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 amazon.com 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.

Friday Inspiration: Alison Shaw

I’m getting ready to head over to Martha’s Vineyard for a week of photography starting Saturday. What better way to spend the week than being given a tour by the photographer who literally wrote the book on ‘Photographing Martha’s Vineyard‘ – Alison Shaw.  Alison is a fine art and editorial photographer who lives year round on Martha’s Vineyard and has done so since she came for the summer in 1975 and never left.  Here’s Alison talking about her book and photographing on Martha’s Vineyard:

Book Comment: Outdoor Photography Masterclass – Niall Benvie

I’ve been trying to understand the key elements of ‘Intimate Landscapes’ – I’m still a long way from them making even vague sense to me – but I am looking at as many photographs as I can in this style and reading as much as I can too.  Niall Benvie‘s article in Outdoor Photography about ‘Deconstructed landscapes’.  You can find a version of the article on his blog here, certainly worth a read.

I enjoyed the article enough to look up his books and came across Outdoor Photography Masterclass.  Against my better judgement, since I’m trying to ween myself off ‘how to’ books,  I ordered it and spent last weekend flipping through it.  The book is broken up as though it were a 3 day workshop.  I haven’t gotten deeply into the specifics of workflow, basic processing etc., – it seems like the usual affair, generally solid advice, perhaps a little dated.  A minor quibble for instance – I’m using 8 GB memory cards, shooting raw I get about 280 images per card.  I generally delete the out of focus stuff and keep the rest.  It’s quite possible for me to have at least 8 GB of images from a morning or evening shoot more than will fit onto the DVD recommended for archiving purposes.

What I really liked were the more thought provoking short essays at the end of each chapter, covering topics such as ‘How Should we Critique Outdoor Photography’ and ‘Creativity, Style & Vision’.  I would have been happy to have a book full of these and I’m happy to have bought Outdoor Photography Masterclass for these writings if nothing else.

To find more of Niall’s writings, and I recommend that you do!, a great place to begin with is the blog ‘Images from the Edge‘ that Niall collaborates on with Clay Bolt, Paul Harcourt Davies & Andrew Parkinson.  Niall is also a regular contributor to the UK magazine Outdoor Photography.  This can be hard to find in the US but is available as an iPad app and well worth having a look.  Lots of good stuff to dig into.

On location with David Ward

I was very excited to see that Environment Films have a short documentary that follows one of my favorite photographers, David Ward as he works to create an image in the field. It seems that David has been evolving towards more ‘intimate landscapes’ rather than the grand view over the last few years, something that particularly appeals to me.  Creation of one of these detail shots is the feature of the documentary.

Unfortunately I can’t figure out how to embed the video, so until I do click here to view it.

David has published a couple of books that are well worth a look.  The first was ‘Landscape Within: Insights and Inspirations for Photographers‘ that deals with creativity and the thought processes that photographers use to create inspiring photographs.  In his second book, ‘Landscape Beyond: A Journey into Photography‘, David explores the key components of a successful landscape photograph.

The Essential Guide to Photographing Martha’s Vineyard

I have a number of Countryside Press’s Photography Guides and I’ve found the guides for the New England area to be generally well worth the money.  I was excited then to see ‘Photographing Martha’s Vineyard: Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them‘ arrive on my door-step. I was also curious to see how someone synonymous with photography on Martha’s Vineyard would share the insights from 25 years of shooting there. Would she hold back favorite sites? No worries there! All the sites that Alison took her workshop to last year are described, with just stunning illustrative photographs rolled in for good measure. There are even the ultra-fine details of how to find some elusive spots such as Lucy Vincent’s beach.

As a guide to the potential shooting locations should be essential reading for everyone heading to the Vineyard with camera in hand. Additionally, the introductory chapters on equipment and dealing with the beach environment are useful for someone who hasn’t photographed extensively along the shore. Go to one of Alison’s workshops, you’ll have a blast. If you can’t get to a workshop, this book will guide you to some of the most photogenic locations on Martha’s Vineyard.

Follow Your Passion

I’ve been reading a variety of art instructional texts in an effort to find things that will help build my photography chops.  I’ve mentioned Betty Edwards’s ‘Draw on the Right Side of the Brain’ methodology previously.  I’ve also been exploring a couple of books about watercolor painting too.  A new one for me arrived this week, David Bellamy’s ‘Watercolor Landscape Course‘.  David is apparently quite a famous watercolorist and educator, although not the David Bellamy I’m familiar with.

The introduction has a number of useful comments for the prospective student.  The section ‘Getting Involved In The Subject’ particularly resonated with me.  Here’s an excerpt:

The best paintings, I feel, result from the artist having an affinity with the subject.  Painting is nothing if not accompanied by the poetry of feeling.  You need to find those subjects that excite you most, for only when you find an involvement with the subject can you do your finest work.

This as equally applies to photography and I couldn’t agree more!

Drawing to Improve your Photography

On a recent archeological expedition in the basement I came across my copy of Betty Edwards’s book ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain‘ and the sketchbook that I had used for the exercises. It had been a while since I looked at the drawings and I must admit that I was surprised – they weren’t actually that bad. There were two exercises that stood out for me in the many that are in the book. The first was to copy a drawing that is shown upside down. Remarkably when you copy an image that is upside down you do a better job of capturing what us there than you do when the same image is right side up. Why? The exercise prompts a shift from the left brain, verbal mode of thinking, to the right brain, visual mode.  We become conditioned to name objects and to have a standard ‘symbol’ that represents the object rather than drawing what is actually in front of us. Having the picture upside down makes it difficult to recognize the image and so there is more likelihood that we will draw what is there than rely our symbol short-cuts. The recognition that we tend to rely on short-cuts rather than truly seeing spills over into photography.  I have wondered on more than one occasion whether using a medium format camera, where the scene before you is viewed inverted, would help advance my photography by removing the familiar, making me more reliant on graphic elements.

The second exercise that stuck with me was drawing a chair.  In this exercise, rather than draw the chair, you are guided to draw the space around the chair.  This is a great lesson in the importance of  negative space and how it defines the object of interest.  How negative space and the space occupied by the object of interest fit together within the boundary of the frame is fundamental to good composition.  Defining the boundary of the frame is as important in photography as it is in drawing.  While some may argue about the validity of cropping from the standard 2 x 3 format of the DSLR, it is unquestionable that some compositions would work better in alternate formats.

The drawing that I have been using to support my photography is the compliment to the writing that I have been working on.  My drawings roughly map out ideas for new photos that I have developed through some of the writing exercises. The drawings are not frameworks for future Photoshop constructions but rather ways to help me be prepared for what I may find when I’m on location.  While I may not find the exact drawings that I had imagined, they allow me to see opportunities where I may not have otherwise.