Contemplative photography is more than just taking pictures, says Andy Karr. It’s about being fully connected to the visual richness of our life.
There are two ways of seeing and seeing different kinds of objects. Let’s call this sensory vision and conceptual vision for the sake of simplicity. Sensory vision perceives things that appear to our senses, and conceptual vision perceives things that appear to the mind’s eye.
Here is an example. You go to a restaurant for dinner and sit alone at a table. Instead of taking out your cell phone or a book, check out the other customers. You might see an old couple sitting in an alcove with their granddaughter, a handsome young man at the other table and three expensively dressed women eating nearby.
Sensory vision records the colors and textures of the environment – the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and so on. The rest of your experience is conceptual. You don’t see “grandparents” and “grandchildren”, only the visible forms of three people. “Good looking” and “dearly dressed” are invisible to the eye; they appear only to the thinking mind.
Sometimes we are completely immersed in the conceptual realm and are unaware of the sensual environment. At other times we are thoughtless and immersed in sensory experiences. Most of the time the two are mixed together and we are not sure what we are actually experiencing. We do not distinguish sensory objects from things we think about, and this obscures our experience of the richness and natural beauty of the sensory world.
Contemplative photography trains you to see the world in new ways by distinguishing the sensory from the conceptual. It is an exercise that highlights your natural ability to see clearly. It also trains you to express what you see photographically. Both clear vision and artistic communication are enormously enriching.
The practice of contemplative photography uses the camera’s sensory abilities to help you focus on and communicate the beauty of the sensory world. In contrast to living things, cameras have only one way of seeing: they only take pictures of visible shapes. You are blind to terminology. Hence, you can use the camera to distinguish the two perspectives. It shows when you see clearly and when you are trying to get an idea of your concepts.
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The practice of contemplative photography can be broken down into three steps:
1. Recognize flashes of perception
There are natural gaps in the flow of terminology. We call these moments “flashes of perception”. In these moments, sensory vision dominates and the sensory experience shines through quite naturally.
Flashes of perception are simple, vivid and direct experiences. They are moments of clear seeing (or hearing, smelling, tasting or touching). Recognizing and learning to appreciate these moments of sensory perception is the first step in contemplative photography, as flashes of perception become the basis for image design.
You cannot fabricate flashes of perception because fabrication is the activity of conceptuality. But you need to access these experiences as they arise naturally. You may need to calm your mind a little, but you don’t need to suppress anything that comes into your mind. Let thoughts and feelings come and go and look at the world in a relaxed manner.
This is what recognizing lightning could look like. You’re in the kitchen and your partner is doing the dishes while you clear up leftovers. All of a sudden, you see sunlight coming out of the side window illuminating a bright pattern on your partner’s back. You notice the colorful fabric of your partner’s fleece.
2. Recognize the qualities of perception
In order to communicate what you are seeing powerfully and accurately, you need to be able to rest in perception and not be distracted by terminology. Visual judgment, the second step in the practice of contemplative photography, is how to stay in sensory mode by dwelling on perception in a curious way without holding on to what is seen.
After seeing the surprising richness of light and fabric, you may be amazed by this discovery and reflect on the fabulous picture you are about to take. Then suddenly you’re back in the conceptual realm. Now is the time to practice judgment.
Let go of the excitement and keep looking to determine the qualities of perception. You may be wondering how much of your partner has been included in the perception? Was her head there? How about the counter? Knowing the dimensions of perception can help determine the framework that communicates exactly what you have seen.
Although it is called discernment, this step is not particularly intellectual. It is not a technical photo analysis. You don’t find out anything or evaluate things emotionally, nor do you reach for your camera to capture anything. You keep looking at perception to clarify what you are seeing.
3. Form the equivalent of perception
The third part of the practice of contemplative photography is called “forming the equivalent”, a term that comes from the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
A photo and a perception are obviously different things, but your goal is to create an image that is exactly what you see. They are not trying to make the photo more interesting, dramatic, or more.
You have experienced a rich perception of light and color, and you have realized what is and what is not in the perception. Now you’ll create an image that represents what you’ve seen. You don’t have to add anything to perception to get the photo good because perception already embodies the richness and beauty of your experience. If you make the exact equivalent of your perception, then the picture can convey that richness and beauty.
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