The Practice of Contemplative Photography – Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes by Andy Karr and Michael Wood

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contemplative-photography-book.jpegThe camera is an instrument that records exactly what is there, without judgment or interpretation. Therefore, it is perfect as a tool for meditation – observing (and recording) what comes to the eye just as it is.

In the book, The Practice of Contemplative Photography, authors Andy Karr and Michael Wood, explore what it means to align eye, mind, and heart and see with fresh eyes.

Through explanations, exercises, and examples, they show how to expand your ways of seeing and appreciation for the world.

Why I Read This Book

The contemplative life has always fascinated me. We often hear this term associated with monks, who live a life of solitude, work, and communion with nature. They believe that wisdom emerges from the stillness.

While attending a seminar on the contemplative poetry of the monk, Thomas Merton, and the poet, Mary Oliver, I was asked if I would like to do a photography workshop at the center. I responded by saying yes, of course, because I am a contemplative photographer. Those words had not been spoken aloud before that day, but they were, in fact, true.

Photography, for me, has always been about being present and showing appreciation for the world around me. Not long after the seminar, I was thrilled to find that this book, The Practice of Contemplative Photography, had just been published. The authors, who come from a Buddhist perspective, have been practicing the art of contemplative photography (through the Miksang Institute) for more than 25 years.

Summary

Chapters 1 through 3 explain what it means to truly see. The authors differentiate between conceptual and perceptual seeing, using the example of a traffic light.

Seeing a traffic light is conceptual – you are giving it a label. With perceptual seeing, you notice “brilliant, saturated color, the patterns formed by the facets of the lens, the red glow cast by the light on the orange housing, and the light blue sky that surrounds the whole thing.”

They say that to see clearly, one must be able to separate conceptual seeing from the perception.

Fresh seeing is about paying attention and noticing how an ordinary moment connects with your core creativity. True art presents “the unfabricated truth.”

Artists like Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Tina Modotti, and Edward Weston were all masters at capturing this type of art in everyday life, available to us all.

“You don’t need to learn how to fabricate creativity; you need to learn to remove the clouds that prevent it from expressing itself.” (p. 22)

Some of those clouds are our ongoing mental activity, judgments, labels and emotionality. Cutting through the clouds requires awareness of the gaps, where fresh seeing shines through. Having a curious and open mind helps too.

Chapters 4 through 7 deal with the practice itself, how to be ready to notice those gaps where fresh seeing appears. It involves tapping into intelligence separate from your thinking mind and your emotions.

There are three stages, each of which is dealt with in greater detail later in the book.

1. Connecting with the flash of perception

Flashes of perception are those moments when you notice something and all mental activity stops. You are totally in the moment and what is before you is seen in vivid color. You see beyond a label to the underlying form.

2. Working with visual discernment

We usually move quickly from the flash of perception to conceptualization. At this stage, we train ourselves to stay with the original flash of perception. Our minds stay open and curious. Excitement can even be an obstacle at this point.

3. Forming the equivalent of what we have seen

This is the stage where we pick up the camera and shoot what we see, without adding any interpretation or manipulation.

Once each of the stages is understood, you are ready for more specific assignments. The remainder of the book, Chapters 8 through 17, offers more detail on each of the three stages, including examples and assignments.

Assignments clearly explain what to do and what not to do. For example, with the assignment on color, we were asked to stay away from flowers (nature), graffiti, and graphic designs – too easy! The authors explain how to review images later, and clearly identify those that come from a flash of perception and those that do not.

Other assignment topics include synchronizing eye and mind, exploring a subject thoroughly (20 shots), and noticing texture, simplicity, space, and light. Some examples I came up with are shown below.

In the Appendices, there are resources for choosing a camera, working with images, and attending workshops.

Who is this book for?

Any photographer who loves the process of photography and is interested in expanding their vision will find value in this book.

What I Thought

Overall, I found this book clearly explained contemplative photography, why it is important and how it differs from conventional photography.

Through stunning examples, it shows how effective photography in everyday life can be, and the assignments are more than adequate for anyone who wants to develop a practice of contemplative photography.

Why is it important?

The practice of contemplative photography is one of being present to life as it is, to capturing the essence of the world around us, and finding that it is more rich, complex, and wondrous than we ever imagined. To me, having the skills to see in this way carries over into many other areas of life – learning to see people, situations, and everyday life with expanded awareness.

Paul Strand says it best in his quote, found in the book, “The unfabricated truth is the basis for genuine artistic endeavor and what gives life to art.” (p. 6)

Find this book on Amazon or visit the authors’ site – Seeing Fresh.

