5 minutes at most...and don't worry if your mind goes dashing off in many directions!  Lengthen the time as you become more comfortable in this state.  Allowing yourself to settle into the beauty of this way of being will help you enormously when you next go out into the landscape.  The layers of meaning will slowly reveal themselves to you over time because, unlike we human beings, Nature is never in a hurry!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Contemplative Poetry Series - William Wordsworth



What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind. 


William Wordsworth



 p.s Another Susan Fox inspired image! 


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hope is the thing with feathers...

   It may not look like spring around this old farmhouse but the birds know differently.  There seems to be an urgency about them that is hard to miss.  It may not look like spring but spring is fluttering in their tiny chests nonetheless..mine too!

   They are not looking at calendars or checking the weather forecast, they are simply responding to the whispers they feel more that hear.  It is time for building nests and finding a mate.

   Everyone has his own special seasonal rituals.  We respond in many ways the same as the tiny birds.  We just know it's time for some things.  I mentioned the spring ritual of housecleaning but I have another ritual I do every year when the sun begins to warm the days and the forsythia buds swell. 

One stop shopping!
   I put out my containers of nest building materials for the birds to use!   Bits of raffia, snippets of old yarn, and especially cast off wool from my neighbor's sheep are all good.  I fill a suet feeder and a recycled mesh bag with the raw materials any bird would love to use to construct a warm and comfy nest.

   This is pay back time.  My little feathered friends have cheered me all winter and were even featured on this blog.  I feel it is only fair I help them in their yearly ritual of nest building.  It's the least I can do.

   You might like to help your little friends too so here is a link to a site with some helpful tips -

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Signs of the Season - Maine's own form of March madness!

   It was a beautiful skies and above freezing temperatures for a change. A perfect day to celebrate a Maine tradition....Maple Syrup Sunday, a sure sign of the spring season.  Visiting a local farm was my way of celebrating March Madness - much more rewarding for this contemplative soul than spending the day in front of the tv watching basketball!

   The inside of the sap house was a wonderful place of warmth and good smells, not to mention the sweet delight of maple syrup on ice cream.  I love this sign of the season!

    Unfortunately, it hasn't been a good year for those here in Western Maine who run sap lines.  Last year, my friend at this farm did 60 gallons of the golden syrup.  This year it is only 10 gallons.  The weather has just been too cold for the sap to run and now that the sun is strengthening the season will shortly be done.

  I enjoyed the afternoon and even managed to be transfixed by the reflections on the side of the sap evaporator!  I guess my photographer's eye is never really turned off and that's fine.  It certainly didn't impede my enjoyment of the event.

   Buying local is an important way to support farmers in your area and I encourage you to seek them out.  Bring your camera along when you visit the farms and farm stands and see what inspires you!  You will be helping out local farmers and getting better food for yourself...any photographs you may gather in the process is just an added bonus!


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Contemplative Masters Series - John O'Donohue

"When you cease to fear your solitude, a new creativity awakens in you. Your forgotten or neglected wealth begins to reveal itself. You come home to yourself and learn to rest within. Thoughts are our inner senses. Infused with silence and solitude, they bring out the mystery of inner landscape."

   I have much to thank John O'Donohue for, not the least of which is his introducing me to the Burren and Ballyvaughan back in 2007.

    He allowed me to come to know and value my inner landscape and its ability to mirror the metaphors I found in the outer landscape.  It is the quotation above that will be central to the third leg of my Threshold Pilgrimage in May.

   John reflected the lyrical love of landscape that all Irish seem imbued with.  The landscape isn't mere "real estate" as we often think of it but a living, breathing and palpitating manifestation of the divine.  You don't walk through it as much as you walk hand in hand with it.  He seemed to be able to reconcile Man's separation from Nature in the most lovely and poetic way.  I can easily state that so much of how I look at the world today is a direct result of having known John and his writings.

My portrait of John, 2007
   John also introduced me to Celtic spirituality. What I've come to love about it is the notion that the divine is not separate from the natural world.  For the Celtic mind, God didn't merely create nature, He is Nature.  This is a concept that is now central to my practice of contemplative photography.

The ancient Celts never separated the visible from the invisible, time from eternity, or the human from the divine.
- John O'Donohue

    Although not a photographer himself, he often said it was a subject he was interested in pursuing.  Had he lived, I believe John would have become the commensurate contemplative photographer.

