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: 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:

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

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The Mindful Photographer

I really dislike the term “point and shoot.” At some point, it isn’t just a description of a camera; it becomes instead a description of a mindset and way of seeing that sucks the life out of your photos. To be sure, snapshots aren’t somehow evil. They have their place (more on that another time). But if you want to move beyond the crap shoot that is snapshot photography, it’s going to take an adjustment not only in technique, but also, more importantly, in your approach to photography. In short, you need to rethink the how and why of making pictures.

There’s a difference between taking a snapshot and making a photo because there’s a difference between looking and seeing, and it goes deeper than simple semantics. If our eyes are in reasonable working order, we look at things all day every day. We can’t help it. The world is a visually saturated place, whether you’re standing in the middle of Times Square or stuck behind a desk working on spreadsheets. We’re continually bombarded by visual stimuli, and we can’t possibly pause to take in every last millimeter of what fills our field of view. If we tried, we’d have no time for any of the rest of what life has to offer. So we scan briefly, and if something sufficiently bright, shiny, or colorful wanders into our field of vision, we might give it a few extra seconds’ half-assed attention.

Often as not, we take photos the same way. Bunch of visible stuff? Check. Camera? Check. Point. Shoot. Done. Then we wonder, when we didn’t stop to consider the dimensionality of our subject, why its photograph is flat and lifeless. Whether we’re seeing with our naked eye or through a viewfinder, think for a second about all we’re missing.

Seeing is active, a process rather than a result. It’s a conscious choice, a slowing down and a decision to focus. It’s taking the time to study something, to engage it with your head or your heart. Too often, we let stimuli of all sorts flow over us like water through a coffee filter, rather than being present in the moment and asking what that moment requires of us.

At first blush, this probably sounds like some kind of pseudo-mystical babble. It’s not. Don’t just point and shoot. Be still for a minute. Take a good, long look at what’s in front of you. What does it say to you? If something in your field of vision hasn’t grabbed you, will it really make a good photograph?

I use the term “making” a photo (versus “taking” it) on purpose. You can “take” anything, whether it’s a picture or a package of cookies, without giving much thought to it. But to “make” something signals intent, effort, and mindfulness. You can taste the difference between cookies you’ve taken and the ones you’ve made; your photos are no different. Sure, if you take that extra second, you’ll miss the occasional shot. Just like anything else you’re not in the habit of doing, it feels a bit awkward at first, but it gets easier with practice.

Further reading: Darcy Norman’s “On Photography as Mindful Seeing”