Getting stressed out by trying to remember complicated techniques and hauling around lots of gear? A more mindful and contemplative approach could be in order, reckons Geoff Harris.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll know photography isn’t always a particularly relaxing pursuit, never mind a meditative one. Irony of ironies, I recently found myself photographing at a Buddhist temple in India. This should be a place of peace and serene reflection, but there I was, sweating profusely from my heavy DSLR and lenses, and cursing over a particularly difficult technique in the heat. The monks looked at me with a mixture of amazement and amused compassion – and I can’t blame them.
If you sometimes yearn for a simpler and more contemplative approach to photography, you are not alone. Call it mindful photography or contemplative photography, this type of image making is becoming more and more popular. While it may not change the way you shoot overnight, I’d argue that more photographers can benefit from its three core principles: first, slow down and be more mindful about what you doing; second, try to strive for a simpler, less intellectual approach; and third, concentrate on perception rather than getting too obsessed about technical perfection and gear.
‘Contemplative photography’ is a catch-all term that encompasses as many different styles and approaches as, say, landscape photography, but much of the theory behind it derives from Buddhist ideas. Relax, though; you don’t need to shave your head or chant for six hours a day to become a more contemplative photographer. While mindfulness (or intense concentration, if you prefer) is something that all good photographers share, the connection with Buddhism was strengthened by the interest of Chögyam Trungpa in photography.
Trungpa was a Tibetan Buddhist monk and teacher who fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet with the Dalai Lama, and eventually settled in the US in the 1960s. While his photography was naive in terms of technique, there was a simplicity, freshness and spontaneity about it that enchanted many viewers.
His images focused on capturing the essence of things, rather than a lot of concepts around them. So a tree would just be photographed as a tree in its own right, in its own essence in time and space, rather than as part of some grand dramatic landscape in, say, the Ansel Adams tradition. As Andy Karr and Michael Wood explain in The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Trungpa’s teachings “presented the view that art could express the actual moment-to-moment experiences of life, free from any artistic agenda designed to appeal to a particular audience. In this approach, real creativity is based on openness, genuineness, and confidence.”
Without getting bogged down in the history of Buddhist photography, suffice to say these ideas continue to appeal to photographers, right up to the present day. A great example is the work of Michael Kenna, a British-born photographer best known for his minimalist black-and-white landscapes and seascapes. Kenna is influenced by traditional Japanese art, over which the spirit of Zen Buddhism looms large. Here, the emphasis is on a simple, serene, direct response to the beauty of nature, aiming for a mastery that transcends mere technique to hint at something more profound.
It’s the photographic equivalent of Zen calligraphy or a Kyoto rock garden, if you like, where less is always more. Or to borrow a martial arts metaphor, Kenna is like a master swordsman, emptying his mind of hope, fear and performance anxiety to deliver the perfect strike at the perfect moment. “One shot, one life …” as the teacher explains in Zen and the Art of Archery.
So how can we as photographers benefit from a more contemplative approach to photography? For me it begins with slowing down and simplifying. So, if you are going out on a lovely spring morning, think about trying to capture its essence through colour, texture, light and space rather than a grand landscape production involving lots of gear and filters. Sunlight on a pond, for example, or how the sun lights and warms a colourful wall or building. Contemplative photography shares similarities of approach with abstract photography, which again is about suggestion rather than trying to capture everything.
In other words, the emphasis should be on ‘seeing fresh’ rather than absolute technical rigour, although contemplative photography should never be used as an excuse for sloppy technique. Contemplative photography also lends itself to smartphone photography, as the limitations of a camera-phone sensors and lenses often force you to approach subjects in a simpler and more descriptive way.
To conclude, none of this is to say that more ambitious and technically demanding photography involving lots of gear and intellectual effort is somehow wrong. If you look the work of master landscape photographers such as Joe Cornish or Charlie Waite, for example, you will see examples of simpler, more contemplative/abstract work alongside the great productions and panoramas (and Joe is very open about the influence of Eastern philosophy on his work). At the very least, embracing some of the principles of contemplative photography will help you slow down and get less stressed, which will probably lead to better pictures, more enjoyably taken.
Do you agree with Geoff? Tell us what you think in the Comments section below.
About the Author
Geoff is an experienced photography journalist and recently stepped down as editor of Digital Camera, the UK’s best-selling photography magazine. He now writes for a range of publications. Geoff is a keen travel and portrait photographer, and a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society.