   Through his writings and lectures, John has reached millions and he continues to do so six years after his untimely death in January of 2008.  I am ending with a link to the trailer of A Celtic Pilgrimage.  I've posted this before but with my own Celtic pilgrimage fast approaching I want you to see why I needed to return once again to the Burren and why John will be a sojourner in spirit with me as I explore this liminal location.  


Monday, March 24, 2014

Yearning for the Melting to Begin...

   This is the same pond from yesterday's post.  I so enjoyed watching these two mallards rushing across the ice to get to the open water, slipping and sliding on their way.  I could so relate to those two little guys!

   Winter simply won't leave us here in Maine and the ponds around my house are nowhere near this open.  Our poor ducks remain sheltered on the shore gazing with longing eyes at the potential of open water.  What dreams they must be dreaming!  I'm probably dreaming the same dreams...melt, melt darn it, melt!

   Sometimes in our lives we have to just "sit and wait".  Like last week when I came down with a nasty bug and spent days barely able to rise from my bed. (Thank goodness I had scheduled my posts ahead of time!)  Waiting for the melting to start, waiting to feel better, waiting for the time to pass until I leave for Ireland...we spend so much of our time waiting for something.  But most often, the focus of our waiting is out of our hands.  I can't make Spring hurry up any more that I could speed up the virus that just had to work its way through me in its own time.

   I think you can tell a lot about a person by how they deal with waiting.  Next time you are at the airport and a flight is delayed, just look around and see how various people cope with this enforced waiting...very enlightening!  As frustrating as flight delays are I try to see them as an opportunity to study my fellow man (and woman!)...always a worthwhile activity.  One man's obstacle is another man's opportunity!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Stillness, Silence and Solitude...

   The great trinity of essential practices for the contemplative photographer, stillness, silence and solitude. 

   When I give workshops in the field I had to come up with a way for people to be guided and to be alone at the same time.  Contemplative photography is not a group activity!

   The journals of guided meditations I design and give to participants allow them to experience the stillness, silence and solitude for themselves while keeping them focused on the essential experience I want them to have.

   Stilling the mind's constant chattering, entering into a companionable silence as one sits in solitude in the landscape, this is foremost in the practice of contemplative photography for me and one I look forward to whenever I go out into the landscape.

   I photographed this scene on a visit to Massachusetts recently where they were far more advanced in the steady progress to spring than we are in Maine.  "Ice out" is a term we use here to signify that moment when the pond comes back to life and sheds its winter blanket of ice.  People even wager on possible dates and great ceremony is attached to this northern rite of Spring.  In this image we can see ice out is well on its way.

    It is also an apt metaphor for the spiritual awakening in all of us...when we melt into a new way of being that more clearly reflects the wonders and love of life.  It is the moment of re-embracing the sunlight that will warm us to the core after our voluntary retreat behind an icy barrier of detachment.

   There is nothing so still as a pond silently re-emerging after a long, long winter.  We can't see the wonders at work beneath the icy covering but it is there.  Slowly and in a splendid solitude it begins its transformation and we can only watch and wait.

   I've begun a new Pinterest board you might like to explore...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Photography as a Mirror of Belief...

The Divine Spark
   I am a firm believer in the idea that we will see what we need to see because we are drawn to places and images that answer some deep seated desire or need within us.

   I also believe that as we clarify our belief system, the pull to certain places or experiences heightens.  Our photographs will then become a mirror for those beliefs.

   If you believe in the natural depravity and desperation of humankind then that is what you will see and, conversely, what you will be drawn to photograph. There seems to be no lack of this kind of photography today.  Many contemporary photographers seem fixated on the negative, the darker side of the human experience.  There is certainly a place for this kind of mirror.  Gazing into it may be painful but it is, at times, necessary and I thank the photographers who have the courage to hold this sort of mirror up for me to gaze into.

    If you believe, on the other hand, in the divine presence inherent in the natural world, then that is what you will encounter.  It is, in some ways, a self-fulling prophesy.  There is a need for both kinds of mirrors...the dark and the the world.

    Today's image is a direct reflection of the second form of personal need to see the divine spark in the most unlikely places.  I am definitely a "glass half full" sort of person.  I was visiting a friend and she commented on the need to throw out the wilted and faded flowers on the table.  They were, indeed, a sorry sight but for some reason I felt compelled to photograph them.

