learning to see

mindfully contemplating miksang

Soft wave ICM

I’ve never been good at fitting myself into a category or labelling what I do.  Unfortunately this makes life a bit difficult sometimes when people ask – as they often do – ‘what sort of photography do you do, then?’.  It’s usually easier to say what kind I don’t do – portraits, weddings, babies, traditional landscape – but that only takes me so far.  To some extent I’ve adopted ‘contemplative photography’ or ‘mindful photography’ as my label, but as always, I have trouble fitting myself comfortably into even these particular categories.  All I can say is that this fits me better than anything else does.

Some time ago I ran a weekly ‘miksang Monday’ slot, where I posted one photo a week that showed a mindful approach.  I hesitated over using the word miksang, for reasons that I’ll go into in a bit, but the nicely alliterative sound of it won out and in the end I went with it.  ‘Contemplative’ simply doesn’t trip off the tongue in the way that ‘miksang’ does, and at the time I hadn’t thought of mindful as a term to apply to photography (annoying – mindful Monday would have worked well).  But anyway, ‘miksang Monday’ was what I went for even though I knew using the term ‘miksang’ was likely to leave me open to accusations of the image ‘not being Miksang’.

Before I start offering my thoughts on these things, it might help to define ‘contemplative/mindful’ and ‘miksang’ as they apply to photography.  As contemplative and mindful photography are very similar, I’ll use the terms interchangeably – ‘mindful’ is a more recent take on what has been known for a while as contemplative photography.  The origins of contemplative photography as a concept are not clear, and as it refers primarily to a particular approach to the making of photographs, it’s certainly true that people were practising contemplative photography long before the term had ever been heard of.  Two early proponents of it – those who articulated its core ideas, although they may not have referred to it by this name, were Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author and photographer, and Minor White, a major figure in American photographic education, both practising before and around mid-century.  Writings and quotations from many other major figures throughout the history of photography also strongly suggest that many of them were applying the same principles, whether or not they were aware of it..

Contemplative, or mindful, photography is largely about learning to see, without preconceptions or judgements, and because this entails a certain meditative letting go and opening up, it has become linked with Buddhist, Zen, and Taoist philosophies, all of which encourage these things as a general approach to life.  Miksang is Tibetan for ‘good eye’ and has come to mean a contemplative approach to photography which is loosely based on certain Buddhist ideas.  Really, the two are pretty much the same, but Miksang (note the capital ‘M’) was inspired specifically by the teachings on perception and expression of the Tibetan Meditation Master, Chögyam Trungpa.  These are now taught by the Miksang Institute, who use the capital ‘M’ to differentiate themselves.  ‘Contemplative’ photography is a more generic term that hasn’t – as far as I know – been adopted by any particular organisation and therefore has no-one to ‘police’ it.

I use this term advisedly, because I was a little shocked when I joined a Facebook Miksang photography group.  Suddenly, there seemed to be a lot of rules about what did and didn’t come under the title of Miksang, and people were being criticised for posting photos that weren’t deemed to be properly ‘miksang’.  It was implied by one or two people that it wasn’t possible to do miksang photography without having been on a training course.  This is patently untrue. The sniping and bickering made it a very unpleasant place to hang around, and I unsubscribed from the group.

It seemed to me that instead of the very simple idea of miksang as fresh perception, which is by nature without rules, all sorts of judgements and regulations were being applied to it and that in turn led to a lot of people getting worried and insecure about whether their photos counted as Miksang or not.  I didn’t feel that this was in keeping with the original idea of miksang, nor was it something I wanted to be part of.  On top of that, many of these rules and assumptions didn’t strike me as being either logical or in the spirit of the contemplative approach.  I’d like to take a look at some of these.

Sunlit wave

The first one is the idea that it can’t be miksang unless it’s in colour, as colour is part of the original perception.  However, if black and white isn’t ‘allowed’ then miksang photography would have been impossible until colour photography became commonplace.  In fact Thomas Merton (mentioned earlier) always – as far as I’m aware – photographed in black and white.  Most of Minor White’s work was also in black and white, and in fact, colour film wasn’t commonly used until the 1950s.  I really don’t believe that immediate or fresh perception is something that only came along with the advent of colour film.

But to take this a little further, much is made in miksang photography of the idea of ‘seeing reality as it is’.  However, any first year philosophy student is aware that the idea of there being some objective reality that exists independently of us is very problematic.  And any psychology student will tell you something similar – ‘reality’ is always filtered and interpreted through our minds and senses and as such is different – sometimes subtly, sometimes radically – for each individual.  Someone with colour blindness will see the external world differently to someone without and her photographs will reflect that.  That doesn’t mean that she isn’t seeing clearly or experiencing fresh perception.  Someone with perfect vision might ‘see’, in his mind’s eye, the scene in front of him in black and white and choose to record it that way. The true meaning of ‘seeing reality as it is’, to me, is to see without judgement or preconceptions

And then there’s the camera.  The ‘eye’ of the camera and our own eyes work very differently.  Lenses can stretch space or compress it, they can bend vertical lines, change colours, blur or sharpen, make things look bigger, smaller, closer or further away.  You see, then you use the camera to record what you see, but it will never record exactly what that is.  The best you can hope for is that you have enough knowledge of how the camera works to get it to come somewhere close to what you’re perceiving yourself.

