A Way of Seeing
practice of contemplative photography, say ANDY KARR and MICHAEL WOOD,
doesn’t just change the way we take pictures. It changes the way we see
Today, it is raining. On a day like this you might see red, yellow, or
Traffic lights reflected on wet pavement. You might see
raindrops running down a window pane or hanging from a railing or overhead
wire. You might see two people walking under a bright green umbrella. You might
see a dull gray sky or a wet red truck. Inside, there will be soft shadows and
muted colors. You might even look through the drops on a window and see the
landscape distorted by odd-shaped raindrop lenses.
When the sun comes
out, you might see patterns of light coming through venetian blinds. You might
see the complex shadows of trees or bright green leaves against darker foliage.
You might see the shapes of someone’s eyes in profile, or the texture of the
fabric of the clothing on your leg. You might look up at a bright sky with
high, wispy clouds or notice clumps of light reflected by the windows of an
office building onto light gray streets. You might observe a dog sitting on the
carpet, half in bright sunlight and half in deep shadow.
At dusk the light
changes again, and you might see white buildings become orange or pink. As it
gets dark, the same buildings might become gray. The sky, too, will change its
appearance. If you awake in the middle of the night, the walls and furniture
will be monochromatic, illuminated by the moon or a streetlight.
The possibilities of
perception are limitless, and clear seeing is joyful.
Creativity is also
limitless. Creativity often seems like an unusual gift that few people are born
with or somehow manage to acquire, but creativity is accessible to everyone. It
naturally arises from your basic nature when you are open to it. Creativity is
something to be uncovered, not something to be wished for. It is not a scarce
resource that runs out if you draw on it. Creative possibilities are endless.
You don’t need to take this on faith: you can experience it for yourself.
Unfortunately, much of the time, we are cut off from clear
seeing and the creative potential of our basic being. Instead, we get caught up
in cascades of internal dialogue and emotionality. Immersed in thoughts,
daydreams, and projections, we fabricate our personal versions of the world and
dwell within them like silkworms in cocoons. Instead of appreciating the
raindrops on the window, we experience something like, “This weather is nasty.
I have to get to work, and I need a new raincoat. I hope it clears up for the
weekend.” seeing patterns of light on the counter becomes, “I wish we could
afford some nice fabric shades instead of these cheap metal miniblinds. I
wonder what color would look nice in here."
Generally we are
unaware of these currents of mental activity, and it is hard to distinguish
what we see from what we think about. For example, when we are in a restaurant
or on a bus with a bunch of strangers, we might look around and think, “He
looks unpleasant; that person over there looks nice; she looks disagreeable.”
We imagine that we see these people the way they really are, that we are seeing
their real characteristics, but unpleasant, nice, and disagreeable are not
things that can be seen like green blouses or gray hats. They are the
projections of our thoughts. Thinking mind is working all the time, projecting,
labeling, categorizing. These thoughts seem so believable, but if we recollect
how often our first impressions of people turn out to be wrong, we will see how
random this thinking process really is.
Photography can be
used to help distinguish the seen from the imagined, since the camera registers only
what is seen. It does not record mental fabrications. as the photographer Aaron
Siskind said, “We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is
there, [what] we have been conditioned to expect... but, as photographers, we
must learn to relax our beliefs.”
“contemplate” sometimes means to think things over, but when we use the term we
are indicating a process of reflection that draws on a deeper level of
intelligence than our usual way of thinking about things. The root meaning of
the word “contemplate” is connected with careful observation. It means to be
present with something in an open space. This space is created by letting go of
the currents of mental activity that obscure our natural insight and awareness.
photography the camera’s literalness is used as a mirror to reflect your state
of mind. It shows when you shot what you saw—what actually appeared— and when
you shot what you imagined. When a properly exposed photograph faithfully
replicates your original perception, you saw clearly. When your original
perception is masked in the photograph by shadows, reflections, or other
extraneous things that you didn’t notice, you were imagining. You can
distinguish which it was by the results. Clear seeing produces clear, fresh
images. Photographs that aren’t grounded in clear seeing are usually disappointing.
