Contemplative Photography: Book Comment

The deeper that I delve into photography the more I realize how hard I find it to create a successful photograph using just a rules based, intellectual approach. The successful images come when I apply the technical understanding to capture the scene that really stopped me in my tracks. Being able to be stopped in my tracks happens when I slow down and quiet the chatter. This kind of slowing down and taking time to quiet the chatter is something that I’ve come to naturally but is something that I have heard both Michael Kenna and Paul Caponigro refer to. Michael Kenna has called this communing with the land, while Paul Caponigro refers to his stance of silence and to having to shut up when the subject calls to him.

Some call this contemplative photography. It was this phrase that caught my eye when I was browsing and that led me to The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Kerr and Michael Wood. The focus here is on seeing clearly or as Cartier-Bresson puts it ‘putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis’. Kerr and Wood break down contemplative photography into 3 distinct phases: The Flash of Perception – the recognition of something special that is likened to ‘being awoken form sleep by a loud noise’: this is then followed by Visual Discernment, maintaining the contemplative mind after the flash of perception and then finally, Forming the Equivalent, taking the picture that is equivalent to your perception. Each of these stages is explored in detail with their own chapters that include assignments to help you practice and example photographs to provide inspiration. The example photographs aren’t exemplars or templates to be repeated since we all will respond to our environment in different ways and as a result make very different photographs.

I must admit that I enjoyed reading and working through the book. I also find the connection made between photography and Buddhism interesting too. Kerr and Wood argue that both contemplative photography and Buddhism are concerned with clear seeing. They argue that clear seeing is the ultimate antidote for confusion and ignorance, freedom from which is a key tenet of Buddhism.

The book is not all sunshine and roses – I can’t help but take issue with the notion that the use of telephoto lenses and filters adds an unnecessary artifice resulting in plasticky photographs. Does this mean that we should only be using ‘normal lenses’ that mimic the human eye? Hardly. One of the reasons that I’ve been disappointed with my results in the past is that I haven’t been able to simplify the scene to a point that makes me feel satisfied when I see the image on the computer days later. Similarly using a filter to ensure that I don’t blow the sky out, to compress the dynamic range of the photograph is increasingly important to my being able to capture a successful image. I would argue that you should use whatever tool or tools it takes to be able to render the image that you felt and that the key is to reach a level of fluency with those tools such that the technical doesn’t get in the way as you move to making the image that stopped you in your tracks. A minor quibble with a book that I have enjoyed working through over the course of the last few months.

6 thoughts on “Contemplative Photography: Book Comment

  1. Thanks Andy for this resource. We’re looking to offer a program at the nonprofit where I work on the contemplative through photography. The book I’m sure will help with the development of the program. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for a great review. I also own the book and love it. It has contributed greatly to my work with a contemplative/spiritual worldview of patterns in nature and writings on my blog. I fully support your “nits” regarding the use of any tool necessary to convey one’s perception. One further “nit” I have is that the book (and their students on their web site) all seem to focus on the urban setting. Flashy colors, legs, etc. I wish they would have done some work contemplating in nature. It has been in pristine nature, away from the noisy urban setting, that I have found the deep perceptual resonance that is so strongly advocated in the book.

  3. The author’s emphasize the transference of a photographer’s perception to a viewer. A worthy goal. But, it is common knowledge that a digital camera does not see what a human eye sees. At the very least, the dynamic range of the camera is less than the human eye. And, the human eye’s ability to average is not available in a camera. To not “tweek” an image risks distortion of the perception that the photographer wishes to portray. A photographer’s perception is transferred to a viewer BOTH through the camera and by use of judicious and honest post-processing.

  4. Hi Bill,

    A couple of great points here.

    I would have also welcomed some nature shots to balance the otherwise urban focus. There was mention in an interview with George DeWolfe of a contemplative photography book that he’s working on. One to watch out for.


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