The biggest misunderstanding, to my mind, is that the original act of perception and the resulting photograph are one and the same thing.  Contemplative photography is largely about the process of photography rather than the end result – in fact, this is one of its tenets.  Unfortunately we have a tendency to mix the two up, which leads to criticisms that an image isn’t miksang.  Well, no, it isn’t – the original perception was miksang and the photograph is just the result – a kind of by-product.  Hopefully it will reflect what the photographer saw, but it’s quite possible to see freshly but not have the ability to use your camera to express that.  Sometimes, it’s true, you can be fairly sure by looking at an image that it hasn’t resulted from a contemplative/mindful/miksang approach, but you can never be certain.

And one area where my own practice veers wildly away from what’s regarded as acceptable in both contemplative/mindful photography, or miksang, is post-processing.  In the spirit of going after ‘reality as it is’, anything much beyond straight-out-of-the-camera shots is frowned on.  However, my view is that simply by taking a photograph we have already gone beyond ‘reality as it is’, and if you shoot in jpeg format the camera will have done some processing for you anyway before it presents the image to you.  I would rather regard post-processing as part of making tangible the original perception – that is, to help get the image to resemble what you saw at the time.  I know there will be lots of people who’d disagree with me on this, and I accept that..

And I’m not trying to put miksang, or even Miksang, down – far from it.  There is much of value there and it’s well worth looking at the various Miksang sites.  I also think, like many things, it has become distorted by misunderstandings.  However, to come full circle, what I expected to happen with my miksang Monday slot, eventually did.  I got emails from a couple of people asking me how a particular image could possibly be miksang, because……..insert one of the reasons above.  They were very nice emails, and had more of the air of a general enquiry, but still I thought it best to call a halt, because I don’t fully fit into the miksang box.  Mainly because of the post-processing issue, I don’t even fit properly into the contemplative/mindful box, but at least I don’t feel so cramped in there.

Because of all this, sometimes I feel a little fraudulent referring to myself as a mindful or contemplative photographer, even though I think that’s what I am.  Now that I’m running classes and workshops on mindful photography, it seemed time that I put on record where I stand and why I might not always conform to accepted ideas on these things..

River wave









The creative gift of boredom

'Landscape' created from oilspill in ditch

‘Landscape’ created from oilspill in ditch

“Conventional photos get most of their meaning from whatever objects are in them.  Here is a child, here a sky, there a wall, a tree.  The photographer hasn’t really dealt with the content and the experience is brief.  What you see is what you get, and usually it’s not much.”

Sean Kearnan, Looking into the Light

It’s a strange fact of life that, as your photography improves in terms of its artistic worth, you’re likely to get fewer and fewer likes on Flickr or Facebook or whatever social media platform you use.  This is because the visually uneducated eye (ie, the average viewer) responds most strongly to the content of the image, and the more spectacular, awe-inspiring, cute or funny that content is, the easier it is to have a clearly defined and immediate reaction to it.

But, to paraphrase Sean Kernan, all you see is all that you get and it’s mostly surface glitter.  It’s human nature to stop and look at anything that’s beautiful, striking, or unusual, and the majority of these photos are simply making a record of those things.  The best of them show large amounts of technical skill, which is to be respected, and which certainly adds to the experience.  There’s definitely a place for this kind of photography – it’s very accessible and gives a great deal of pleasure to many folk.

One of the problems it gives rise to, though, is that people erroneously think that they must have spectacular subject matter to make a spectacular photograph.  They bemoan the fact that they live in an ordinary area that houses ordinary things and they go on exotic photography holidays in order to be exposed to the stuff of ‘great’ photos.

Take a look through the small ads in the back of any photography magazine and you’ll see photography workshop destinations like Iceland or Namibia or Provence.  You won’t see Bradford or Milton Keynes or Grimsby or Paisley, and yet all of these places are perfectly capable of yielding huge amounts of inspirational material for photographs, as is almost any place you care to mention – even your own backyard.

In fact, if you want to learn to be a better photographer, then you’re far better off in one of these ‘ordinary’ places than you would be in Iceland (for example).  At the beginning of my photography career I was lucky enough to spend time in Iceland, a spectacular place if ever there was one.  I like a lot of the photos I took there, and they’d certainly do very well in a tourist brochure, but they’re not at all what I would take now because I’ve grown as a photographer since then.  If I were to revisit I’m not sure what my photos would be like, but I know they’d be very different and I know that that’s because of all the images of ordinary things that I’ve produced in the years since then.

It’s very difficult to ‘see’ properly when you’re blinded by the awe-inspiringly beautiful.  The place to learn to see is the boring place, the ordinary one, the one that makes you feel a bit fed up and has you wishing you lived somewhere different.  If you can’t make an interesting photo in one of these places, you’ll never get beyond the tourist shots when you go somewhere more appealing.  You’ll continue to rely on the subject matter of your images to give impact, at the expense of a deeper level of seeing and understanding.

I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting to go somewhere lovely to do some photography.  I get it, I really do.  But I know that any ability I have to see beyond surfaces has come about from being bored by what I’m looking at.  Boredom is your friend when it comes to photography, and if you let it, it will open your eyes. If you bore your left hemisphere for long enough, it switches off and allows the right one to take charge, and it’s the right one that will find the spectacular in the ordinary.  The left hemisphere is easy to bore, the right one doesn’t understand the concept.

‘When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.’   Jon Kabat-Zinn

‘Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.’  Robert M Pirsig

Once you start to look at the ordinary with new eyes, it becomes quite extraordinary.  Just about everyone remembers or knows of the scene in American Beauty of a plastic bag being randomly blown around in the wind.  It’s like watching a hypnotic and very beautiful dance. If you’d like to be reminded, here it is:

Why is this scene so memorable? – I think it’s because most of us would never have noticed and would have walked straight on by, because, surely, some rubbish blowing around on the pavement is boring.  But boredom is usually a failure of curiosity and attention – pay enough attention, cultivate curiosity, and you’ll never be bored.

