The 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.
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)