   This image is the result...the perfect illustration for this post I think.  I found this image just when I needed it.  If I had focused on the decaying part of the flowers only I would never have discovered the lovely interior metaphor which is emphasized by a little selective desaturation.  I also deliberately darkened the tonality on the right side of the photograph. Having this part of the image in black and white seemed to demand the exaggeration of tones. Together with the light side it amplifies the metaphor of the two belief systems. 

   This is also an example of how we can work with the images we receive to heighten their contemplative possibilities.  I don't do this a lot but it definitely speaks to the artist in me  .There is not a right way or a wrong way to gather and work with your one way to practice contemplative photography.  The only "right way" is your way!

   Adding a bit of "noise" to the image, allowing it too be softly grainy, further adds to the images intention to exist beyond the reality of the observed thing. It lends a painterly feeling to it that I really liked. I have never experimented with this type of imaging much but this has been a winter of exploration in so many ways...this is just the latest manifestation of that exploration. It feels good to step out of your comfort zone from time to time!

   I would like you to think about this when next you venture out to photograph. What sort of mirror are you holding up for the world to gaze into? What does that mirror reflect back to you?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Opening Up the Window...

The eyes are the 
windows of the Soul.

   This old English proverb can be traced to many sources including biblical and ancient Roman.  It also fits in very nicely with my Jungian belief that the soul not only speaks to us in images but responds to them as well.

   With the Spring Equinox we find ourselves full of yearning. One of the traditional spring rituals is to give the house a good turning out.  After a long and difficult winter we have the urge to open the windows to let fresh air fill our homes.  We also find the need to clean off the winter's accumulated grime from the panes so we can see Spring coming to life in our yards more clearly.

   This window metaphor is very apt for the contemplative photographer as well.   Our contemplative eyes connect to our hearts as much as our brains.  Through visual listening and visual journaling/sketching exercises, we free our soul to communicate directly with the landscape.  It will then let us know what we need to photograph.

   As we slowly awaken from our winter rest, stretch our limbs and again venture out into our beloved landscape, remember to do a little spiritual housecleaning first.  Wash off the cloudy film that detracts from your ability to see clearly what is in front of you and throw open the windows to your soul and let the breath of the divine flow in.

   Check out the link below to learn more about the traditions surrounding the Spring Equinox, or to be fair to our southern hemisphere friends, the March Equinox...

Celebrating the Vernal Equinox
  I won't be opening my windows any time soon with the 12" of new snow that fell yesterday! This is the view from Emerson's pillow, where he normally enjoys watching the world go by. No chance of that, he can't even see the road!

    Sigh..."This too shall pass"...and I hope it's soon!


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Contemplative Possibilities - Patterns of Light

   After this long, grey winter it isn't surprising that my thoughts turn towards sunlight.  The lengthening days are such a relief! Today is the vernal equinox; we've reached the half way point.  For the next three months our days will be filled with more and more divine light.

   My Grandmother use to tell me that as a small baby she would put me on a blanket in the sun on the kitchen floor.  As the sun moved, I would roll to stay in the sunlight.  Now I delight to see Emerson seeking out the sunbeams each day to sleep in. He becomes almost "catatonic" in them. (Pun intended!)  All creatures are attracted to light it seems.

Light is the symbol of truth.
 - James Russell Lowell

   I started photographing these moments of light around my house.  I love the patterns they create as they pass through objects.  This is, indeed, a wonderful contemplative possibility for you to try sometime. You don't even have to leave the house for this one!

   Emerson drew me to these three images.  The one above I noticed in the kitchen when I put down is morning slurp of milk. (He gets a tablespoon everyday as a treat!)

  These two were on the screened porch.  Emerson goes out there every morning for his "airing".

   I could have ignored these simple light patterns as I went about my daily rituals of caring for Emerson but these are the beautiful little occurrences that one should pause and consider.  The more you wrap yourself in a contemplative mindset, the more these small moments of "enlightenment" will reveal themselves to you. (My, I'm really on a punicious roll this morning!)

   You can see other moments of light on my Pinterest board...


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Thought for Today - Mary Oliver

   Human beings are imagining creatures.  We live our lives desiring to know and anticipate everything.  But, as Mary Oliver urges, we should keep a small space in our hearts for the unimaginable.

   This term is often associated with catastrophe.  The unimaginable destruction of a tsunami for instance.  I prefer to view it in a more positive light.  The most amazing and awe inspiring sights and insights can be unimaginable in our day to day lives.  We think of them as isolated and maybe even "once in a life time" occurrences.

