Contemplative Photography

We begin as children seeing the world as a mystery. The mind absorbs and reflects the experiences of youth as a stainless mirror, and continually adds them to the 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 alembic 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 Contemplation to return us to the world of the real, and the role of Contemplative Photography is 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. Contemplation is neither frivolous nor spiritual. It is human. It is a skill. It is a 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, dualistically and conceptually bound, 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 forty years I have studied 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 came first starting with the standard tools of perceptual psychology such as monocular depth cues and Gestalt ideas that explain how the eye and brain organize things. That exploration continues today with the latest research in the eye/brain continuum and the NeoGestalt theories and practices that have arisen since the decline of Determinism and Behaviorism. 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 paint skillfully and mix paints in your sleep, handle Photoshop like a wizard, compose your images beautifully (or not), or 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 year or so later, I still kept up my search, finding Thoreau 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, part of the puzzle I’d been searching for.

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 twenty 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 my workshop called Contemplative Photography.

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.