- The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” notes photojournalist Dorothea Lange (24). In The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Andy Karr and Michael Wood offer a syllabus of formative photographic practices to cultivate the art of seeing clearly in the ordinary world. They [End Page 301] acknowledge from the beginning that this is not a book meant to create a technically proficient photographer, though there are two chapters toward the end covering very basic skills. Rather, they intend “a book about the art of photography that emphasizes developing the ability to see” (x). The simple prose and stunning photographs of Karr and Wood’s text offer a gentle journey into mindful seeing, rather than a systematic exposition about its topic within a sole religious tradition. Without even picking up a camera, the reader is offered insights and exercises into a contemplative practice of seeing the ordinary world in all its splendor.
Karr and Wood both live the credentials for such a work. In the early seventies, theatre director Andy Karr studied meditation with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, an exiled Tibetan lama living in San Francisco. Trungpa Rinpoche took photographs, which seemed, according to Karr, the “essence of things rather than concepts about them” (205). Karr began to take photos, trying to capture the immediacy and simplicity of his mentor’s style. Concurrently, Michael Wood, a professional photographer in Toronto, began practicing mindfulness meditation. Three years later, he saw Trungpa Rinpoche’s photographs and set out to learn this new way of seeing. The Practice of Contemplative Photography weaves over twenty-five years of practice and the authors’ experiences teaching students into a compelling itinerary for readers of various traditional backgrounds.
While the Buddhist sources of the text are not mentioned until the epilogue, anyone who has studied Buddhist mindfulness meditation would immediately recognize the use of certain technical terms from that tradition, as well as the over-arching understanding of clear seeing as the initial engagement with an image before internal labeling or commentary begins. Karr and Wood argue that noticing and learning to stay with this initial perception is crucial to the photographic process. In the same vein, photographic creativity is not viewed as something given to a few, but the result of consistent practice: cultivating the ability to see clearly and then learning to use the camera to “form the equivalent” (42) of the image perceived.
The first quality of the book that captivates is the smooth-finished, vibrant white of its pages, setting off the photographs used to exemplify each chapter’s topic or exercise. A book crafted for visual reflection, each photo is given a page of space, setting off their stark simplicity and often-vibrant colors. It has the feel of a coffee-table book, yet its practical exercises and examples ensure it will not gather dust.
Chapter One explicates the underlying approach of contemplative photography, contrasting it with conventional photography. The process of conventional photography is described, somewhat pejoratively, as “a big hunter searching for prey or a butterfly collector looking for another specimen” (3). In contrast, contemplative photography, a la Karr and Wood, is to express things “simply and elegantly as they are” (6). Contemplative for them is defined as “the process of reflection that draws on a deeper level of intelligence” and being “present with something in an open space” (3). The key to clear seeing is freeing this space as much as possible from the overlay of mental and emotional commentary in order to get in touch with the deeper level of intelligence.
Chapters Two and Three explore the importance of ordinary life as the location and source for photographs, exemplified by a color-rich image of a deep yellow egg yolk against a brilliant white sink. The image seems so ordinary, yet the [End Page 302] colors and shapes, the glint of light on the yolk, the emptiness of the shells all...