   I think they happen far more frequently.  These divine whisperings often go unheard because we are too busy attending to more "important" things.  Perhaps we don't think "divine whisperings" are meant for ordinary ears, as if we are not worthy somehow.  How very wrong that thinking is.

   I am reading a small book about the "Showings" of Julian of Norwich, the 13th century English mystic.  She gave voice to many unimaginable ideas for her time and had no problem hearing the divine whispers.  I think, however, that she would reject the thought that these" unimaginable whisperings" are either unique or exclusive to mystics.  As Carl Jung advises,

The soul is an entity endowed with the consciousness
 of its relationship to deity.

    We are, according to Jung, hard wired to hear these whisperings.  So the lesson here is to let yourself hear them, leave room in your heart for these unimaginable experiences.  (I guess that's two thoughts for today...a bonus!)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Squirrel's Tale...

   This has been the winter of photographing the near to hand and only what comes to me.  I have been gathering images of my furry friend Gaylord for several weeks.  But I have discovered that there is more to this photographic series than first meets the eye and therein lies the tale.

   Photographing Gaylord has been an excellent exercise in patience and discernment mainly due to the severe limitations placed on it.

   I can only observe Gaylord when he decides to grace the feeding table or hanging feeders and I can only photograph him from two vantage points, a door and a window.  Even that is limited to only 2 or 3 panes in each.  I can't think of any series I've done in the past that has been so constrained.

   What this exercise has done is to challenge me, day by day, to find another way of portraying Gaylord, to explore his "squirrelyness" from every possible angle that I am able to observe him from.  This has required that I not only wait patiently but stretch the compositional possibilities anyway I could including experimenting with different Photoshop techniques.

    This has been a fascinating project for me.  It reminds me of a Freeman Patterson  exercise.  He would ask his students to use only one white plastic lawn chair to create a series of photographic studies.  This squirrel study was even further constrained by the limited possibilities of accessing the "subject".  I would recommend that you try this type of photographic series.  Find one subject and explore as many ways as possible for photographing it.  Push the envelop and try some creative processing as well.

    Yes, I've learned a lot this winter simply by staying home.   Although I have to admit I'm itching to get out in the landscape once again, Gaylord has been a very welcome companion on this "staycation" of mine and for that sweet, small soul I am very grateful.  You can see my album of his images below...

A Necessary Disclaimer:

Deep in Meditation on a Sunny Morning
 Half way through this series I realized that more than one squirrel had a notched ear and it was clear that more than one "Gaylord" was represented in this grouping of images!

   It didn't bother me really as the purpose of the series was to try out different processing possibilities and squirrely compositions.  At one point, there were four grey squirrels on the feeding table and they all had subtle variations...I quickly dubbed them  all Gaylord! 

   When I saw the folio of images side by side I could easily pick out the different characters, they were really so different.  Perhaps they were taking turns having their portraits done.  Why should my original Gaylord have all the fun.  Now I don't give a moment's thought to which is which...they are all wonderful! The photograph above was one of my last and, really, it is one of my favorites.  This Gaylord sat for several minutes like this...basking in the sun of a rare warm morning.  Honestly, I will never look at squirrels in the same way after this winter's experience with these gentle souls.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

   Top of the morning to you!  It is, of course, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland, Patrick.  For some it means green beer and parades.  A happy, song filled day.  Many people are also familiar with some of the legends of St. Patrick, like how he used the wee shamrock to teach the concept of the holy trinity, central to the Christian faith, to the newly converted Irish.

   But, are you aware that he is also the patron saint of the enslaved?  Patrick was, himself, held as a slave in Ireland for many years before escaping and returning to England.  He later returned to the place of his enslavement to preach and convert those who had enslaved him.

   I am telling you this to remind you that slavery still exists in the world today, even in the United States.  The black market trade in human beings is not something people like to imagine happening in our culture but it does. In fact, right now there are 60,000 enslaved people in the US but that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Here is a link will help you understand the problem on a world-wide scale:

   There are organizations working on this that you may like to look into, like Walk Free, which is trying to end the trade in human beings and make modern slavery a thing of the past.  It will take all of us, forging links of compassion, to finally break the chains of slavery for those who have no voice. 


   To end this post on a lighter note, I want to offer you the myth of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland.

