Different Perspective

Two weeks ago I wrote about the need to have a vision – or intent – when we are photographing (or doing any work of art for that matter). I wrote that a photograph without intent won’t convey significance to the viewers. If we start with an idea or are conscious about the reason why we take a photograph, the final result will reflect this vision of ours and be of much more interest than a random captured photograph. As I wrote; photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye (se Vision is Beginning for more).

This concept of a vision driven photographer, isn’t the only way to approach photography, though. Of course you may catch a nice photo now and then if you do choose to shoot unconsciously or randomly, but that’s not what I have in mind. The fact is that many different philosophies about the process of taking (or making) photographs exist – probably as many as there are photographers. Although I believe in the vision driven photography, I am always open to other approaches if they can open up for a different way of shooting. As always it’s about expanding and getting out of the box.

One such approach is called contemplative photography. This practise picks up elements of Zen Buddhism and lets the photographer see subject matter differently than at least I would usually do. The word contemplative in general terms means to think things over, but in this case it means «the process of reflection that draws on a deeper level of intelligence than our usual way of thinking», according to the photographers Andy Karr and Michael Wood who practice and teach contemplative photography. In essence contemplative photography is about how to fully connect with the visual richness of our ordinary, daily experience. In many ways it’s a process of learning how to see.

The practise of contemplative photography has three stages. First you catch as sudden glimpse of something that in some way or another connects with you. It can be a beautiful flower or it can be something as mundane as a sink. Beautiful and mundane are actually words that aren’t supposed to be attributed to things according to the idea of contemplative photography, since all things have their own inherent value. Anyway these flashes of perception, as they are called, happen naturally all the time. You cannot make them happen, but you can learn to recognize them. The next stage is called visual discernment and in means to stay or rest with the experience of the perception. There is a holding-still quality to this phase that allows things to emerge, rather than trying to interpret the nature of the perception. The camera doesn’t come into play at all during these two first stages. Only the last stage does involve the camera and taking the picture. It’s called Forming the Equivalent, which means to use the camera to create the equivalent of the perception just experienced.

In contemplative photography the power of the final image comes from joining clear seeing with genuine expression, free from contrivance. To be able to compare with the vision driven approach, I have made a similar process flow as I did in the Vision is Beginning post (the equivalent words from that process are in brackets):

Flash of Perception → Visual Discernment (Reflection) → Forming the Equivalent (Manifestation)

Contemplative photography is an excellent practice for opening up our ability to see. It enhances our vision and it can create some beautiful, reflective and tranquil pictures. However, if you are a sports photographer or shooting any kind of action it might not be the best approach. I still think any photographer can expand his or her photographic vision by practising contemplative photography. Since it’s impossible to give more than an idea about the practice in a post like this, if you are interested in further information, I recommend the book The Practice of Contemplative Photography by aforementioned Andy Karr and Michael Wood. It’s an inspiring book, filled with practical exercises and photographic assignments. Just to be clear about it, I am not a Buddhist myself but I still find this approach very useful in expanding my vision.


54 thoughts on “Different Perspective

  1. Great post Otto. I will be ordering the book you mention before this day is over. I have times like this where something catches my eye and I connect. I now have a name for it, thank you. I can’t wait to delve into this book.

  2. Not an approach I’d come across before, thanks for writing about it. It sounds very much like an approach that is well suited to medium and large format film photography, due to the necessarily slow approach taken with those mediums, but there’s no reason why it can’t be done digitally.

  3. Contemplative photography is where I began with photography so many years ago and today I learned that there is a name for what I’ve done naturally. As always I thank you for your insights and sharing your knowledge.

  4. I guess that one could also call this the Art of Seeing. Many times I’m guilty of looking at something and not seeing what is right there in front of me. I heard one photographer advise others to find a subject and take 50 different shots of it. (up close, far way, above, below, …) In doing so it will teach one to better see what they are shooting.

  5. I believe this is what I often do – or at least try to do – without even realizing there was a name for it. It drives me to try to be a better photographer, that’s for sure. Wonderful post and thanks for the book recommendation!

  6. I didn’t know too, dear Otto, I am impressed so much. Thank you, as always this is great post, like a page of a precious book of a photographers. Have a nice day, love, nia

  7. Otto, I really like that image. My first thought was, Ooh, what is THAT? It’s so different from your usual style. Then I realized what it was and was even more impressed. It’s a perfect illustration of what you wrote about. I really enjoy your writings about different aspects of photographic creativity. You always give me something to think about.

