Lessons in Clear Sight
The Blog Post In Which I Contemplate Without Thinking and Analyze Acronyms
Hooray for ILLO.
ILLO, in our local public library (www.ideaexchange.org), is short for the InterLibrary LOan program (I wonder, and this is pure speculation, whether the “O” at the end of the acronym was added to avoid an acronym of “ILL” and any related negative connotation. Though... “sick” has been used by the youth of late as a complimentary adjective, so who am I to pretend to understand the nuances of linguistics?).
Okay, back to ILLO. With this service, library staff can make requests on behalf of community members to obtain material that isn’t available at the local level. For example, I live in Cambridge, and if my library system doesn’t have a specific title, I can ask them to search for it in another city’s public library. If they can locate it successfully, they’ll send for the title to be delivered to our local branch, and I can then borrow it at no charge.
Which is how I got my hands on the resource I’ll share today, The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World With Fresh Eyes. This title, written by Andy Karr and Michael Wood, is part philosophy, part psychology, part photography. That’s a lot of Ps (none of which make a “P” sound. An acronym would be kind of useless).
I digress. Again!
Contemplative photography has its roots in the Buddhist philosophy, though the book itself doesn’t confirm this explicitly until the epilogue. There are themes here - of presence, acceptance, and letting go - that easily apply to a life well-lived as much as to photos well-made.
The word “contemplative” in this context implies that there would be a lot of thinking involved. This doesn’t mean the type of thinking that often occurs when I’m out making pictures - “Which f-stop should I use?” / “I’m hungry.” / “There’s nothing interesting to photograph here.”
Instead, write the authors, contemplative refers to “a process of reflection that draws on a deeper level of intelligence than our usual way of thinking about things.” (p.3). It’s a means of being fully present in the moment, with a clear and open mind. In contemplative photography, there’s always something interesting to photograph here. The potential of our perception really has no limits.
Contemplative photography, if I’m understanding correctly, is the act of capturing clearly the reflection of what the photographer saw (not what they imagined or interpreted) in a still image. This sounds obvious, and you may ask yourself whether that’s what all photographers are doing, all the time. Karr and Wood insist that’s not the case. We’re often bound by photographic conventions, techniques and mindsets that result in images reflecting not what was actually experienced in the moment, but altered based on how we wanted it (consciously or unconsciously) to appear. Clear seeing, they say, is uncontrived. Any effort to interfere with it doesn’t align with the philosophy of this practice.
That got me thinking about my own practice. I like creating abstract photos, usually using techniques like moving the camera during exposure (referred to as ICM or Intentional Camera Movement - another acronym, in case you needed one). While contemplative photography - at least based on the examples provided in this book - seems to include uncluttered, concrete patterns and shapes that can be considered “abstract,” any sort of “gimmick” (authors’ words) like filters, multiple exposures, or slow shutter speeds results in “banal photographs.” (p.4).
I’m not saying my photos are never boring. I can say with absolute certainty that my abstract work is simply meh to some people (even me, at times). I can also say, with the same amount of certainty, that sometimes I’m in love with my abstracts - and those of photographers who inspire me using the same techniques - because I think they’re the opposite of boring. Based on my experience, there are others who feel the same way.
I was a little disappointed about this blanket statement (on page 4, to boot) that seemed to throw immediate judgment on the results of alternate techniques. To me, that’s a bit like stating that painting results in better art than mixed media work because mixing paint with another ingredient confuses or contaminates the true nature of the painted medium.
I can agree that certain kinds of photographic edits or manipulations either don’t seem organic or seem to be trying to mask a deficiency in the original photograph (like oversaturating or shifting colours, for example). Using a fisheye lens, I’m guessing, would be a no-no in contemplative photography. It distorts what the world actually looks like to our eye. In my view, it results in an interesting picture for that exact reason. Maybe the point is that the novelty of these special effects can eventually wear off.
I can see that Karr and Wood are purists in a sense; very in-tune with their process and practice. That’s okay. I can accept that just as I can accept that there are multiple schools of thought about photography and art as a whole.
What draws me to their philosophy is the idea that art is in our everyday experiences, and that everyone is artistic (p. 22-24). I’ve been thinking for some time now that art is literally all around us, all the time, but we’re usually too busy, emotional, and out-of-practice to notice. I think the goal of ‘clear sight’ addresses that very concern. We don’t need fancy locales or unusual subjects to make meaningful photographs.
The authors continue, in the book, to coach us in technique. Much of this has to do with practising letting go of the conceptual thoughts and labels that naturally occur when we observe what’s in front of us. The process involves holding on to our initial moments of perception (noticing that colour, that shape, that texture) with an open, quiet, non-judgmental mind and carrying that through to using the camera to “form the equivalent” (p.42) of what we’ve seen - a true reproduction of our perception. Those who are serious about the contemplative method aren’t thinking about how to use the camera to make the scene more dramatic, unique, or altered in any way. Behind the lens, we’re meant to isolate what caught our attention in the first place and reproduce it with nothing added and nothing taken away.
There are many photographic examples in the book. I studied them. I would guess - in this era of Instagram and Photoshop, where we’re constantly trying to out-wow one another - that some folks would take a look and wonder, “So what?”
Sure. There's not a lot of overt drama here. But I found many images beautiful in a spare, minimalist sense. There’s an obvious recognition of the interesting relationships between shapes, colours, lines, and light. The complex pattern of shadows on the stairs from the light filtering through Venetian blinds. A single blue chair positioned in front of a bright red wall. The shape of the glow created by sunlight shining in a porcelain sink. Ordinary, everyday sights, properly exposed with no filters or manipulations. Real and accessible; quiet and careful. These are, in a way, meditations. I get it.
What if we get bored shooting shafts of light and bathroom sinks? “Boredom,” state the authors, “is merely a symptom that you haven’t opened your eyes wide enough” (p. 85). I think about the implications here. This is really about paying attention to the details that constantly surround us. We’re never without them. Which means we’re never at a loss for ‘material’ and need to stop persuading ourselves that we must go to Greece to shoot interesting photos.
Photographers (or, really, anyone who yearns to slow down and open their eyes): this is a worthwhile practice to consider, with or without a camera in hand, even if only to train ourselves how to notice and appreciate our immediate surroundings.
I’ve peppered this post with images I made in my room this morning, taking cues from the coaching in the book. I tried to quiet my mind of my to-do list and the sound of Super Mario Maker from the other room, be open to visual perception, and carry through with the camera to capture what I saw. I resisted the urges to manipulate the images in any way except for very basic edits like straightening and overall contrast.
The ordinary can be interesting, after all. If nothing else, a practice like this can develop our gratitude for the spaces we occupy now, in the present moment, as they are.
See you next week.
P.S. Thanks again to our sick ILLO service for providing access to this resource.
P.P.S. I still want to go to Greece, though.