I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them. ~Pablo Picasso
The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson characterized photography as recognizing “simultaneously and within a fraction of a second both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.” I sometimes joke that if Cartier-Bresson tried to make images as I do, he would have died of boredom. I greatly dislike multitasking, and rarely am moved to do anything within a fraction of a second. My images generally ensue out of a prolonged experience and I generally become aware of the meaning I wish to portray long before (minutes, hours, days, and sometimes even years before) I feel I know how to accomplish it in a photograph.
It was suggested to me by people who care about such things that I am a “contemplative photographer,” which at the time I took as a compliment but as is my way, after much… contemplation… I found myself at odds with this characterization.
To contemplate is to think about something deeply, deliberately, with great concentration. In contemplating something, it becomes the primary focus of attention, examined from every angle one can think of, and considered in all its various aspects, relationships and consequences. It is a conscious, proactive, activity, which is decidedly not how I approach photography. My photographs are expressions of experiences, and until I am inspired by such an experience, I do not know what it is I wish to photograph. When inspiration strikes, it may yield an obvious image or just an idea that will lay dormant in my mind until another experience or some unconscious epiphany will make me aware of a good way to express it. I contemplate many things: life, philosophy, science, etc., but rarely do I spend much time thinking about photographs. I just know from experience that every so often, they come to me.
Miksang photography—defined by its developer, Michael Wood, as, “photography in which we use the camera to express our visual perceptions exactly as we experience them”—comes a little closer to the way I practice my work. This kind of photography also is referred to by its practitioners as contemplative, although I always found the term a bit curious as Miksang also promotes photography that is immediate and reactive, prompted by “a flash of perception” and therefore involving no contemplation at all. This, too, is not how I practice my work. To me, the flash of perception is a starting point and I may not realize how it may translate into a photograph until much later (again, minutes, days or even years later). This interval is not spent in conscious pondering of how to make the photograph, but generally entails a series of random epiphanies that link back to the original experience until a time comes when I feel I know what I need to do. This, also, is not contemplation.
It should also be mentioned that flashes of perception rarely are correlated with sudden creative epiphanies leading to truly expressive art. As explained by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “… an idea or product that deserves the label ‘creative’ arises from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a single person. It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively. And a genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.”
Practitioners of Zen, such as photographers Minor White and John Daido Loori, cite meditation as a means to art. Meditation can be considered the opposite of contemplation. While both are modes of deep cognitive immersion, contemplation involves deliberate focused thinking, while meditation requires emptying the mind of all thought, to a point where even the thinker’s sense of self disappears. As expressed by John Daido Loori, “The activity, whatever it may be, is not forced or strained. The art just slips through the intellectual filters, without conscious effort and without planning.” Although I practice meditation and appreciate its effects, this, too, is not how I make my images.
Mindfulness, rather then contemplation or meditation, is perhaps the concept that most closely describes the wellspring of my work. I seek experiences that are meaningful, and when I’m engaged in them I make myself as aware as I can not only of my environment and my perception of things in it, but also of my inner state, my thoughts and feelings. And with that knowledge I seek ways of weaving experience, impressions, and whatever is on my mind and in my heart, into an expressive photograph—expressive in the sense that it conveys something of both my outer and inner perceptions. And these two perceptions do not always occur simultaneously. Sometimes the memory of an experience, a place or a sensation will be aroused by new thoughts and feelings and suddenly I will know what I need to photograph and how. This merging of inner and outer stimuli may take seconds or it may take years. In this, I am closer in approach to photographer Edward Weston, who wrote, “One does not think during creative work, any more than one thinks when driving a car. But one has a background of years —learning, unlearning, success, failure, dreaming, thinking, experience, all this—then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment.”
I have quite a few images in my collection that have been years in the making, and a plethora of ideas and memories that I hope will ultimately find expression in photographs as I continue my journey. While I contemplate many things, and meditate, I am neither a contemplative photographer nor a meditative one. This is because the photograph is not my primary concern. I always will favor a great experience yielding no photographs to a great photograph whose making did not involve a memorable experience. Mindfulness enriches my experiences, and allows me to articulate and to savor them in all their details. And if such an experience on occasion lends itself to visual expression, so much the better.