  8. Thanks Otto for pointing me in this direction. I have ordered the Karr/Wood book,but I also found several Andy Karr video clips on Youtube. The Miksang entries are also well worth a visit.

    1. Since the above entry I’ve also read an enjoyed Contemplative Photography by Howard Zehr. It’s a slim volume and contains exercises that introduce the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ of contemplative photography.

  9. You’ve described an interesting process. I understand your parting comment about Buddhism. I am not Buddhist, either, but there are so many elements that I do incorporate into my life, Mindfulness being one. And the first thing I thought of when I began to think about this different perspective of photography was that this approach would probably be a way to really relax with the camera. I have learned through my yoga practice how to still myself and “see” with different eyes. There is a tremendous physical benefit in this. So I think I can imagine the same kind of shift in perspective if I let go of the need to actively pursue a photo to more conscious observation. I may not have the full essence of what it means, but there is much here to explore. I’m excited to learn more about this practice! Thank you, Otto. Such a good new direction.

  10. Like everyone else, was clueless and not conscious of this approach. That said, I think I have a backasswards contemplative approach. Sometimes, often, I can’t see what I am shooting, so I just shoot, and I contemplate the photo and what I can make from it. I realize this is not the purists approach to photography, but more of a painterly and artistic approach. I do think there is room for everything if it results in an interesting image. Great post as always Otto, never makes me fail to think about so many things that never occurred to me before.

  11. “…. these flashes of perception happen naturally all the time. You can’t make them happen, but you can learn to recognize them….The camera doesn’t come into play at all during these two first stages….”
    Basically we have to put the camera away and spend some time meditating before we even think of clicking the shutter. Stop-look-and listen…

  12. “photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye ” To me , photos shares stories of life both I witnessed when it happened and the ones I missed which I am now given a second chance to experience through the images captured. Today, I get to learn valuable life lessons through your eye and experience. Thanks.

  13. not being a photographer, i’ve never thought of it in these terms before. i would say i am both…for my blog, my photographs are always with intent…the zen method happens when the light on an object catches my eye…it’s always the light!

  14. Thank you for the nice comment! I found your posts about the visual approach and the contemplative approach to photography very interesting. You have given me something to think about and clarify in my own mind.

  15. Interesting words, yes there are so many way to photograph that sometimes I feel confused ! When I feel the need to slow down and to be a little detached by the surrounding things this contemplative approach is appropriate and is the moment when I go to my Holga and its 12 pictures only film.

  16. Sometimes you remind me of things I used to know and have since forgotten to think about. I really like the sink photo. I’m going to walk around looking at things differently this week. Thanks!!

  17. I love this idea:”This practice picks up elements of Zen Buddhism and lets the photographer see subject matter differently…”
    now, hoping it will be in our library system…:)

  18. “Beautiful and mundane are actually words that aren’t supposed to be attributed to things according to the idea of contemplative photography, since all things have their own inherent value.” That is what really got me, Mr. Otto, and (I bet) you have an idea why. From now on, I don’t have to find something beautiful out of the mundane. I will just have to give my passion to everything that I see via the lens. I think I already said that. 🙂

    Really, thanks again for putting my knowledge about photography in a higher perspective–somehow.

  19. Empezaré por decirle que me ha encantado su foto, muchas veces piensas “Dios mío, nunca se me hubiese ocurrido!, y esto es lo que he pensado. El post como siempre me ha encantado aparte de hacerme conocer a Andy Wood Michael Karr, al cual no conocía, muchísimas gracias de nuevo por compartir con nosotros su sabiduría, besos Otto

  20. Though this is about photography, one can use this approach to all things — the way we look at things and thus colour our opinions of it — is very important in our day to day dealings too. I subscribe to the zen way of looking at things too. Thanks Otto, this post struck a chord, as usual 🙂

  21. What a fantastic concept… I have to say that my ears pecked up and I’m sold on this concept…. Just what I’d love to do… I’m off to buy the book. TY! 🙂

  22. Thank you so much for this post, Otto, and the book recommendation. I think this is how I practice my photography, a practice that evolved from my everyday walks. I’m looking forward to learning more about it. Thanks again! 🙂

  23. The lovely metalliccurves on your “mundane” sink are one of those everyday subjects that can be easily overlooked. Thanks for reminding me to be mindful of the everyday object.

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