Contemplation, Meditation, Mindfulness

| August 24, 2016

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.

Guiding Light

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (12)

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  1. Tif says:

    Several years ago I studied Miksang at a Shambhala Meditation Center. It is, as you say, a good starting point. But I think of it as a practice and not so much a genre of photography. Perhaps the purist Miksang practitioners would argue with me about this. I don’t know. But much like meditation is a practice that can impact how we engage the world, I look at Miksang as a practice that can impact how we see the world.

    In my experience studying Tibetan Buddhism (Shambhala) and Shambhala Arts (contemplative arts), I have learned that “contemplative” when referenced within this context [I think] doesn’t so much equate to “contemplation” as much as it equates to “attentiveness.” Meditation, contemplative practice, mindfulness–all of those cool buzz words mostly just mean “wake the f*ck up and pay attention to what’s in front of you right now”. 🙂

    Great essay, as always, Guy. Hope you are well!


    • Guy Tal says:

      That’s so perfectly stated, Tif. Thank you! I would also add: pay attention to what’s inside you, too. Many people are so caught up in anxiety about the past and the future that no attention is left to live and appreciate life as it actually happens.

      “If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of this present. I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass. For I shall have formed a habit of looking behind and ahead, making it difficult for me to attend to the here and now. If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world.” ~Alan Watts

      • Roy Money says:

        Tif and Guy
        Yes, I think attentiveness is central, but not a kind of focused concentration so much as an expansive awareness that is not encumbered by egoistic agendas and conceptual processing. I think of it as about resonance and recognition rather than any kind of acquisitive “capturing” – a word that is so prevalent in the techno orientation to photography. An exposure does get made and it requires some decisions and actions, but for me it is about a multi-sensorial receptivity to what I see, of which meditation has enlarged my awareness. I consider my internal sensory capacity far more important than my camera sensor.

        • Guy Tal says:

          Agree completely, Roy, and I think it is something worth repeating and teaching. Many today are brought up in a world of competition, possession, and self-promotion, and take these as measures of worth, success and happiness. Ironically few who pursue that path take the time to examine their actual happiness and acknowledge that such things in themselves never amount to true lasting contentment or to a sense of meaningful, deliberate, living. Without that “enlarged awareness” you refer to, one only sees their place in some contrived social context, but not as a living being, granted just a blink of existence in a world of profound beauty and mystery. Such a perception leads one to the exact opposite of competition and self-importance; it leads to gratitude, peacefulness and humility, all of which make for a much more rewarding living experience.

  2. Very interesting topic; equally interesting to hear of more photographers who use meditation practices (like myself). As I understand it, mindfulness is really just a subset of meditation. Neither require you to “clear your mind” (or “don’t think”), as is so often misunderstood with the practice, they just ask that you be attentive to what occupies your mind, your surroundings, or is impacting/directing your mood.
    Regardless, I have found meditation to be a game changer for my overall well-being. I stay away from any religious-angled practices, but focus on using it for my health (lowering blood pressure) and for my capacity for caring, empathizing, handling stress, concentrating on tasks, and creativity.
    It has brought a wonderful balance to my life, and broadened my perspective on so many things.
    Once again, a great article, Guy!

  3. Paul Olafson says:

    I read this in Bayles and Orland’s book, Art and fear, and thought it to be salient and succinct: “Art is often made in abandonment, emerging unbidden in moments of selfless rapport with the materials and ideas we care about.”

  4. Fergal says:

    Hi Guy
    You are under more commercial pressure than me but it was great to see your sentence on the experience being more important than getting the photograph. I love taking photographs but I love the experience of being in the location more. I’m not sure I’m that creative but I certainly get in the flow when I’m photographing . It’s my mindfulness I’m completely in the moment. All past and future worries disappear at least for a while. I know a number of people who have or had experienced depression and have found photography a great outlet. It has never ending possibilities , you are always learning and it brings you to places and introduces you to new people. I’m pretty shy by nature but I’ve met many photographers out shooting and had great conversations with them with photography being a common start point.

  5. Herb says:

    Not to be a nitpicker, but as a meditation instructor for many years
    I must say there are two types of meditation, analytic and concentration.
    One focuses on a thought, the other on an object of the mind. So ‘flow’

  6. Herb says:

    is correct, emptying the mind of all thought still
    leaves an object of awareness, even if it is only
    the mind itself.