Review: The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr & Michael Wood

The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr & Michael Wood
The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr & Michael Wood

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes indulges a little truth in advertising, for a change. “Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes.” That’s it; no hyperbolic promises, no B.S.

This is, in a sense, a book-length treatment of the ways of seeing. We see either by conception (what’s in our field of view is filtered through our ideas, thoughts, and feelings about it) or perception (we see what is, as it is, free of any mental or emotional baggage). The authors’ intent is to have us check conception at the door, in favor of perception. The advantage, they argue, is that you learn to see in detail, and in depth. In other words, you stop just looking at things, and start to pay closer attention, being present with the subject nearly to the point that your photograph is a means of bearing witness to it, rather than simply getting the cold facts of an image onto your memory card.

The upshot of this is that rather than being caught up in “big” things — expressing some big idea, making a grand statement — photography is freed to celebrate the small and the ordinary. What (hopefully) goes on behind the camera — letting go, being spontaneous and genuine — follows through to what’s captured by the camera. Furthermore, it encourages the photographer to broaden his/her sense of what constitutes things like “beauty” and “art.”

Far from being purely philosophical, the book also has a practical bent. This expresses itself first by the inclusion of exercises (some requiring a camera, others not) in areas including light, texture, shape, and visual awareness, that are designed to take all that theory and make it concrete. It’s also expressed by the practical advice given on the mechanics of making a photo (lighting, depth of field, shutter speed, etc.), because if you’ve only got one shot at capturing an image that jolts you into mindfulness, it helps to get it right that first time. Finally, it finds expression in the photographs, some by the usual suspects (Strand, Steiglitz, Modotti, Adams, Weston, and Kertész), and others by the authors and their students. Without all the photos, this would be a very slim volume — nearly a pamphlet — but the photos, besides being gorgeous, serve to illustrate the points made by the authors in the preceding pages.

There are appendices here on image processing and buying the right camera. They’re short, even by the standards of this book, but that isn’t to its detriment. Really, those things are supplemental to the authors’ main point, and they’re treated as such.

In short, this book delivers on its premise, and its promise. If you want to change how you view photography, your best starting point is to change how you see the world before you’ve picked up the camera; the photography will flow naturally from that. If you’re looking for even the basics of photographic technique, this book wouldn’t be the best place to start; if, however, you’ve mastered those — or moved well beyond them — and find that your photography’s still missing something, this may well be the right thing to point you back in the right direction.

Postscript: There are two websites worth checking out, either independent of, or in tandem with, the book:

  • www.seeingfresh.com is intended as a companion to the book
  • www.miksang.com predates the book, and provides both further examples of the authors’ philosophy, and also a wealth of visuals.

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