Despite knowing this, I still get bored sometimes when I go out to photograph, and some of those times never lead to anything more than that.  But when I allow myself to open up to the possibilities, something good almost always emerges.  The photograph at the top of the post is of oil spilled in a ditch and eventually led to a whole series of images created from a polluted ditch in an uninspiring place.  I’ll leave you with a few more photos of ‘boring’ things in ‘boring’ places – I’ve tried to choose images from some of the most unpromising places I’ve ever been.  I doubt any of them would get a ‘wow!’ on Flickr, but they do demonstrate that you can make a decent picture out of almost anything.

My version of the beauty of the plastic bag – part of a torn plastic carrier bag floating in a murky boating pond.  A little bit of cropping and processing turned it into something resembling a delicate sea creature.

Carrier bag floating in pond

A whole class of photography students walked right by this red puddle. I was left behind, jumping up and down and yelling ‘look!’  It still fills me with questions – what made it so red?  why was this paving slab missing? why didn’t anyone else notice it?  I could have done something better than this with it given time, but I had to catch up…….

A dull day in Rye harbour, but these pieces of rope, built up over years and years of boats being tied to a mooring post, caught my eye.  The images work on their own, but they work even better as a set.

Rope, Rye harbour

And this little arrangement was next to a dead pigeon underneath a park bench:

Feather with red leaf

Taken in a Thai restaurant, while waiting for our meal to arrive:


Another restaurant, this time a Pizza Express, some red bus motion blur through the window, and a mirror reflection next to it.

Red buses reflected

Even grass can be interesting if you get down low and create a background out of a red-leaved shrub:


And finally, a dull wet day, a car park, and an autumn tree seen through a rainy windscreen:

Autumn tree through rainy windscreen

More on boredom and creativity:

The science behind how boredom benefits creative thought

How being bored and tired can improve your creativity


The gasp of recognition

Water abstract

I’ve been following Joel Meyerowitz’s blog, Once More Around the Sun, for a little while now.  He and his wife are spending time living in Europe, at present in Italy, and Meyerowitz is posting one shot a day along with his thoughts about the image and what made him press the shutter.

One of the things I most like about the blog is that the pictures, while always having something of interest about them, aren’t polished and professional, as you might expect.  Meyerowitz uses the blog more as a kind of visual diary where he keeps rough notes, rather than somewhere to post finished pieces.  I find it rather reassuring to see work from a photographer of his calibre that shows these spontaneous shots rather the technically perfect finished images that we’re more used to seeing.

I’ve long admired Meyerowitz as a photographer, but hadn’t realised till recently how good a writer he is too.  In today’s post he talks about coming across a particular scene, ‘gasping’ when he saw it:

……..when I gasp I know I am in the right place, or the right moment.  I trust that gasp to be something from my source speaking without words.  Words come later, but in the moment there is only the intake of breath that means, Now!

I can relate to this totally.  Often I’ll suddenly notice something with a kind of flash of excitement, a gasping if you like, and I know I’m on to something good.  Contemplative photography instruction refers to this as the ‘flash of perception’.  I understood what this meant when I first came across the phrase, because it’s something I’ve always been aware of myself, but I’ve also wondered if it’s a meaningful way of putting it for people who haven’t yet recognised this as part of their experience.

In The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Andy Karr and Michael Wood identify the qualities of the flash of perception.  They say the perception arises suddenly, out of the blue, that it has a shocking quality due to this suddenness, and also because of this it feels disorienting.  They go on to say the perception has great clarity and richness, and the experience is joyful, relaxed and liberating.  I’d whole-heartedly recommend Karr and Wood’s book if you want to know more about contemplative photography, but I do sometimes think that greater explanation leads to greater confusion and that this is a very simple thing that’s more easily summed up by something as straightforward as a gasp.

As Meyeorwitz says, it’s something wordless coming from somewhere deep inside – the place deep inside that ‘knows’ and doesn’t have to explain why; the part of ourselves where intellect doesn’t get a look in and where words often just confuse the issue. The resulting image may be meaningful to other people or it may not be.  It doesn’t matter.  What it shows is the way that person saw something, in that moment – the gasp of recognition.


Joel Meyerowitz is a New York street photographer, perhaps best known for his images of Ground Zero.  If you’d like to know more about him, here are a few links:

www.joelmeyerowitz.com – his own web site (new version currently under construction)

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/nov/11/joel-meyerowitz-taking-my-time-interview – Guardian article – Joel Meyerowitz: ‘brilliant mistakes…..amazing accidents’.   Excellent article, with a short video.

http://www.houkgallery.com/artists/joel-meyerowitz/ – a selection of exhibition work, including some of the Ground Zero images

Cape Light – my personal favourite and quite different from his usual work.  Beautiful subtle colour and amazing light.



The invisible gorilla experiment, and taking your camera for a walk

Have you heard of the Invisible Gorilla experiment? The video below shows six people passing a basketball around, three of them dressed in white shirts and three in black.  The experiment involves watching the video, and counting the number of throws the white-shirted players make.  At one point, a gorilla will walk through the middle of the players and out the other side – it appears on the screen for nine seconds in total.  Do you think you would see it?

I’d heard of this experiment on selective attention years ago, but never had the opportunity to try it.  I naturally thought – like most people do – that there would be no way that I’d miss something like that.  In practice, though, half the people in the experiment never noticed the gorilla at all.  I did, but I almost missed it, not noticing it till it was leaving, and that’s with knowing beforehand what was going to happen.  Had I not known I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen it at all.  It’s a great demonstration of the fact that, to a large extent, we only see what we look for.