 

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Kim Manley Ort is a photographer and facilitator of online and in-person workshops in visual design, seeing, and visual journaling. In 2016, she published the book Adventures in Seeing: How the Camera Teaches You to Pause, Focus, and Connect with Life. Connect with her on Instagram.

  • This might be a book on photography that is worth taking a look at. It’s always nice to see one that transcends the technical details of the craft.

  • Hi

    I like the point about moving from concept to creation very quickly! During this shoot we had minutes to decide this pose with our Bond Girl and 007 – this was a Corporate Event and things were moving very fast – folks were busy!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/007-oh-james/

  • Scottc

    This one might be worth the read, I’ll check on other reviews. I’ve often been impressed by one author, David DuChemin, who seems very contemplative (yet realistic) in his photography.

    Otherwise, my contemplation seems to a bit limited 🙂

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5983039604/

  • I’ve written a response to this article at http://wp.me/pkqf4-pC

  • Anything that “breaks” rules is good. People get so wound up in sticking resolutely to rules in shooting that they forget to have fun and simply enjoy the creative process. You turn up and it’s all f-stop this, ISO-that, yes those things have to be correct but they should be merely second nature next to enjoying the scene before you and attempting your own way to capture it. To a certain extent I love the fact that I have never had any formal training, it’s a lot harder and slower for me to learn the technicalities of shooting but I also find myself wondering a lot of “What if?” and “Why can’t I?” type questions, with only guidelines from things I have picked up, nothing stops me trying something stupid to see what happens. No has ever told me that something can’t be done, so I only find out by trial and error and by that I learn that something doesn’t for a specific type of things but it might for something different.

    Aren’t the best pictures and artists those who decided one day to just capture what came naturally rather than get bogged down in all the technicalities?

  • I’m intrigued by this book, but I also agree with Mandeno and disagree with this statement…
    “The camera is an instrument that records exactly what is there, without judgment or interpretation.”
    That’s just not true. You are interpreting when you frame the image. What you choose to include or exclude can completely alter the meaning/happening of a scene.

    Thanks for the review. Sounds like a interesting book. I think I’ll pick it up. 🙂

  • Kim

    “The camera is an instrument that records exactly what is there, without judgment or interpretation.”

    Regarding this statement, I commented on Mandeno’s well-written blog post with the following.

    Thank you so much for starting this conversation about what a camera sees, because it gives me a chance to try to explain what I learned about contemplative photography and how it is almost the polar opposite of what we normally do.

    You are exactly right, that we, as photographers, use the camera as a tool, to express what we see or want to convey. The camera itself creates an image based on the settings we have used.

    The purpose of contemplative photography is to see reality exactly as it is, and then photograph what we saw without adding our own judgment, interpretation or manipulation. We want to act fairly quickly, because our minds very quickly start to conceptualize. We use settings that will not distort or manipulate what is actually there. In the book, they suggest the following:

    – frame the image to match the dimensions of your initial perception
    – better to use a close to normal focal length so as not to distort the perception
    – in most cases, choose a depth of field so that the image is as sharp as possible
    – exposure should reflect actual perception
    – choose white balance to match perception

    So, your goal is to have the least amount of manipulation as possible. I think you will find when you get the book from the library that the images strikingly lack any manipulation or interpretation.

  • All said above is true and then some…

    Perception or a flash can sometime be a striking detail, a focal point that needs to be extended to what lies around, because part of something bigger. Not to lose sight of that focal point is important, but there’s not a real need to act quickly, unless present elements command to do so.
    Choosing exposure that reflects the actual perception leads to an interpretation of the process needed to match the perception.
    As for the sharpness, it does not always serve the recording of the perception since when we focuse on something blur comes into play that sometime is also part of the perception.
    Perception links itself to sensations, some can be defined by intelligible concepts and some can’t. It is a complex sum of different types of experiences, influences, different states of mind we might go through and awareness which itself is another sum of experiences and state of mind. In all this the camera bears no weight.
    The quote of Henri Cartier-Bresson has IMHO a lot to do with a state of awareness which cannot be obtained in shooting assignments.It comes a long way.
    As for the contemplative quality of a photograph, it is rare to achieve it on a daily basis no matter the quantity, no matter how hard you want it. In fact, the harder you will look is the easier way not to reach it. It will deal with the quote of Cartier-Bresson, who took photographs at times that matched it, but in a small number compared to what he shot his entire life.
    I went to the site of the authors and what comes first to mind is that they rely on standard graphical ways of building a photograph, using color patterns and forms, which are the most usual ways now of making a picture. Sometimes the composition is poor, it lacks that harmony that you will find in photographs of Strand, Weston who were great at doing so, and not using colors.
    Harmony has to be present because it symbolizes awareness of what lies around us and can even sum up contemplative state. The cover photograph is merely based on optical effect and the association of geometric shapes supported by two of the complementary colors bearing a strong graphical attraction, which in turns can be seen as a distraction to really see in a fresher way.
    The article is interesting in that it deals with perception, but results as seen on author’s site do not reflect so much the objective to be reached with some exceptions concerning some of Michael Wood’s photographs.