   This more than likely refers to Patrick supplanting the pagan faith he found in Ireland with the new faith of Christianity but it is true that there are no snakes in Ireland.

   A snakeless Ireland is probably due to the ice age rather than Patrick.  If you want to find out why, you can visit the National Geographic link here.

   Another thing Ireland is known for is their wonderful and pithy sayings.  Here's one I especially like:

There is no use carrying an umbrella
if you have holes in your shoes.

    I'll try to remember that when I'm in Ireland in May!


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Faith and the Contemplative Photographer...

   I believe that the one personal characteristic shared by all contemplative photographers is a strong and abiding sense of faith; not faith in a religious sense but the pure faith of a trusting soul.

   I ever move through the world knowing in my heart that the images I need to make, the images that will speak to my soul, will be there - often in the most unexpected places.

   When one moves through the landscape with great faith then one cannot ever be disappointed.  Inclement weather, changes in itinerary, or unanticipated road blocks never impede the contemplative photographer who has, at the very core of their being, a profound faith that what they need will always manifest itself and wherever they are is exactly where they need to be.

   Goal driven photographers are forever being disappointed.  Rising early every morning to "catch" a spectacular sunrise, as if it is a creature to be trapped by stealth and cunning, can lead to sleepy and frustrated souls.  Rise early by all means but for the pleasure of the early morning not with anticipation of any specific outcome.

   There is nothing wrong with having plans as long as one remains flexible and free flowing.  Have faith, my friend.  You are already in the stream; lay back, relax, drift along with the current and see where it takes you!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Keep on Lookin'....More Sources for Inspiration

  An English teacher told me back in high school that if I wanted to write well I needed to read good writing.  That same concept applies to photography.  Keep looking at beautiful and inspiring images and you will absorb some of that inspiration.  It can only enhance your own picture making.

   One of my resources is Goto online gallery of accomplished photographers.  I was especially attracted to the work of Laurence Chellali, seen above...stunning.

   We may not always have high quality galleries showcasing photography near to hand but the internet offers us the ability to tour countless virtual galleries.  You can also visit my Pinterest board of Photographers I Admire.  Also on my Pinterest site are boards of inspiring photographs, in color and in black and white.  Pour yourself a cup of tea, sit back and prepare to be inspired!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Finding Inspiration in the Most Unusual Places...

   After my 500th post, some people have commented on my ability to post something different every single day.  I sometimes marvel at it myself but it all comes down to being able to find nuggets of inspiration in the most prosaic of places.

   Like the doctor's office waiting room.  This magazine greeted me as I sat down to await my appointment.  I had never heard of this magazine but I instantly said to myself.  "What a perfect magazine for the contemplative photographer!"  After I glanced through it I discovered I was right.  Finding the sacred in the commonplace is one of my photographic sages characteristics and one I firmly believe in.

    Completely devoid of ads, this magazine celebrates the commonplace.  Ordinary life is elevated to an almost spiritual experience.  The photography is stunning, the text compelling.  Each issue focuses on a single topic like "attachment".  I loved, particularly, this phrase from their mission statement... 

That perhaps we might each find
the poetry within life's daily prose.

   Another bit of unanticipated inspiration came from another unlikely place, the television show, NCIS.  My favorite character, Abby Shiuto the forensic specialist, put forth this thought in a recent show...
I believe in Magic, Prayer, and Logic...equally.

    Such an unlikely thing for the goth, dog collar wearing scientist to say, I thought. She often says very unlikely things, which is why I love her character on the show.

   This one got me thinking about people's tendency to separate these ways of can believe in one but not all. But are they really mutually exclusive? An idea for you to mull over at your leisure. I will end with another quotation from dear Albert Einstein whose wisdom appeared a ways back on this blog...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Inspired by Diane Hanna...

Story Photograph by Diane Hanna
   You can find inspiration absolutely anywhere.  I found it in a fabric store in Cornish, Maine.  There, between the scissors and bolts of colorful cloth was a display of the story pictures of Diane Hanna who lives in Massachusetts.

   For me, all photographs are stories and reading the image is a delight.  With Diane's work, the words become part of the image.    I was immediately attracted to one especially poignant writing...

Sometimes you just know there is more out there....or in there.  Sometimes things have stayed too long in one place. Climb a fence or better yet, a roof.  Sniff the wind for clues. Study the clouds for signs.  Listen to the heart's occasional skitterings.  Ready yourself.  There is wonder yet to come.