I read Alexandra Horowitz’s book, On Looking: Eleven walks with expert eyes recently.  It’s a fascinating read.  She recruited a variety of experts in different fields – including her dog (expert in smells) and her toddler (expert on novelty and newness) – and went with them on a walk round the block.  Each of them experienced the block entirely differently, through the filter of whatever their expert area was.  A geologist saw fossils embedded in the stonework of the buildings; a naturalist saw traces left by the city’s wildlife; a typographer noticed font use on lettered signs; a physical therapist noticed how people walked; and so it went on.

On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

I’m a big fan of going back to the same place time and again to see and photograph whatever there is to see there.  I’d love to have someone point things out to me the way that Horowitz’s experts did, but even without the benefit of having an expert on hand, boredom can be used in a positive way to ensure that you see something different each time if you only open yourself up to looking.

It’s the opening yourself up that’s the difficult part.  It’s easy to dismiss somewhere familiar, or not obviously of interest, and switch off from it altogether, but by cultivating a curious open-mindedness, you’ll begin to see in ways that mean you’ll never find anywhere boring again.  This is the gift you receive if you’re willing to make the effort.  It’s the very opposite of the person who walks down the road, twiddling buttons on their mobile phone, oblivious to what’s around them.

However, it does prompt the question of how to cultivate this open looking, as it’s not so easy to achieve when you’re new to it.  The trick is to use little exercises that guide you in the right direction, and I have a few right here.  Some I’ve used on myself and on others, some I haven’t tried yet.

You can start by looking for a specific thing.  Windows are popular, as are doors, or you could look for a particular colour, but there are many other options.  Here’s a couple that might not occur to you:

Car lights – if you look at the brake lights or headlights of every car you walk past, you’ll see just how different they are from each other.  Some have amazing patterns and colours in them, and if you were to zoom in on them and crop them from the car, composing carefully, you can make wonderful abstracts.  Looked at closely, car lights are incredibly beautiful things!


Bricks – yes, that’s right.  Start looking at all the brickwork you pass and I guarantee you’ll begin to see extraordinary colours and amazing patterns and textures.  You can extend it to looking at bricks that have paint marks or graffiti or stains on them, or bricks with foliage growing on them, but really, bricks by themselves are surprisingly interesting and varied.

Coloured brickwork

Use your imagination to come up with other things to look for.  Sometimes it’s just a case of allowing things to catch your attention at random, and then waiting for a pattern to emerge, after which you start looking for them deliberately.  This is what launched my Fallen series.  Try looking at things above or below head height – we have a tendency not to do this and we miss huge amounts of interesting things.

But what else could you do with your walk round the block?

Take 50 steps and stop – find a photograph right where you are, without moving from the spot.  You’re allowed to twist, bend down, sit down, reach up, or swivel.  Repeat until you’ve had enough or arrive home again.

Use a random point generator – generate a small number of random points within a small area nearby.  Enter your postcode or place name, choose how many points you want to generate and what distance you want them to radiate from a central point, and click Get Random Points.  When they come up, they’ll show as latitude and longitude, but click on Show on Map to see where they are.  Go to those points and find some interesting photographs.

Change your mental perspective – how would your block look if you were photographing it for a tourist brochure? (if it’s not at all what tourists would come to see, then just think how you’d show it in its best light) Or to highlight deprivation and decay?  Or to document birds and wildlife?  Or to show the activities of dogs and their owners? Or to show the styles of architecture found there?  Perhaps you could create a portrait gallery of residents, or document front gardens.

Choose a word – choose an emotion word, such as ‘joy’, ‘sadness’, ‘hope’, ‘anger’, ‘apathy’, etc, and look for ways of expressing it photographically, using what you see on your walk.

If you like the idea of transforming a familiar walk into a photo project, and would enjoy sharing your experience with others, have a look at this month’s 12 x12 challenge on Flickr.

In the words of the organisers:

12 by 12 is a year-long series of photo-challenges set by renowned photographers. Every month a new challenge is issued and group members are invited to interpret it by submitting their responses on Flickr or Instagram.

The project aims to stretch its members creatively, encouraging experimentation in terms of approach as well as aesthetics. Community is an important aspect of 12 by 12 and the support of the group can be helpful to spur members on throughout the year.

This month’s project, which asks you to ‘take a route you’re familiar with but have never photographed along and photograph someone or something every 100 or so steps‘, runs until 2nd April so if you want to take part you need to get started now!  Even if you don’t want to participate, have a look at the pool of photos on Flickr to see just how varied they are.

The point with these exercises is not so much to end up with some great photos – that’s simply a nice side-effect – but to expand your ability to see what’s around you and interpret it photographically.  Although you’re looking in one particular way, you’ll find that you start seeing the overall potential in what, at first sight, might seem dull and uninteresting.  The image below is of a plastic bag that had blown into our front garden and then been rained on – there’s beauty to be found everywhere.

Plastic bag with raindrops

Capturing the essence of place

View to Sete Cicades, AzoresFabulous view, but what marks this image out from a postcard of the same thing?

We took a trip to the Azores about five years ago.  Sao Miguel, the island where we were based, was a stunningly beautiful place, its twisting roads winding through incredible scenery.  The roads were narrow, and the only places you could stop were at designated laybys.  The laybys had been thoughtfully situated where the ‘best’ views were, but made me feel that my opportunity to interpret the landscape in a way that was personal to me had been taken away from me.  They might as well have set the area up with concrete footprints and tripod feet impressions, and a sign saying ‘stand and shoot here’.  (I wrote about my experiences here.)

