"Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see... In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing."
The Practice of Contemplative Photography
by Andy Karr and Michael Wood
Shambhala Publications, 2011
Reviewed by Ken Tanaka
The model of most photography self-improvement books hasn’t substantially changed for nearly 40 years. They typically feature early chapters on basic photography principles (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, holding the camera still, etc.) followed by a series of chapters dispensing prescriptive, technique-oriented—and sometimes howlingly hackneyed—advice on how to take "good" pictures. The material tends to be oriented toward guiding the reader to make pictures that resemble the generally accepted aesthetic medians for the subject genres (i.e. landscape, babies, parties, etc.).
That’s fine. But such books offer little or no guidance to readers who want to explore the broader and far more rewarding challenge of seeing with a keener, more creative, and more personally incisive eye.
The Practice of Contemplative Photography pursues a very different path. Its authors, Andy Karr and Michael Wood, draw upon their mutual interest in Buddhist teachings to present an approach to photography that's exclusively oriented to "clear seeing," an important tenet in Buddhism. The concept of clear seeing can be described, at least in this context, as eliminating distractions and confusion to align your eye with your mind and emotions.
But wait! Lest you become turned-off at the impression that this is "What Would Buddha Shoot?", hang in there! Aside from brief background remarks in the preamble and epilogue, the subject of Buddhism is nowhere to be found. Karr and Wood devote nearly all of the material toward imparting a practical understanding of the three stages of their contemplative photographic practice philosophy: Flash of Perception, Visual Discernment, and Forming the Equivalent. The general idea is to learn to turn off the many obstructions to visual clarity that we all have. Obstructions such as cultural biases, adherence to clichés, and the desire to create slick images that will impress people. Such obstructions become filters that distort you perception and blind you to possibilities that don’t fit your preconceptions.
To that end many of the book's chapters are designed to guide the reader toward self-discovery of the technique's methods. The authors provide a brief description of a topic and then offer an exercise to channel the reader's exploration. A collection of images follow each chapter's exercise to illustrate the objective. This is a simple, but powerful, structure for leading readers through conceptual material that can really only be discovered rather than taught.
It's worth noting that the book would be worth its very modest price just as a photo book. Over half of its pages feature images, many of which represent some of the best of the genre that I've seen. (And most were created by the authors.) In fact I believe that the images and chapter titles alone provide quite a substantial portion of the book's instruction.
It's also noteworthy that discussion of basic camera technique is mercifully minimized to just a few pages in two chapters which deal with "Forming the Equivalents," the point in the process at which a camera is employed to record what you are experiencing. This is genuinely a book about seeing, in which the camera is a necessary but generic instrument much as a pencil would be in a book on writing.
Realistically, the techniques of contemplative photography outlined here by Karr and Woods will not stick to every reader. But I am confident speculating that the vast majority of readers who spend dedicated time with the book and some of its exercises will be rewarded, at a minimum, by being able to see many more possibilities with their photography. That's a goal that's certainly worth many times the book's price, wouldn’t you say?
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by JohnW: "I'm delighted to see this approach to photography is finally trickling into the mainstream. I had the pleasure of experiencing the first three courses in the series several years ago and my photography has never looked back. To say it changed my photography would be equivalent to saying water is wet.
"I ordered a copy of the book but have not received it yet so the following comment may be covered in the text.
"One of the major stumbling blocks I've seen in many photographers is the fear of being 'themself' photographically. The underlying belief seems to be that their images must conform to some established ideal—generally that of the 'great masters' or the perceived masters of whatever group, club etc. they may belong to. The approach in this book bypasses all that and gets to the basic essence of art—recognizing, owning and expressing your vision.
"What more could an artist ask for?"