   This could be the contemplative photographer's manifesto!   With my threshold pilgrimage less than two months away, the last line set off bells in my brain. 

    Yes, there is wonder yet to come but there is also wonder all around us everyday.  You simply have to listen to the heart's "occasional sketterings" and "sniff the wind for clues".  That would make a great lead in for a visual listening exercise!

   Tomorrow I'll talk about two more unlikely places I found inspiration recently...    

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reflections on the Tao - II

He who knows that enough is enough
 will always have enough. - Lao Tzu

   Once, when I was photographing in Santa Fe, I came across a very interesting scene. The man who was sitting on a bench (waiting for his wife to come out of CVS believe it or not) was such an appealing subject. The man I was with spent quite a bit of time fumbling in his camera bag...a great internal debate going on about what lens would be appropriate and whether he should go back to the car for his tripod (which, in fact, he did). 

   I, on the other hand, only had my camera with its one lens so I didn't have any other options.  I asked the man if he minded if I photographed him and he said that it was quite alright.  I made this photograph as his wife came out of the store.  He got up to leave just as my friend came around the corner...too late.

   Now I have no problem with having multiple lenses and tripods.  There were plenty of times I had wished for a macro or a more powerful zoom lens.  So, you might ask, why then don't you?  The answer is quite simple.  What I have, an 18-200 zoom, has always been enough for me.  I don't want the burden of all that equipment, physically and psychologically.  Oh, back in 2005 when I began this photographic odyssey, I was way more "equipped".   But after awhile, each time that I embarked on another trip I left more equipment at home. It seemed to be getting in the way of my interaction with the landscape somehow. I'm now toying with the idea of getting a smaller and lighter camera than my Nikon D90.  Perhaps, one day, I won't feel the need to take a camera at all!

   Some photographers (not contemplative ones!) often spend a great deal of time bemoaning the fact that had they had the "right" lens, or a tripod, or if the light had been better, they would have gotten a perfect photograph.  I say, spend less time thinking about the equipment and more time embracing the moment...establishing a relationship, a connection, with the landscape or whatever it is you are photographing. Rainy days have as much to teach us as sunny ones...perhaps even more.  I made my image of this wonderful mountain friend, with all his fancy equipment, did not.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Threshold Pilgrimage - Part Four: Musing on Thresholds

   Time is flying by and I continue my preparations for my departure on May 9th.  I'm adding more tidbits of inspiration to my Vade Mecum and I've even begun laying out things to take.  But what occupies my thoughts to a great degree right now is the idea of "thresholds".

   I chose thresholds as my word for the year and I thought I'd spend some time thinking about its meaning for me.  Perhaps I should say "meanings" because I've discovered that there can be more than one.

   Thresholds are stepping over points.  A line of demarcation between what was and what now is.  I've often imagined them as they are in houses...a narrow strip of wood at the bottom of a door.  They present themselves and we easily step problem.  But thresholds can be so much more than that.  In the photograph above, we see another way to view the threshold.

   This image, made in Lochboisdale on South Uist, illustrates another kind of threshold.  I suspect it is one that is more commonly confronted on our journeys in life.  Its opening is clearly defined but it is a passage to travel through not just step over.  One goes from light into darkness and at the end, one steps again into light.

   But the passage through is not the end of the transition.  Stairs rise up to an unknown location.  Steep, unguarded, I could see myself hesitating even attempting this kind of "threshold".   So, do we stay in the light of the known or venture across, and through, to the unknown especially when we know that at the end we will be challenged?

   Without this image I would not have thought about "thresholds" in quite this way.  It is a bit of wisdom I gathered long before I thought about this journey I will take in May...wisdom I wasn't ready for at the time.  Returning to photographs and re-reading them in the light of present circumstances makes contemplative photography constantly rewarding for me.  One may think of a photograph as a moment frozen in time, and perhaps in one respect it is, but the reflective possibilities contained within that photograph, the wisdom we can draw out of it, are constantly evolving along with you.


Monday, March 10, 2014

The Ultimate Metaphor...

   I am not one to admired "staged" photographs but in the case of this series by one of my favorite photographers, Nick Brandt, I'll make an exception.  I talked about his contemplative wildlife photography in a previous post and this series is another jaw dropping visual display.