Not every place is quite so restricting, but in many tourist destinations it’s easy to feel that it’s all been done before and that you might as well go and buy some postcards, because your shots are going to look exactly like them anyway.  Although just about everyone wants to go somewhere new and exotic to do some photography, it’s far more difficult to get shots that are personal to you – it’s so easy to get seduced by the sheer beauty or awesomeness of the place and end up taking very standard shots that look like a hundred others.

I get quite bemused looking through the ads for photography holidays, all of them going to amazing, scenic, places.  Yes, it’s fantastic to go and see these places, but until you’ve learned to properly see what’s in your own neighbourhood, you won’t really see what’s there either – all you’ll notice is the obvious.  My feeling is that if you want to stretch yourself photographically then go somewhere where it’s not obvious what to shoot or how to get an interesting picture out of what’s there.  Once you learn to do that, you’re going to get some much better shots when you do go somewhere gorgeous and you won’t waste the opportunity.

When I took these shots five years ago, I was feeling my way towards this approach.  Here are some of the things I found that helped:

Get the obvious shots out of the way – it’s often the case that you need to take these first before you can allow the  less obvious to make itself known to you (it empties your mind so that it can fill again).  They’re not wasted – they’ll act as record shots and bring back memories, and you can show them to people who won’t understand your other stuff.

Give yourself some time to absorb the feeling of the place – one of the reasons that holiday shots can be disappointing is that you can’t keep re-visiting the same spots over a long period of time.  Going back to somewhere again and again will result in better and better shots over time, as you come to know the place and properly ‘see’ it.  Remember that Yosemite was on Ansel Adams doorstep and not some exotic locale he visited occasionally.

When something stops you in your tracks, think about using it as the springboard for a series of themed images.  You can still photograph anything and everything – you don’t want to limit yourself to just one or two themes when you’re visiting somewhere new – but it will act as the basis for your own personal interpretation of the place.  Look for what grabs you personally – often it’s the small details of a place.

Forget about what anyone else thinks – your interpretation of a place might not appeal to everyone, especially if they don’t have the same level of visual education.  Don’t let that get in the way.  Do what’s good for you, and what will give you satisfaction and pleasure, and remember you can still share the more obvious postcard shots with the people who don’t get the other stuff you’re doing.

It was the water on Sao Miguel that captured me, in the end.  It’s full of natural springs, so there are small fountains and water spouts everywhere.  Because of the mineral salts in the water, these are often brilliantly coloured.  I became fascinated by these, and also by the numerous hot springs and pools.  The Azores have some of the highest humidity levels you’ll find anywhere, the islands are small drops of land surrounded by a vast expanse of ocean, water flows and springs and cascades and bubbles up all over the land, and off-season there are sudden torrential downpours of rain, so the essence of the place for me is to be found in its water.  Water is also something I love to photograph, so these images bring together my own fascination for water with the water that symbolises the Azores.

Azorian spring

Azorian spring

Natural spring, Azores

Natural spring, Azores

Natural spring, Azores

Natural spring, Azores

Azorian spring

The contemplative photographer

Rye harbour abstract 1

It’s long been a mystery to me as to where I fitted in the photographic world, something we were expected to think about in my OCA (Open College of the Arts) course.  It was clear to me that I certainly wasn’t a good fit with the kind of intellectually-based, conceptual practice the courses encouraged, but I wasn’t comfortable with or interested in the traditional approach either, with its emphasis on a particular kind of technical and aesthetic perfection.

I knew there was something in the way that I went about photography that felt right to me, but it was hard to pinpoint what that was exactly. It rarely involved much planning, and my best results would usually happen when I went out with an open mind and allowed things to present themselves to me.  These might later be formed into some kind of project or series, but they started out as a pure reaction to something I saw.  If I tried to do the kind of planning and conceptualising that I felt I should be doing, the results were always disappointing, and I’ve always been more interested in the freshness or emotion of the image than in its technical perfection.

I came across the practice of contemplative photography a while ago but for some reason it’s taken till now for me to recognise that this is my niche.  So what is it?  Like many things, it’s hard to put into words, so here are just a few of the things that characterise it:

-it encourages you to see in fresh ways, unhampered by expectations and ideas about what makes good and bad subject matter

-it places as much emphasis (more, really) on the process of photographing as it does on the end result

-it regards technology as a useful tool, but something to learn and absorb so that it becomes unconscious and never gets in the way of making the picture

-it doesn’t stop to consider the reactions of potential viewers, only the fulfilment got from creating the images

it doesn’t plan, but makes itself open to whatever presents itself

-it allows images to come to it, rather than regarding them as something to be hunted or captured; it’s receptive rather than forceful

-it aims for a ‘flow’ state while photographing, so that the photographer is totally engrossed in seeing and recording what they see

-it tends to result in images that are ambiguous, abstract, graphic, or dreamy rather than straightforwardly representational

What does this mean in a practical sense?  It means heading out without any preconceived ideas about what to photograph, and being open to whatever comes your way.  It means not classifying what you see into beautiful and ugly, or desirable and undesirable, or regarding one kind of light as better than another.  It relies on what’s come to be called a ‘flash of perception’ where you suddenly see something in a way you never have before and then get so swept up in it that you lose all track of time and place.  It’s unplanned and spontaneous.  It’s what I’ve always done, naturally – I just didn’t know it.

The images in this post came about this way.  We were wandering around Rye Harbour and I was enjoying taking the shots I was taking, but then suddenly I noticed something I hadn’t seen before even though I’d been walking past it for quite some time – the top of every piling on the pier had colourful paint splashes and metal brackets on them that combined to make up wonderful abstracts.   Suddenly I was away – I spent the next forty minutes taking these shots and you couldn’t have got me away from there for a champagne supper with George Clooney.  I was oblivious to anything except creating these images, totally swept up in the moment.  I’m quite sure that many people would prefer the other images I shot that day, but these are the ones that gave me huge pleasure to make and to look at afterwards.