  • Stephane

    Apparently, selling ideas is more important than sharing some. Awareness, contemplation, seeing in a fresher way, and “the unfabricated truth” is in good hands.

    Cheers.Really
    Enjoy your vision.

  • Stephane

    Kim,

    Please dismiss my previous short message which I had written after thinking that you had dismissed my personal view and sharing some of my position and thoughts on contemplative photography.
    Apparently, it is there when I access this page on some computer and not there using another. Really odd since the page must be the same. That put me off a bit, hence my little note. My apologies for that since technical glitch might be responsible for not viewing my comment.

    Cheers.

  • Kim

    stephane, no I didn’t see a comment from you.

  • I think that we have seen so many beautiful pictures of beautiful people and places that we just get bored by it. We need a new perspective on things and therefore techniques as the one described in this article are very important to create truly interesting pictures. I’ve also been trying to get a new perspective on old topics, like the topic of trees:
    http://wp.me/p1LDRy-23

  • Dear Kim

    You are speaking of the essence of the creative process and it great to see that you have created a book to share this with us.

    thank you Veceslav

  • Karen

    I love the idea of this book. I’ve always felt as if photography was a kind of meditation for me. Looking through the lens just refreshes my mind. I tell people that I feel as if I’m treasure hunting when I’m taking pictures.

  • Jen

    I am thrilled to have seen your review. I just ordered this book earlier this week and am looking forward to getting in the mail next week. I was introduced to the idea of learning to see when I read Chris Orwig’s book Visual Poetry. This book, I imagine, will take that concept to a higher level as it was only a small section of Orwig’s book. Thanks!

Some Older Comments

  • Jen September 24, 2011 01:51 am

    I am thrilled to have seen your review. I just ordered this book earlier this week and am looking forward to getting in the mail next week. I was introduced to the idea of learning to see when I read Chris Orwig's book Visual Poetry. This book, I imagine, will take that concept to a higher level as it was only a small section of Orwig's book. Thanks!

  • Karen September 23, 2011 11:13 am

    I love the idea of this book. I've always felt as if photography was a kind of meditation for me. Looking through the lens just refreshes my mind. I tell people that I feel as if I'm treasure hunting when I'm taking pictures.

  • veceslav stanuga September 23, 2011 07:13 am

    Dear Kim

    You are speaking of the essence of the creative process and it great to see that you have created a book to share this with us.

    thank you Veceslav

  • Verena Fischer September 21, 2011 06:07 pm

    I think that we have seen so many beautiful pictures of beautiful people and places that we just get bored by it. We need a new perspective on things and therefore techniques as the one described in this article are very important to create truly interesting pictures. I've also been trying to get a new perspective on old topics, like the topic of trees:
    http://wp.me/p1LDRy-23

  • Kim September 21, 2011 05:29 am

    stephane, no I didn't see a comment from you.

  • Stephane September 20, 2011 10:59 pm

    Kim,

    Please dismiss my previous short message which I had written after thinking that you had dismissed my personal view and sharing some of my position and thoughts on contemplative photography.
    Apparently, it is there when I access this page on some computer and not there using another. Really odd since the page must be the same. That put me off a bit, hence my little note. My apologies for that since technical glitch might be responsible for not viewing my comment.

    Cheers.

  • Stephane September 20, 2011 09:31 pm

    Apparently, selling ideas is more important than sharing some. Awareness, contemplation, seeing in a fresher way, and "the unfabricated truth" is in good hands.

    Cheers.Really
    Enjoy your vision.

  • Stephan September 20, 2011 08:41 am

    All said above is true and then some...

