Contemplative Photography

As children we see the world as a mystery. The mind absorbs and reflects the experiences of youth as a stainless mirror, and continually adds them to our knowledge bank of neurons. These stored memories combine and create another world, the conceptual world, where ideas and unlikely combinations of invisible elements stir constantly in the crucible of the mind. Somewhere along the road to adulthood, the mind accepts this other conceptual world as the real one. It is the purpose of Contemplative Photography to return us to the world of the real and to express it.

Contemplative Photography is where a calm and aware mind unites with the primary elements of human vision. It is the clear visual expression of reality.

Contemplation is paying attention, right now, wherever you are. Contemplation notices things that cannot be accessed by language. It allows us to be calm and aware of our events and surroundings. It is a human skill and choice. Thomas Merton called it, “…the direct intuition of reality…a direct grasp of the unity of the visible and the invisible…a plain fact, a pure experience, the very foundation of our being and thought.”

Contemplative Photography combines the practice of seeing with the age-old practice of mindfulness. Rather than just seeing like we do most of the time, we see calmly and are totally aware of what is in front of us in the moment. We see objects and relationships as one with no preconceived conceptual baggage. 

Contemplative Photography proceeds from the correct perception of reality to the clear expression of it. It is different from other types of photography in that it demands nothing from us and nothing from the object. It is an expression of the pure visual nature of reality as it unfolds in front of us in the moment. Learning Contemplative Photography requires that we tear down the conceptual edifice that was unknowingly created from infancy by our culture and reconstruct a new one: a mind that is calm and a vision that is aware.

For the last fifty years I have studied and taught visual perception and awareness. This study is an act of love and obsession. It is also an active photographic practice, as many people have learned in my workshops in Contemplative Photography. The visual perception work started with the standard tools of perceptual psychology such as monocular depth cues and Gestalt ideas that explain how the eye and brain organize things into wholes. That exploration continues today. 

Perception has allowed me to understand the basic elements of human vision and ply that knowledge into skills that people can learn to become better photographers. It goes far beyond the arcane and rote practice of principles of composition because it is primary, yet it is only half the learning one needs to see as a photographer. The other piece is awareness.

Awareness is the key to all art, and this includes photography. You may know how to handle Lightroom and Photoshop like a wizard, compose your images beautifully, and know all the latest techniques of alternative processes, but without awareness they are all barren exercises in futility.

My study of awareness started with a single photograph in 1970 that broke through the “surface” boundaries of reality. It was accomplished both with vision and technique. The White Rock was my first introduction to my own authenticity to see beyond the boundaries of the real. It encompassed both the awareness of what I was feeling and seeing about the rock and the technical skills I had learned to develop the negative and print accordingly to achieve the final photograph.

This episode was so intriguing to me that I searched further for more information about what I experienced. I read scatterings from Carl Jung and found that Minor White was essentially doing the same thing as I was attempting. Although I didn’t get to study with Minor until a few years later, I still kept up my search, finding Henry Thoreau, Loren Eiseley, and others who helped me to see beyond the ordinary. Minor introduced me to Zen in a casual way and this helped me to understand (as a conscious fact) that photographs can be felt and intuited as well as seen.

In the spring of 1986 I was in the library of the college where I was teaching preparing some notes for a lecture. It was late at night and I was the only one there except for the librarian who was used to my nightly meanderings. At the other end of the long table where I sat was a large tattered and year worn book. At last curiosity got the best of me and I went over and opened it. The title, The Tao of Painting, was intriguing to me, as I had read the ancient Tao Te Ching and understood that it was one of the sacred texts of the great religions. As I read the introduction and the first chapter a strange thing happened: I started to exchange the word photography for painting. Here, in my hands, was the story and technique of a group of people who were trying to do the same thing I was struggling with – 2000 years ago – with a stick of black ink, water, a brush, and some paper. But it wasn’t so much the technique that seemed similar, as the simple tools used to produce black and white images of the landscape and the inspiration these painters received from the Tao. It was the paradigm shift I needed to accomplish the synthesis of surface visual perception and a deeper expression of the mysteries of nature accessed through awareness.

In the thirty odd years since then my vision and awareness have changed greatly about the nature of the world, the things in it, and the relationships among them. I have amassed a large library of over 300 books on Chinese painting, Eastern art, and religion. I have brought the structure and being of the ancient Chinese painters to life in modern digital photography and inkjet printing. The story of that structure and practice is now being taught in the Contemplative Photography workshop.

The ancient Chinese painters created an art that has lasted over two millennia. It possesses amazing resilience to overcome the arbitrary movements with which Western art, including photography, is continually plagued. It represents and unifies the human spirit, nature, and the universe and was created with awareness, reflection, and silence. It is as true a form of expression as exists in the world, a canvas where art and spirit collide and become one.

The synthesis of awareness and vision brought about by studying the structures of both Eastern and Western painting and photography, a grounding in the basic principles of human vision, and learning the skills of awareness are the cornerstones of the practice.

Over the past twenty years this Contemplative practice has left its Taoist beginnings and become more Buddhist in the teachings. The main reason for this change is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism - the truth that grasping causes suffering. The truth of this in photography is that we grasp for every image we want. How to counter this grasping and still take photographs is the principle concern of Contemplative Photography.

Contemplative Landscape

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.

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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 my camera and 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 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 beliefs to the workshop, and all are welcome.

The Contemplative Landscape begins with perceptual exercises in photography that I developed over the past 50 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. 

The Contemplative Landscape is taught in places known for their solitude and beauty. Digital cameras are preferred, but any format is acceptable. 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.

George Kozan DeWolfe, Sensei