This is where I see my future, photographically.  I’m working on developing a series of workshops that introduce people to the practice of contemplative photography,and I can see two different but overlapping approaches.  The first would be aimed at photographers who want to develop a fresher, more spontaneous way of seeing, and the second would be to use photography therapeutically.  The contemplative approach is really photography as the practice of mindfulness, and like mindfulness that’s practised in other ways and contexts, it can help with all sorts of emotional and stress-related problems.  Both would be about learning to stop over-thinking and start responding on an intuitive level.

I’ve been in touch with someone in Leicester who’s experienced in both these fields, and she’s given me invaluable help and advice.  My first move forward will be to set up a non-profit group where I can gain experience with some of the exercises I have in mind and see how they work out in practice.  I hope to get that started very soon.  It scares me a bit – can I do this? am I the right person to do this? – but they do say that if a new venture doesn’t scare you just a little, then it isn’t challenging enough.

Rye Harbour abstract 4

Rye Harbour abstract 6

Rye harbour abstract 5

Rye Harbour abstract 7

Rye harbour abstract 8

Twenty-two shots in ten minutes


I’ve just held my first photography workshop in this area, in a village called Calverton.  I didn’t do it alone, but with a fellow tutor I’ve met since moving here – I like to teach photography but not photo-processing, and Gill  likes to teach photo-processing but not photography, so we were obviously made to work together.

Our plan for the workshop went seriously awry early in the day. We had billed it as a creative workshop and we wanted to put the emphasis on developing photographic vision rather than the technical side of camera work, following that up by doing a little creative post-processing with the resulting shots.  However it became clear pretty quickly that our students felt they were more in need of help with the technical elements and so I did one of those abrupt about-turns you sometimes have to do when you’re teaching and re-jigged it to suit – in the end, it’s more important to give people what they want than what you (perhaps rather high-handedly) think they should have.  However, I did manage to sneak in one exercise on the ‘seeing’ part of things and that’s what I’m going to talk about here.

I put together a simplified version of a coursework exercise I did early on with OCA.  For my version of it, I made up some cards with various shapes or qualities written on them:

  • squares and rectangles
  • spirals and circles
  • diagonals
  • curves
  • texture
  • colour
  • light

I put the cards face down in a heap in the middle of the table and asked everyone to take two.  If they really didn’t like a card that they’d picked up they were allowed to put it back and take another.  Then they had twenty minutes to go outside and create as many pictures as they could that featured one or more of the qualities on the cards they’d chosen.  I wasn’t at all sure how this would go down, or how people would cope with it, but I was really surprised and pleased with the results.

It wasn’t an easy task, as the immediate area was fairly uninspiring.  It comprised of a small shopping centre with nothing much to recommend it, a car park, and a short stretch of village street.  With only twenty minutes to complete the task, there wasn’t time to wander far or to think much about what to shoot.  Everyone came back with some great shots – in one instance, there was a bit of a problem with camera shake, but the images themselves were good ones and well-seen.  Another student had picked up ‘colour’ and ‘diagonals’ and had decided to concentrate on finding red things that would also fit the ‘diagonal’ brief – ambitious in the time, but she pulled it off.  The final part of the day was for each student to create a photo collage or mosaic out of their shots, and the collection of reds and diagonals worked really well for this.

I’d thought that we might have to give our students some help, but by the time we got outside they’d mostly disappeared and the only person I could see looked quite happy and absorbed in what they were doing.  Since I believe in putting your money where your mouth is, I’d picked up a couple of cards myself, thinking that I might get a chance to give the exercise a go.  I’ve done similar things before, but only over the course of several weeks and I wanted to see how I’d get on finding reasonable shots that fulfilled the brief in ten minutes – all the time that was left by then.

I surprised myself with how much fun I had in that ten minutes, and I got an unexpected number of decent shots.  Some are a lot more interesting than others, of course.  Anyway, here’s what I took in that ten minutes – I’ve left out a very small number of shots that either didn’t work or were just too dull to include.  The following images mostly use diagonals rather than colour as there wasn’t much colour about, and the diagonals range from the obvious to the fairly subtle.  The first image cried out to be converted to black and white, as did the drain at the top of this post and the section of noticeboard below.  The rest worked much better in colour.  In all, I took 22 shots in 10 minutes – in many cases there were several shots of the same thing – and ended up with  a dozen reasonably decent images.  If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have been sure I could have done that!


Jet trail

Sainsbury's dog



The Avenue, Calverton

Noticeboard, Calverton

My own favourite of the day is this one; I looked up and saw this pattern of leaves on a rather ugly plastic roof:

Leaves on a roof

I only shot three images that could qualify for ‘colour’. Two are very conventional but quite pretty shots of the wonderful light shining through some dead leaves in the gutter, and the other was the colourful village noticeboard.  I’ve used a section of the same noticeboard above for ‘diagonal’, and in that instance it worked better as a black and white shot as it focused attention on the diagonal shadow.  Here, the diagonal shadow becomes a lesser part of the image and the colour holds most of the impact.

Noticeboard 2, Calverton

Autumn leaves, Calverton

Autumn leaves 2, Calverton



The beauty of plastic

Asda bag 1

I don’t like plastic. I especially don’t like plastic when it’s been dumped and is classed as litter.  Even so, you just have to see some beauty in the fluid shapes formed by this torn Asda carrier bag, floating in the Marine Lake at West Kirby.  And if you abstract just one tiny piece of it, it has the look of a graceful and exotic jellyfish.