    Brandt's images were made at Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania.  The lakes extreme alkalinity calcifies any animal who is unfortunate enough to fall into it.  He gathered these remains and posed them, as they would be in life and the photographs he made are haunting and thought provoking in the extreme.

   Some people, myself included, may find it difficult to view these images but contemplation isn't simply thinking about comfortable and pretty things.  It is the long, slow and loving look at the real and these represent a very real situation and place.  It is helpful, from time to time, to ponder things that make us feel uncomfortable.

    These images also allow us to meditate on the ultimate metaphor - Death.  And like that ever present reality, there is something beautiful to contemplate in the final act of letting go.  I recently attended the funeral of a very dear friend who had accompanied me to Ireland in 2009.  The sadness of a life cut short is never easy but the beauty of her life and how she accepted her death seemed to ease some of our grief.  Many can teach us how to live and a few special people can teach us how to face our own death...with grace and dignity.

    This series also recalls the ground breaking exhibit by Gunther von Hagens, Body Worlds.  I've never seen that exhibit but it is the striking revelation of the intricacies of the human body. Somehow, the animals in Brandt's photographs, seen in their natural environment, seem to me more poignant and touching...less about science and more about contemplation.

   I'll leave it up to you to visit the following link and form your own conclusions.  I would be interested in your thoughts....


Sunday, March 9, 2014

"Why did you photograph that?"

Georgia on my Mind
   I often hear that from people who look at my images, especially images that are semi-abstract like this one on the left.  I have to ask myself the same question and sometimes the answer amazes me.

   This image was made in Santa Fe, New Mexico during a long day of wandering the streets, visiting museums and galleries and generally gathering in impressions.  Looking at the files later I remember thinking, "What  the????", when I looked at it.  Was it one of those "mistakes" one sometimes makes, when the shutter released prematurely? Then I remembered the context of the image.

   I had just spent a couple of hours wandering the galleries of the Georgia O'Keeffe museum absorbing the beautiful compositions of her semi-abstract renderings of the New Mexico landscape.  This was my subconscious rendering of a similar theme.  I entitled it "Georgia on my Mind".

   So much of what we observe and take in during the day settles into our unconscious mind.  It later manifests itself in our photographs.  This photograph reminds me that we often draw from that storehouse of the unconscious if we allow ourselves to abdicate some of the external controls photographers love to assert.

Visitor at the Shrine
   I later remembered it when I visited the shrine at Chimayo, New Mexico and what was initially unconscious became a conscious decision to render the scene in a unusual way...leaving the majority of the image "empty", isolating the focal point way off center but balanced by the small roof below.

   I visited the O'Keeffe museum almost as a pilgrim would a holy shrine.  I have loved her paintings since I first discovered them 50+ years ago.  I remember flying to Washington DC twice to see the National Galleries retrospective of her work in the late 1980's.  Oh yes, I was a devoted disciple.  I just never knew how my admiration of her compositional style had influenced my photography until I made the photograph above.

   So, to answer the question posed in the title of this post, "Why did you photograph that?", I guess I would point to the powerful role the subconscious mind plays on our compositional choices.  I love that idea.  It is why I make a point to visit museums as much as I continually stock the shelves of my unconscious.  There is no telling when it will later manifest itself in a photograph!


Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Contemplative Souvenir...

   Last September when I was in Pembroke, Maine I collect stones on the Beach of Metaphors.  I'm finally getting around to creating a stone collage to have framed as a souvenir of my stay Down East.

   The text will actually be printed on acetate and placed behind the glass of the shadow box so the shadow of the words will be projected between the stones.

   In a previous post I talked about the souvenirs I've collected from previous trips.   Although I do buy pieces of art from local artists, some of my most favorite souvenirs are the "found objects" gather on the "Pearl of Great Price" I recently wrote about.  This stone circle will be a piece I can hang on the wall and reflect on every time I pass it.  It makes it all the more special that I gathered the stones myself.

   I've already begun to prepare for my up-coming Threshold Pilgrimage.  I'll gather more mica "tokens" ,once the snow melts, that I will leave in special places on my journey.  I've completed my Vade Mecum to carry in my backpack "scrip" and I'm daily adding words of wisdom to it.  I'm even considering the purchase a smaller, lighter camera to simplify my packing.