    Perception or a flash can sometime be a striking detail, a focal point that needs to be extended to what lies around, because part of something bigger. Not to lose sight of that focal point is important, but there's not a real need to act quickly, unless present elements command to do so.
    Choosing exposure that reflects the actual perception leads to an interpretation of the process needed to match the perception.
    As for the sharpness, it does not always serve the recording of the perception since when we focuse on something blur comes into play that sometime is also part of the perception.
    Perception links itself to sensations, some can be defined by intelligible concepts and some can't. It is a complex sum of different types of experiences, influences, different states of mind we might go through and awareness which itself is another sum of experiences and state of mind. In all this the camera bears no weight.
    The quote of Henri Cartier-Bresson has IMHO a lot to do with a state of awareness which cannot be obtained in shooting assignments.It comes a long way.
    As for the contemplative quality of a photograph, it is rare to achieve it on a daily basis no matter the quantity, no matter how hard you want it. In fact, the harder you will look is the easier way not to reach it. It will deal with the quote of Cartier-Bresson, who took photographs at times that matched it, but in a small number compared to what he shot his entire life.
    I went to the site of the authors and what comes first to mind is that they rely on standard graphical ways of building a photograph, using color patterns and forms, which are the most usual ways now of making a picture. Sometimes the composition is poor, it lacks that harmony that you will find in photographs of Strand, Weston who were great at doing so, and not using colors.
    Harmony has to be present because it symbolizes awareness of what lies around us and can even sum up contemplative state. The cover photograph is merely based on optical effect and the association of geometric shapes supported by two of the complementary colors bearing a strong graphical attraction, which in turns can be seen as a distraction to really see in a fresher way.
    The article is interesting in that it deals with perception, but results as seen on author's site do not reflect so much the objective to be reached with some exceptions concerning some of Michael Wood's photographs.

  • Kim September 20, 2011 05:02 am

    “The camera is an instrument that records exactly what is there, without judgment or interpretation.”

    Regarding this statement, I commented on Mandeno's well-written blog post with the following.

    Thank you so much for starting this conversation about what a camera sees, because it gives me a chance to try to explain what I learned about contemplative photography and how it is almost the polar opposite of what we normally do.

    You are exactly right, that we, as photographers, use the camera as a tool, to express what we see or want to convey. The camera itself creates an image based on the settings we have used.

    The purpose of contemplative photography is to see reality exactly as it is, and then photograph what we saw without adding our own judgment, interpretation or manipulation. We want to act fairly quickly, because our minds very quickly start to conceptualize. We use settings that will not distort or manipulate what is actually there. In the book, they suggest the following:

    - frame the image to match the dimensions of your initial perception
    - better to use a close to normal focal length so as not to distort the perception
    - in most cases, choose a depth of field so that the image is as sharp as possible
    - exposure should reflect actual perception
    - choose white balance to match perception

    So, your goal is to have the least amount of manipulation as possible. I think you will find when you get the book from the library that the images strikingly lack any manipulation or interpretation.

  • Christi Nielsen September 20, 2011 04:34 am

    I'm intrigued by this book, but I also agree with Mandeno and disagree with this statement...
    "The camera is an instrument that records exactly what is there, without judgment or interpretation."
    That's just not true. You are interpreting when you frame the image. What you choose to include or exclude can completely alter the meaning/happening of a scene.

    Thanks for the review. Sounds like a interesting book. I think I'll pick it up. :)

  • Fuzzypiggy September 19, 2011 10:26 pm

    Anything that "breaks" rules is good. People get so wound up in sticking resolutely to rules in shooting that they forget to have fun and simply enjoy the creative process. You turn up and it's all f-stop this, ISO-that, yes those things have to be correct but they should be merely second nature next to enjoying the scene before you and attempting your own way to capture it. To a certain extent I love the fact that I have never had any formal training, it's a lot harder and slower for me to learn the technicalities of shooting but I also find myself wondering a lot of "What if?" and "Why can't I?" type questions, with only guidelines from things I have picked up, nothing stops me trying something stupid to see what happens. No has ever told me that something can't be done, so I only find out by trial and error and by that I learn that something doesn't for a specific type of things but it might for something different.

    Aren't the best pictures and artists those who decided one day to just capture what came naturally rather than get bogged down in all the technicalities?

  • Mandeno Moments September 19, 2011 10:00 am

    I've written a response to this article at http://wp.me/pkqf4-pC

  • Scottc September 19, 2011 08:31 am

    This one might be worth the read, I'll check on other reviews. I've often been impressed by one author, David DuChemin, who seems very contemplative (yet realistic) in his photography.

    Otherwise, my contemplation seems to a bit limited :)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5983039604/

  • Erik Kerstenbeck September 19, 2011 02:49 am

    Hi

    I like the point about moving from concept to creation very quickly! During this shoot we had minutes to decide this pose with our Bond Girl and 007 - this was a Corporate Event and things were moving very fast - folks were busy!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/007-oh-james/

  • Rick September 19, 2011 01:51 am

    This might be a book on photography that is worth taking a look at. It's always nice to see one that transcends the technical details of the craft.

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