(You might get lucky and get a good shot of something you didn’t see clearly,
but that is the exception.)
How does clear seeing
produce clear images? When you see clearly, your vision is not obscured by
expectations about getting a good or bad shot, agitation about the best
technique for making the picture, thoughts about how beautiful or ugly the
subject is, or worries about expressing yourself and becoming famous. Instead,
clear seeing and the creativity of your basic being connect directly, and you
produce images that are the equivalents (this is Alfred Stieglitz’s term) of
what you saw. What resonated within you in the original seeing will also
resonate in the photograph.
offers key insights into this approach. He says that camera work should be
nonconceptual, that good images resonate at the core of our being, and that the
artificial and contrived are deadly. This is how he put it:
“Thinking should be
done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph. Success
depends on the extent of one’s general culture, on one’s set of values, one’s
clarity of mind and vivacity. The thing to be feared most is the artificially
contrived, the contrary to life.” Putting this conclusion positively, the
uncontrived is what is true to life. This is not meant as an objective standard
of truth, it is more like being true, being willing to express things just as
they are, without dressing them up in any way. People often associate the
creative process with dressing up reality to make it “art.” From our
perspective, genuine art expresses things simply and elegantly as they are.
Art in Everyday Life
workaday world is rich and good. It might not seem that way at six in the
morning when you are rushing to prepare your coffee or tea and get out the door
to go to work, or when you are tired and irritated after dinner and have to
take out the garbage. Instead, ordinary life might seem hassled, repetitive,
and boring. When you are impatient, resentful, or uninterested in daily life,
you will be blind to the potential for living cheerfully and creatively.
Life seems repetitive
and boring when you don’t notice the uniqueness of each moment and the
constant, subtle changes that are going on all around you. For example, you might
have the same thing for breakfast every morning and not notice that it tastes
different each day because of natural fluctuations of your body and mind and
small variations in the details of your meal.
Even though things
usually seem solid and enduring, nothing really lasts a second moment. Our
experiences are always in the process of disintegrating and trans- forming. As
photographers, we can know this intimately. Photographers are always working
with light, and light is always changing. The brightness changes; the angle
changes; the color changes; the diffuseness changes. Not only does the light
change, whatever is illuminated changes with the light. As Mies van der Rohe,
one of the great pioneers of modern architecture and design, famously observed,
“God is in the details.”
Revealing Natural Artistry
Strangely enough, you
don’t need to learn how to be artistic. It is as natural as breathing and the
beating of your heart. Nevertheless, natural artistry is often inaccessible
because it is concealed by preoccupation or resentment. A good analogy for this
is the way the sun constantly radiates light even though you can’t always see
it. The sun is always shining, even when clouds cover the sky. No one has to
make the sun shine. Sunshine becomes visible when the wind removes the clouds.
Like that, artistry arises from mind’s natural wakefulness, creativity, and
humor when the obstacles that obscure it are cleared away. This is the main
point of the whole contemplative endeavor: you don’t need to learn how to fabricate
creativity; you need to learn to remove the clouds that prevent it from
Seeing the ordinary
world clearly is a source of raw material and inspiration when you work with your
camera. If art is life experience expressed through creative technique,
photography is one method for concentrating those experiences into images. You
don’t need a lot of craft or technique to produce fine photographs. When you
experience your world clearly, and you shoot what you see, the results will be
Training in artistic
living will enhance your photography, and training in contemplative photography
will deepen your ability to live a creative, artistic life. As the wonderful
photographer Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people
how to see without a camera.” the practice of contemplative photography will
increase your appreciation of the world around you, which is infinitely richer
than you could ever imagine.
The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh
Eyes, by Andy Karr and Michael Wood. © 2011, Andy Karr and Michael Wood.
Excerpted by permission from Shambhala Publications. Click here to browse and order the book.