Asda bag 2

And it’s not the first time I’ve found plastic beautiful. When my friend Eileen visited recently, we got a bit lost looking for Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, and ended up at the (closed) public library instead.  We wandered round the outside before realising our mistake, and spotted these windows.  They had some kind of plastic coating on the inside that was beginning to peel off in interesting shapes.

Hawarden window

Hawarden window 2

This is what I love about photography. Where once I wouldn’t have given these things a second glance, or would simply have been upset about the dumping of non-degradable waste if I had noticed them, these days I’m able to see something wonderful in them as well.  Seems to me I’d do well to transfer that attitude to the rest of my life.


How pictures work

I picked up a fascinating little book in a second-hand shop recently. It’s called Picture This: How Pictures Work and it’s by Molly Bang.  Molly is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but one day she realised she didn’t have any great understanding of what makes a picture work.  She decided to experiment using simple geometric shapes cut out of craft paper, to see how these could be used to evoke emotion through their arrangement and colour.

She was working with young children at the time and she did an exercise with them where she cut paper in four different colours – red, black, pale purple, and white – into shapes to create an illustration for Litte Red Riding Hood.  She got the children to give her directions about what made the picture more or less scary – the kids weren’t too enthusiastic (they wanted to make pictures that looked real) but as she went on to try this exercise with a range of children of all ages and with adults too, she found that there were fundamental principles of design that gave an emotional charge to certain arrangements of shapes on the page.  In this book she takes us through the process of decision-making that leads to the most effective illustration of the Red Riding Hood story and then pulls out the principles at work behind them.

So, for instance, she starts with trees like these one, made out of triangles (the slight shading to the right of all of these images is a result of the scanning process):

but then changes them to this (Little Red Riding Hood is represented by the red triangle):

Using tall rectangles that disappear off the edge of the page makes us feel that the trees are very tall and overbearing, giving a better sense of being in a threatening space.  Placing some rectangles higher in the frame and making them narrower gives a feeling of depth to the image as the trees appear to recede.  But upright trees are too static and reliable, which is at odds with the tension of the story, so to increase the feeling of tension she introduces some trees that lean and look as if they could fall on Red Riding Hood.  Placing her inside the triangle formed by two trees also makes it look as if she’s trapped, even though we know rationally that she is situated further into the distance than this.  She’s also been made smaller, to increase the sense of her vulnerability.

The book continues in this vein but this should be enough to give you the idea. Although the basic principles are all things we intuitively feel, it’s less usual for us to have a conscious understanding of why we feel as we do.  I can see that having an awareness of these principles could be very useful in photography, perhaps a little less so for spontaneous shots, but definitely so for those that are planned ahead.  It also offers a way of assessing photos we’ve already taken, to understand why they work or don’t work. It’s a very thin and deceptively simple book that actually delivers rather a lot.

The final, finished image, with the wolf in it, looks like this:

The key elements here are the trees as described before, the largeness of the wolf in relation to the smallness of Red Riding Hood, the red eyes, the lolling red tongue, the sharp white pointed teeth, and the lilac background that gives the feeling of it being night, or at least ominously dark.

I thought it would be interesting to look on Amazon to see what existing book covers are like, and to see if they use similar means to get an effective illustration.  I found the books fell roughly into two camps – the modern versions, mainly designed for very young children, had played down the scariness of the story, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.  The wolf in the illustration below looks more like a big friendly dog than anything Red Riding Hood would want to run from:

Of course, this book is aimed at really young children who could end up having nightmares if things got too frightening.  There are lots of variations available on the basic story, some of them telling it from the wolf’s perspective, some turning it into something funny, and some that are adult stories based on the original.  You’d expect the covers to be quite different for each of  these, and they are.  Despite the fact that we consider fairy tales to be for young children, the original stories were often grisly and frightening.  It’s been argued – by Bruno Bettelheim for one – that fairy stories help the child make sense of the world and cope with its own fears and baffling emotions, and that they have to deal with frightening and confusing scenarios to do this.  Modern versions frequently take a Disney-esque approach that changes them into something they were never meant to be and removes a lot of their power.

However, some of the covers, even though still aimed at children, stay more true to the original intent of the fairy tale, and go for a scary, threatening feeling even where some ‘cuteness’ is still in evidence.  In these covers we can see quite a number of the features of Molly Bang’s geometric shape image.  This one has the trees disappearing off the top edge of the frame, some trees that lean, and the wolf hiding behind the trees, but I think it loses effectiveness because the wolf is quite small relative to the girl and actually not very noticeable.

Here’s another cover that contains a lot of the elements in Molly Bang’s image, but the wolf looks a tad too friendly to be really threatening, and Red Riding Hood doesn’t look particularly alarmed or concerned either.  It looks more like a happy game of hide and seek than a scary story.

In both the above images, however, Red Riding Hood is facing the viewer. If we were to see her from the back, it would give a much greater feeling of threat – as if we’re sneaking up behind her, like the wolf is.  Molly Bang uses a red triangle to denote Red Riding Hood so we don’t know for sure which way round she is, but for some reason I assumed we were seeing her from the back.  Despite trawling through pages of book thumbnails, I could only find one cover that shows her from behind and it belongs to a book that tells the story from the wolf’s point of view.  The wolf in this version is a decent sort, but imagine this cover if he had a hungry and predatory expression on his face.

