Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How We See What We Photograph ... Three Books for the Contemplative Photographer

Some called it previsiualization (Ansel Adams), vision (David duChemin), seeing (Freeman Patterson), or the flash of perception (Andy Karr and Michael Wood).  How we see what we photograph before we capture an image in the camera has occupied introspective photographers for multiple decades. 

Some wrote mostly about the range of light and tone, others about composition, internal energy and the arrangement of objects in a scene. Most dedicated their attention to rules, techniques, mechanics, and concepts.  Almost all have been analytic in their approach to the topic.

Among my readings this summer, I have encountered three refreshing departures from the analytic.  One book has reached its third edition and is currently out of print (I was able to get it used), one has been in print for almost 40 years and is still available new, and the third is a brand new release for 2011.  All of them belong on the shelf, and in the heart and mind, of any photographer who yearns for something deeper than the "rule of thirds" and "shifting the histogram to the right".  They are a welcome antidote to the tips-and-tricks genre of how-to photography books.

A close friend of mine, David Olken, considers writings by the author of the first book a must-read by anyone with an interest in the inner experience of photographic creativity.  Freeman Patterson has been teaching and writing for more than four decades.  A Canadian photographer, he embraced the transition from film to digital more easily than some because, I believe, his disposition is essentially experimental and playful. The immediate feedback of digital photography can be addictive to Patterson's type of personality. 

Patterson's book, Photography and the Art of Seeing: A Visual Perception Workshop for Film and Digital Photography, is due for re-release this coming October.  Any of Patterson's books is a worthwhile investment, but in my opinion this is the best place to start.  It is an explicit treatise on what remains implicit and unspoken for most of us who derive personal pleasures from photography.  In the 2004 preface to the third edition, Patterson invites us to explore a "'relaxed attentiveness' [that] will help you to observe things more exactly by first having you concentrate on clearing your mind and learning how to switch yourself off.... Letting go of yourself is an essential precondition of real seeing [pp. 7-8]."  Cultivating this relaxed attentiveness is the core objective of this book.  And removing the conceptual labels we attach to what we see is a critial step in this cultivation.  "[I]n order to see we must forget the name of the things we are looking at [p.10]."  Patterson directly quotes Frederick Franck: "'By these labels we recognize everything, and no longer see anything.  We know the labels on the bottles, but never taste the wine.'"

It was Patterson's reference to Frederick Franck that prompted me to acquire the second book, Franck's  Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation.  The title alone was enough to make me buy it.  Published in 1973, this 130 page book is a little gem, with numerous reproductions of Franck's drawings and with the text in the author's own hand.  This is a book about seeing/drawing as a practice for contemplation.  It is non-linear in the sense that one follows what the eye sees without thinking.  It is about an experiment with seeing, not about making art.  It is about "focusimg attention until it turns into contemplation, and from there to the inexpressible fullness, where the split between the seer and what is seen is obliterated [p. 15]." It is about dissolving curiosity in wonder. It is about the subject expressing itself through the hand of an artist whose ego has let itself go into an emptiness. And in this emptiness is a space that fills with the potential for anything.  This is not a how-to book by any means.  What it really is, is a song that asks to be heard more than once with a slowed heartbeat and closed eyes. This is a book that one cannot revisit too often.  No wonder that after nearly four decades it is still in print.  But it left me wondering how I could do with photography what Franck does with drawing.

Then, as an answer to my question, came the third book ... The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, by Andy Karr and Michael Wood. Released in April, 2011, I only learned about this new book because Amazon figured I might be interested in it and robotically recommended it to me.  I usually ignore Amazon's robo-recommendations, but this time I seized upon it.  Karr and Wood take Patterson's relaxed attentiveness to the next level.  And they do it masterfully in 17 chapters and 219 pages, with a truly exquisite assortment of photographs accompanying each chapter to illustrate what they are teaching.  For the pictures alone this book is worth buying.

This book is an easy fit for anyone who has basic experience or training in meditative, contemplative or spiritual practices.  I, personally, was trained in Jewish spiritual direction at Lev Shomea, attended two summer sessions at the Focusing Institute, and participated in a number of multi-day workshops on meditation led by Rabbi David Cooper and others.  Centering, making interior space, and emptying the mind are nothing new to me.  But a newcomer might experience being stretched in ways that cause some initial discomfort.  However, Karr and Wood are gentle and patient teachers, and I expect any discomfort will dissipate for a reader who gives this book half a chance.  The rewards are well worth the effort. For me, this book has been, without exaggeration, transformational.

What do I mean by transformational?  I mean, the way I take and manipulate pictures has been turned on its head.  For landscapes and still life images, my usual approach was to hand-hold my camera while looking at a scene or composition that had potential, line it up in the viewfinder usually adhering to the rule of thirds, use autofocus on a point of interest, and crop in post-capture processing.  Now I'm more likely to use the live view on the camera's screen because I can easily see the whole frame to its edges.  I more often shoot from a tripod. I'll crop for the full frame, and check my focus precisely on more than one points on the image. It feels like I'm back to using a view camera, even though it's a DSLR. My approach has slowed down.  There's less shooting from the hip.

These things alone probably don't sound like they deserve to be called transformational.  But here's the new element that's been thrown into the mix that makes all the difference:  I'm training myself to stop thinking when I take pictures.  I'm trying to use a non-conceptual awareness and an "intelligence that is not bound up with either thoughts or emotions [p. 41]."  This is the practice of contemplative photography that the authors teach in this book.  Karr and Wood describe it this way:

The practice itself has three parts, or stages.  First we learn to recognize naturally occurring glimpses of seeing and the contemplative state of mind.  Next we stabilize that connection through looking further.  Finally, we take photographs from within that state of mind [pp. 41-42].
The rest of the book is about this process.  It's straightforward and accessible.  Interspersed among descriptions, explanations and discussions, the authors provide appropriate exercises and assignments.  I usually resist assignments in photo books, but it's different here.  I was actually looking forward to them. I think everyone who completes these assignments with trust and openness will see changes in their images, sometimes subtle and at other times profound.  But the key to moving forward in this process is to acquire and hold a non-judgmental openness and acceptance -- of both the authors' teachings and of our inner experiences. 

Karr and Wood conclude their book with a blessing.  They don't call it that, but that's how I read it.
May this book be of benefit to anyone who wishes to see clearly, photograph beautifully, and experience the source of natural creativity! [p. 207]
They leave me longing for a sequel.  May it not take long to appear.

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