Many years ago I stood calmly on a ridge of sandstone overlooking a plain in Arches National Park. It seemed ordinary to me, this landscape of pinion and juniper and red rocks. A storm passed in the distance over cliffs rising north on the Colorado River. I have been to this desert solitude many times, and it somehow represents to me a sacred place where I visit and can reflect and be calmed.
Although the landscape appeared ordinary in every way, I had a feeling that it contained something of a mystery that I could not see, so I set up the large format camera and dutifully made an image or two of the scene before me. After the negative developed, I quickly made rough first print out of curiosity. The image that emerged from the developer was magical. It contained the ordinary scene surely, but it also included what I might call the “feeling” of the place more than any other image I had made of Arches. This one photograph, shown above, was the singular basis for what I now call The Contemplative Landscape Workshop. It was made in 1986.
Contemplative Landscape’s essence seeks to represent both the known and unknown aspects of reality while combining our sense of intuition and perception. It strives to be “concept free” and allows photographers to engage the mystery of the world, reality, and their interior heavens. Its end product seeks a wholeness out of which we can photograph and express truly what we feel about the fundamental reality that exists in front of us. I have seen, over the years, people’s lives and photography change in the course of the workshop. It often broadens a person’s spiritual life, although each person brings their own sectarian beliefs to the workshop, and all are welcome.
The Contemplative Landscape begins with perceptual exercises in photography that I have developed over the past 35 years. It offers primary access to the actual visual working of the human eye-brain system, the tool with which we create our images. The perceptual exercises are meant to pull you away from the defeating process of copying other landscape images made by others and concentrate on what you see. The perceptual exercises are followed by awareness training that puts us in the moment when the photograph has to be made. Lastly, we finish with a series of what I have called Visual Koans, riddles about reality that can only be answered by your authentic visual photographic response to the reality in front of you and not by rational discourse.
The Contemplative Landscape is taught in places known for their solitude and beauty. Digital cameras are preferred, but any format is acceptable, including those who want to work in large format. We will not be using computers as such, but students are encouraged to bring their laptops.
The Contemplative Photography Landscape seeks simplicity, wholeness, peace, and grace. It attempts to make a clean break from the accepted conventional world where we usually live and casts us into the “spiritual desert” of ourselves.