Of the traditional versions of the story, I managed to find a couple that take a side-on view. This is one of them, and the change of viewpoint plus the fact that the wolf is made significantly bigger, delivers geater impact in terms of scariness than the ones where Red Riding Hood faces us.  However, the colours are very gentle and pretty, and the trees rather manicured and orderly, and this works to tone down the frightening aspects of the story.

The next one omits the setting of the woods, but is probably one of the scariest images on offer. Many of the wolf’s features – open jaws, sharp white teeth – are similar to those used in Molly Bang’s image.  The dominance of the colour red also imparts a feeling of danger, with its associations of blood, and the positioning of the wolf above the girl also helps.

One of the covers I like best, and find most effective, takes quite a different approach. In the following cover, all we have is an area of scribbled red, with a tiny Red Riding Hood running towards the corner edge of the image.  I tend to like simplicity, so perhaps that’s why this appeals so much, but that scribble of red says a lot about danger to me, hanging over Red Riding Hood like a threatening storm cloud, with her tiny figure running for safety.

Finally, this image forms the cover of an adult take on the original fairy story. Again we have the tall trees disappearing off the top of the frame, with some leaning in threateningly towards Red Riding Hood.  No wolf in this one, but look at the spiky branches sticking out from the trees – don’t they remind you of sharp teeth?

I got a lot more swept up in these comparisons than I thought I would, and it struck me what a good way it is of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in an image, and why.  You could take any book of which there are a number of versions or editions and do something similar.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from this that could be incorporated into our photographs.  It was fascinating to see the same elements occurring again and again, but also to find covers like the red scribble one above that are quite different in concept.  I wonder how minimalist you could get with this – what’s the least amount of information needed to get the emotion and, to a lesser extent the storyline, across?


Alternative autumn – still avoiding cliches

My last post was about the problems of photographing cliches, and it’s a problem that’s forever popping up when you have to photograph the seasons.  Part of my course assessment submission is to put together a seasonal landscape portfolio of 12 images, 3 for each season.  I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the course thinking about how to do this in a non-obvious way and not coming up with any answers.  In the end, letting go of the attempt, and allowing things to unfold as they would revealed the answer.  As it turned out, things changed over time without any real effort on my part, and in many ways I’m glad it’s taken me so long to complete this course (three years! – some people do whole degrees in that time).   I think my photography has moved on quite significantly during these years and I feel I’ve now found something of a ‘voice’ of my own.  It’s so easy to think that we continue on our way, unchanging and looking back at our own work over a period of time can be quite illuminating.

Take autumn, for instance. I started out doing the obvious shots – pretty autumnal coloured trees and leaves, shot in a traditional way.  The images below are typical – I do like them because they’re pretty, they’re nice to look at, and I’m happy to have taken them, but there’s very little of me in them.  I think anyone could have taken these, and although pleasing to the eye, there isn’t a great deal of depth.  This ‘depth’ thing is problematic – it’s one of those things that you know when you see it, but you can’t explain what it is (like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous words on recognising obscenity).  The last of these three images probably does have some depth and is the one I’m most satisfied with here.

Autumn tree


Autumn light

I very quickly tired of taking these kinds of shots, just as I would tire of looking at them after a short time.  Boredom led me to experiment a bit more.   The following image was taken on a little compact camera while I was sitting in my car in the pouring rain in a Sainsbury’s carpark.  It’s not the obvious place to go to shoot autumn, and when I first took this shot I didn’t even bother processing it as I thought it was no good.  Looking at it now, though, it seems to me that it sums up a typical English autumn rather well – the colours of the leaves indicate the season, the grey light gives it a melancholy feel, and the out-of-focus raindrops on the windscreen add an unexpected abstract element.  I feel this shot has a freshness about it that the others don’t.  It also makes me realise how our tastes and perceptions evolve, and that something we dismiss to begin with looks different to us as we gain in experience.  (I’m just glad I didn’t delete it – I almost did)

Autumn trees at Sainsbury's

It was in the same carpark on the same day that I began to shoot fallen leaves in puddles and, of course, this eventually turned into my ‘Fallen’ series.  The shot I took that day was this one, which isn’t particularly good but has the germ of the idea in it that led to my later project – I think it’s worth showing for that reason.  I was bored and playing around at this point.

Leaves and yellow lines

As time went on, the Fallen images changed from being something I did for want of anything better to do, and became a bit more sophisticated and deliberate.  The following two are typical examples.

Fallen leaves 2

Fallen leaves 1

As I’ve allowed the Fallen series to evolve, more and more of my photography has involved aiming my lens at the ground, as in the images above and below. Like many people I have a fascination with reflections too, and these have become part of quite a few of my latest autumnal images.

I’m not sure what my obsession with the ground is about – I guess that not so many people look down at what’s underneath them, just as few people look upwards either.  In one rather straightforward sense, it’s an attempt to show people what they’re missing but I also have the quote ‘as above, so below’ whirling around in my head – leaves on the ground reflect the presence of the trees above and everything that lies beneath us has come from above us.  I’ve been impressed, too, by a book I read recently called ‘The Holographic Universe‘ which argues that the smallest part of anything in the world contains the whole, and I have some idea of taking that notion into my photography.  This is all very vague as yet, and hopefully will become a bit clearer to me as I go on.  I have a sense of being led in a particular direction, and the feeling  that I should simply trust this and do what comes naturally.  There’s a very clear change in my images over the period of the course and they seem distinctively ‘mine’ now.  I think someone might look at these and know it was me who took them, and that’s a very satisfying thing.

If you were to look at your own images through time, what changes would you see?

Autumn leaves in gutter

Evening warmth

Autumn sky reflected

Autumn puddle

Autumn puddle 2

Autumn reflected