   I have no idea what sorts of "boon" I will return with...what contemplative souvenirs I will gather en route.  That will be the joy of discovery.  Consider gathering contemplative souvenirs as you travel this year.  They will be far more meaningful than the standard tourist fare.  Your souvenirs should be more that mere objects, they should open a flood gate of memory for you.  Those are the ones you will keep for a life time.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Contemplative Poetry Series - Sara Teasdale

The Sanctuary

If I could keep my innermost Me
Fearless, aloof and free
Of the least breath of love or hate,
And not disconsolate
At the sick load of sorrow laid on men;
If I could keep a sanctuary there
Free even of prayer,
If I could do this, then,
With quiet candor as I grew more wise
I could look even at God with grave forgiving eyes.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Musing on Memories...

   I must admit that this winter has me feeling a bit like Julian of Norwich, the medieval English mystic that was walled up in a tiny cell with only her cat for company and three windows to gaze out of.  But self-enclosure has its benefits.

   I came across a bag of my old marbles one day when I was rummaging through a drawer looking for something else, my "cat's eyes".   (I know, funny isn't it.  We usually say someone has "lost his marbles"!)  I loved to play marbles in the school yard during recess when I was young.  It was more about the beautiful colors and patterns in the marbles then anything else.  I loved rolling them in my hand and watching the light dance through the glass.  Even way back then it was a visual thing for me.

   Now, contemplation is all about being present in the "here and now" so what role does memory play in the contemplative equation?  This winters forced indwelling has allowed me time to puzzle over the question.

   On one level, you might think of all photographs as testimony to memory regardless of what motivated you to make the image in the first place.  We photograph so we can remember.  The luminous light on the snow that morning, the way the sun illuminated a squirrels fur creating a delicate halo,  the almost comical icicle that formed one day...they are all small memories from this winter I thought worth gathering in through my photographs and sharing with you.  The "here and now" is so fleeting.  It quickly becomes the "there and then".  All we have left are the the end of the day that is truly all we can hang onto.

   Susan Fox, who writes the wonderful blog Finding My Bliss, sent me a link to a wonderful French film about a girl and her camera.  I pass it on to you...


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Prayerful Regard for the Landscape...

   I've been receiving lovely quotations for my vade mecum and I encourage you to send me something to carry with me when I travel to the sacred sites in the Burren, Iona and Glendalough in May.  One suggestion has prompted this post.  

Absolute attention is prayer.
- Simone Weil

   What a beautiful imagining for the contemplative photographer!  In our rush to experience the landscape we often miss its meaning and message for us.  Rather than walk through the landscape we should pray our way into the mystery unfolding in front of us through the act of absolute attention.  Worshipful regard of the world around us brings us into union with the divine presence we encounter.

   Instead of anticipating, we should be soulfully open to whatever we come across no matter how humble it may seem.  Like this small and worn sculpture I discovered on my recent trip to Glastonbury Abbey.  Whatever saint it is eluding to is unimportant.  Its seemingly singular regard for what is in front of it is the message here.  The eyes don't gaze longingly into the distance but at the ground right before his feet.  It is not anticipating some distant and vague possibility but is soaking in and relishing the immediate and close at hand.  We could all benefit from that kind of thinking...

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Landscape is my Mentor...

To measure one's step by a universal rhythm and thus to bring one's life into harmony with a universal order, this is contemplation in our tradition.

A Listening Heart
David Steindl-Rast

A Listening Heart is a small collection of essays on the monastic practice of contemplation by monk/philosopher David Steindl-Rast.  I found several passages in the book that speak to the idea of contemplative photography as well and I would like to share one with you.

   Foremost is the idea that everywhere you go you are on sacred ground:

"All around in every direction; Holy of Holies." Ez. 45:1

   There are no divisions between the sacred and the secular - everything is sacred.  This, of course, is a Celtic world view and it is merely a small step from that concept to  the one which sees your photographs as icons and teachers.  Steindl-Rast calls it  Environment as Guru:

Any place is sacred ground because it is, potentially, a place of confrontation - confrontation with divine presence. -page 20

   He defines guru as a "dispeller of darkness" and he equates darkness with confusion.  Sitting in the landscape, for me, is like being in the presence of a wise and wonder-filled teacher who, as all great teachers do, does not provide us answers but opens our heart to the questions.  Great teachers direct your eye to where you should look but never tell you what you should see.

   My landscape mentor removes the clouds of confusion by presenting me with the embrace of the eternal.  I don't have to "know" everything - I just have to present myself as a willing and empty vessel.  I will be filled.